My father was a chronic worrier. He worried about everything! It drove me and my siblings crazy! He could not let anything go. He’d nag and natter about a thing he’d decided to worry about, usually something minor that he just could not let go of, until he’d spun it into a massive worry storm, leaving us all exasperated and exhausted.
Once, when I was in college, he called me at 3 in the morning, waking me and my roommates from a sound sleep to ask me if I had eaten. I had made an off-the-cuff remark about not having any food in the house as I headed home after a holiday visit, saying that I would have to shop once back in the city. He only heard the part about having no food in the house and his worrisome mind spun that tiny remark into a whole devastating story. By the time 3 AM came around he had decided that I was starving to death!
I was so angry at him that I didn’t speak to him for weeks, but during those weeks I could feel his worry hanging over me like a dark cloud, dragging me down. When I finally spoke to him about it we joked, but I talked honestly about how frustrated and drained I was by his constant attention on me. I told him to lighten up, that I could take care of myself, that I wanted to live my own life and to please leave me alone. His worry energy actually dampened my spirit and added a burden I didn’t need when I had so much else going on in my life.
I now understand this dynamic between parent and child as the archetypes of the parent/child relationship, the structures and dynamics that every parent and child must contend with as they go through life, as the child seeks to individuate and become independent, and as the parent seeks to let them go.
As a parent myself I have had to learn the lessons I tried to teach my father so many years ago. My own experiences with him have helped me to back off and let life take my children onward without me, but sometimes it can be very hard. When we see our children struggling our first reaction is to jump in and help, but that may not be the best course of action to take. The same can be said for any relationship.
To underscore the dilemma, I had a dream the other night. I was carrying large chunks of construction debris, huge lumps of concrete. I stood on the edge of a vast landfill, looking down into a vast pit filled with similar debris. A man stood on the opposite side of the landfill, a foreman. He yelled at me to throw the debris into the pit. I worried that it was wrong, that it would hurt the earth.
“Nah,” he said, “it’s how it’s done. Just throw it away!”
And then I wondered just what the heck I was doing. The concrete was clearly useless and clearly burdensome. It wasn’t toxic material either, it was just heavy, cumbersome old building material.
“Let it go!” I yelled, and then I threw it into the pit and walked away unburdened, lighter and freer than ever.
“What am I carrying around inside me?” I wondered when I woke up. “What concrete thing, idea, or issue am I attached to?
As the day went on the dream stayed with me. I thought about it, seeking to analyze its message and purpose. I determined it was not about memories. Those have all been recapitulated, so it was not anything from my past. I finally realized it was worry, the worries of everyday life, the worries about others, the kind of stuff that keeps you awake at night but is just empty chatter in your head, stuff you can’t do anything about and if you tried you’d have no luck at all.
As I thought about it I discovered that those worries had no real meaning or necessity in my life. They were not building blocks to something new but old construction materials that were no longer useful. I was right to chuck them into the landfill where they would soon be covered over, bulldozed into the earth to disintegrate and become part of the landscape.
Just as I had asked my father to let go of the burdensome archetypes of parent and child, so too did I have to let go of such archetypes within myself, along with the concrete ideas that I have to do and be the end-all for someone else. In letting go of the archetypes we are allowed to each grow and mature in our own ways, taking responsibility for ourselves and the decisions we make, for our present and future issues, and for our own joys and freedoms in life too.
Just because I might want to give advice, I realized, it isn’t always helpful or wanted. I have to take my own advice that I gave my father so many years ago and step back and let life resolve life. In the end, we have to let things go so things can proceed as they will and as they must.
I learned from my father that if you put your attention on another person they will sense you in some way, and you may actually be harming them, even if you think your worry is justified and you only want the best for them. The best for them is to send them positive, self-motivating, and loving energy that sends them off on their own journey through life under their own steam, rather than burdening them with your guilt, worry, regret, resentment, or good intentions. As I learned from my father, it’s just not fun having those kinds of energies hanging over you, having to bear another person’s unresolved issues while you are trying to figure out your own life on your own terms.
My father never did fully remove his worry energy from me. It followed me right into adulthood and he remained a solid worrier right up to the end of his life. But he taught me how not to do what he did, and as my dream points out it’s a lesson that never grows old.
I have had to remind myself to remove my worries about my own kids’ lives countless times, so as not to burden them with a cloud of my worries hanging over their heads! After being the lifelong subject of someone else’s worries, whether justified or not, I know that it’s just not a nice thing to do to someone! Even if I may want to give valuable but unasked for advice, I also know that the best advice I can give myself is to remember my young adult self telling my father to just step back and let me live my own life.
Life itself is the best guide. We all have to go out into the world and learn how it really works. It’s how we learn and how we grow. The happiest people in the world seem to be those who have had to work hard for what they have, and there is no greater satisfaction than having done it on their own. And no worries either!
A blog by J. E. Ketchel, Author of The Recapitulation Diaries