Sabrina Baron: An Historian Looks at Holding on and Letting Go

What do we hold on to and what do we let go of in terms of emotions and possessions? Incessantly we are told we MUST let go, that letting go is the best course, in terms of dealing with, well, everything. But if human experience, indeed existence, is measured in sensation and interaction, how do we let go? What and who do we let go? Moreover, should we let go?


A few years ago I made a foray into Buddhism by spending a week at a Buddhist retreat in the Shenandoah Valley. Buddhism, of course, is all about letting go. I spent a lot of time in relaxation, contemplation, and meditation, including multiple sessions daily with a meditation teacher. But I could never understand, could never accomplish the emptying out of my mind, the expulsion of my thoughts that was supposed to be the achievement of meditation. I remember asking for more explicit explanation and instruction about the out breath, the exhalation that expels thoughts from your consciousness as air is expelled from your body. But the expulsion of thought remained something I could never achieve. How do you empty your mind? How do you let go of thought? Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. Does not thought define human existence?

Our culture has come to be permeated with notions of letting go. Fewer possessions lead to a more rewarding existence. Downsizing is both an industry and a lifestyle. The shaming directed at those who do not conform is considerable, as is the resulting guilt. Relationship has become a dirty word to a large sector of society, which views it as a human association that is limiting. Indeed, humans are more often encouraged to seek attachment to animals rather than other humans. Many current human attachments are determined in seconds by swiping left. “Men are like busses—another one will come along.” There is even a dating site called POF—Plenty of Fish. If it’s not the personal connection that fits your ideal, let it go. It’s better to be alone, unencumbered. But should such important markers of human existence be ephemeral and dispensable? Is it better to be alone? How do we know?

I should disclose that I am an historian by training, profession, and inclination. My ex-husband said I vastly prefer the dead over the living. Our understanding of the past is generally constructed of physical remainders, physical reminders in objects, documents, photos, books, etc. I’ve always collected and acquired things because they provide meaning for me—as repositories of information, reminders of people and events, my own experiences, lost ways of life. With life changes that have had me moving from one residence to another on my own, I can see the wisdom of downsizing possessions. Oh the times in the past few months I have opened a box and asked myself: “Where did this come from? Why did I ever want this? What was I thinking????” But I could not part from most of my possessions that came to me from much beloved individuals or experiences, in which my memories reside. They might mean something only to me, but the mean something important, something vital, to me. I recently decided I am no longer going to apologize or feel guilty about what I own, even though the social pressure to do so is immense and weighty.

Divorce is one instance in which I let something, a lot of things, go. I haven’t found a new romantic relationship since my marriage broke up. I’ve been told repeatedly from a variety of perspectives that it’s because I can’t let go, that I can’t move on the way I need to do. I have spent a lot of time, money, and emotional anguish to receive that opinion. (He has moved on to new trophy wife and baby. Does that make him more successful at coping with life than I am? And oh yeah, that means he’s not alone.) I am constantly abjured by people who are supposed to be my close friends that I do not appreciate the virtues of aloneness. Recently I read that we should not keep objects and letters from prior relationships, indeed prior periods of our lives, so we can move on and not be held back by memories. But should I jettison thirty years of my life? Am I obligated to do that as part of divorce? Should I jettison memories of the experiences that make me who I am? Another recent resolution is to stop feeling guilty about and apologizing for not wanting to be alone.

A large part of my love for history comes from my maternal grandmother who was the family historian by inclination. She held on to photos, newspaper clippings, small souvenirs, possessions and stories when no one else did. She remembered everyone’s name and dates and lives; in many cases, her memories were all that remained of another person’s existence. But her advice in times of difficulty was always: “Never look back.” Is that as contradictory as it might seem on the surface? How is it possible to do both of these things? Why is “never look back” sage advice? Does history not have valuable lessons, models, and examples for our present existence whether at the personal or cultural level? If memory is limiting, why is the human mind programmed to remember?

Without memories, whether they take the tangible form of possessions or the intangible form of emotions, what do we have? What then constitutes our existence? Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. I think, therefore I feel. I remember, therefore I feel. I remember, therefore I am. If we jettison thoughts and the emotions they conjure, or objects and the memories they evoke, what then remains?

Sabrina Baron grew up in the tobacco culture of rural Kentucky, but left to study history at the University of Chicago, where she completed a PhD. She has since travelled to and lived in a number of places in Europe and the US and has attempted to make a career teaching and writing history.