Meaning of Life

Life is about letting go

Paul T. P. Wong
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C.Psych
Toronto, ON, Canada

Surrounded by mountains of boxes piling from floor to ceiling, I feel like being confined in a prison of my own making. I am now paying dearly for having accumulated so much earthly goods.

Where am I going to put all the contents of the cartons that fill the apartment I have just rented? Why should I spend $26,000 moving from Vancouver to Toronto only to discover that I still have to junk much of the personal effects in order to reclaim some living space? How did I get into such a predicament?

The decision of moving back to Toronto was made more than a year ago. My wife and I knew exactly what needed to be done in order to transition from a 3,600 square-feet house into a condo about half the size. Immediately, we were confronted with the daunting task of deciding what to junk and what to keep.

Yes, we are familiar with the simple rule –you should junk anything you have not used for more than ten years. However, in practice, it is a very different story.

Over the years, I have accumulated enough books and periodicals to fill a small library. My acquisitions are motivated partly by the need to keep abreast with the new developments in my fields of study, but the driving factor is my passion for the printed word.

Most of the journals and books in prints have been digitized; therefore, I had no problem junking most of the prestigious scientific journals, but I still had difficulty giving away some old books. Nothing can replace the feeling of holding in your own hands books that have some special meanings and it is painful for me to part with books that have been a significant part of my personal development.

It is even more painful to throw into the recycle bin my own writings done before the era of personal computers. These include diaries, observations, reflections, essays, poems and stories. They were written on notebooks, scraps of paper, and anything that I could write on in moments of inspiration. The pages have tuned yellow, but the words remain fresh outpourings from a wounded soul in search of itself. To junk all those writings is to bury a major part of me without a funeral.

My wife faced a similar dilemma, but her “nesting instinct” has made it even harder for her to part with the past. Being a self-confessed pack-rat, she has collected so many mementos about every family member and every good friend. She even kept the baby bottle of our first son Austin. “They don’t make baby bottles like this any more,” she said, emphasizing the historical value of that bottle.

In the process of sorting out the oldies, she frequently burst out laughing as she read over the Happy Mother’s Day cards created by Wesley or the stories written by Austin when they were still in primary school. How could a mother junk such precious documents? Sentimental values aside, they are in some ways milestones of our children’s development?

From time to time, she would call out in excitement: “How cute!” A wide array of things belong to the “cute” category – our children’s favorite toys, first winter coats, their school drawings and woodworks, etc. How can I deny her the joy of embracing the memories of children who have grown up and left home?

Then there were family picture albums and videotapes of many family vacations. These had been stored away for years; but now they were repacked to accompany us for yet another major move.

Even though ancestral worship no longer holds sway, filial piety remains deeply ingrained in many Chinese families. This Confucius value carries with it the sentiment that we treasure the things passed on to us from our parents and grand parents. It is tantamount to disloyalty bordering on betrayal if we give away items valued by our ancestors.

At the end, very few things were actually discarded for a variety of good reasons.

So we cling to all these possessions because they have been a significant part of our past and hold a special place in our hearts. It was very difficult emotionally to assign a big chunk of our lives to the garbage dump.

Do such attachments enrich or enslave us? Could the unbearable lightness of individual life bear the burden of collective memories? Are we better off unencumbered with the past? What price are we prepared to pay to maintain a sense of attachment and rootedness?

I am still struggling with these highly personal and perplexing questions, but I am fully aware that the time will come when we all have to let go our cherished belongings. Our world inevitably shrinks as we advance in age.

When my mother-in-law moved to a nursing home, all she could take with her were a few family pictures and a few changes of clothing. At the end, she could not take any earthly things with her.

As I stare numbly at the monstrous piles of boxes, I realize that drastic actions are necessary in order to create some room for living. We need to give away whatever we don’t need to those who might need them. Then pass on to our children whatever they find meaningful. In the final analysis, we need to learn to give of ourselves daily towards something or someone that will outlast us all. In giving what we cannot keep, we receive what we cannot lose.

Life is a series of losses. We can still live with a profound sense of fulfillment despite the losses, only if we master the art of letting go.