The Art of Letting Go!

I was never a great manager. I can say that because I don’t manage anyone now. I used to be in charge of 7 people for a number of years at the Royal Perth Rehabilitation Hospital when I was the Coordinator for an Orthopaedic Outcome Project and Outpatient Clinic.  In charge is a very loose term, they were professionals in their own right,  physios who were senior but were happy to work in a research/clinical area rather than on a ward or in private practise.  I also had a super secretary who managed me more than I managed her.  In fact regardless of my poor managing skills the Clinic did thrive and the staff I had were amazing, innovative and responsible and caring to the patients.  Sometimes things happen in spite of the situation!

What I did learn through those years, when I would rather have been doing my own work than supervising others, is that empowering and trusting people is the name of the game.  Sure there is a framework to follow in any organisation, but within reason I should have shared my knowledge instead of wishing I could get on with my own work. To be a good manager, I realise now, you have to manage, not dictate or micromanage.  Rather by sharing, at all levels, all my staff could have had a say in how the Clinic worked and the outcomes we were achieving, giving them a real feeling they are part of the project or work situation, instead of just a cog in the wheel.  

I should have learnt to let go more, of the power of being in charge, the knowledge I had and my own set ways of doing things, and been open to other ideas, their ideas. 

But of course that is always pretty hard.  Sometimes we hoard the knowledge because it gives us a sense of who we are, a person who knows a lot about something, sometimes we hoard ideas because to let them go takes us into a scary unstable place.  Sometimes we don’t share because we don’t recognise the other person as a person capable of great things.  Sometimes we hold our power because we have nothing to replace it with. Without power and prestige and position we are worthless! Sometimes it’s as simple and as difficult as not wanting to change, to try something new.  This is how we have always done it, and no upstart graduate is going to tell me something else.

Ouch, I plead guilty to many of these.

I read a book recently by one of my favourite authors. Barbara Kingsolver (Poisonwood Bible, and Flight Behaviour fame).

In this book, letting go is explored in so many different ways, corresponding to much of the above. It is called “Unsheltered”, and I love the title because sometimes that’s what we are called to be, unsheltered, unprotected! 

Let me give the premise of the book..

The story is based around a house, falling down, in a place called Vineland, New Jersey.  There are two stories, told in alternating chapters, one set in the first half of the 19thcentury and one set in the 21stcentury.

In the first story we have Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher who has come to Vineland with his wife to teach science at the local school.  He is a nature lover and admirer of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, only just published. Unfortunately Vineland seems to be a community set up with strict religious and social rules, mostly laid down by its founder Captain Charles Landis.  The town and most of its pupils are not interested in new ideas, ones that might rock their stable life and faith, and neither is the principle of the school at which Thatcher teaches.

In this story Thatcher Greenwood develops a close bond with his neighbour, Mary Treat, a real 19thcentury biologist, who corresponded with Darwin. She supports Thatcher in his efforts to educate his students about evolution, even when he is hounded by the principle and Captain Landis. 

“How are people so irrational?”, he asks.

“People may be persuaded of small things”, Mary said, “But most refuse to be moved on larger ones.  An earth millions of years old appalls them, when they have seen it otherwise….Presumptions of a lifetime are perilous things to overturn. Presumptions of many lifetimes, in this case”.

“Mr Darwin is blamed for the finding, and Dr. Gray for standing as its champion on our side of the Atlantic. And for bringing it to Vineland, I am threatened by my employer”, says Thatcher.

“And still your pupils depend on it, Thatcher. Their little families have come here looking for safety, but they will go on labouring under old authorities until their heaven collapses.  Your charge is to lead them out of doors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves and not to fear it.”

‘To stand in the clear light of day, you once said. Unsheltered”

I loved this part of the book, the clash of ideas, the courage needed to challenge and promote new ways of thinking.  How hard would it have been in that time to be a woman scientist or a science teacher, or Darwin for that matter. Or as the story progresses, a journalist who speaks the truth. Sometimes it’s hard even now. 

The other story is that of modern-day Vineland. A family has come to live in the run down house. A family a bit run down themselves.  Willa Knox, a freelance journalist and Iano, her Greek academic husband have chased the security of academic tenure for years, moving from place to place. Yet in the end it is a mirage, and they are left with Iano, her husband working in a small community University on very low pay.  They are financially stretched and feel abandoned by the system that is about to elect “the Bullhorn”, a man who says he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him”. It seems all of America is falling apart, not just them. They are joined in the house by their daughter Tig, a free spirit who has returned from 2 years in Cuba and who becomes friendly with the ramshackle neighbours who are a family without parents.  In the house is also Iano’s father who is slowly dying, but causing a great stir with his racist cries in the process. 

If that is not enough, early on in their story, Helene, their son’s girlfriend commits suicide, leaving Zeke, a Harvard educated capitalist, with a small baby to care for.  He comes home with the baby, called Aldus, later Dusty, eventually leaving the care of him in the hands of his parents and Tig. while he goes back to Boston to continue his business interests. 

Yet they all amazingly try to carry on!

It is a very multilayered story, with the relationships between Willa and Iano, between them and Tig, and between Tig and Zach being front and centre, while the baby and the dying father just add to the chaos. Talk about being unsheltered! Talk about having to let go of things. But somehow it does actually work. 

The link between the two stories is the writings of Mary Treat, who Willa comes to know when she finds out about the history of her house, and the house next door where Mary lived.  In some ways Mary is a confidant not only of Thatcher but also of Willa, giving both strength and support in times of change. I must say I have fallen in love with Mary myself!

While the book is drawn out and some might say tedious, I liked it, for it deals with topics I find close to my heart.  The changing nature of Christianity in the 21stcentury, the issues that face us as a world, including environmental issues but also issues of politics and poverty. And about what a good life really is, is it one with security and a big house, or is it one with love and community? The book is about what we have to let go, as individuals and as a society and a world in order to change and move forward together. And how we do it. Perhaps with less fear and ego and more trust.

As Mary Treat says to Thatcher when they first meet. 

 “We are given to live in a remarkable time.  When the nuisance of old mythologies falls away from us, we may see with new eyes.”

“Without shelter we stand in daylight.” 


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