Knowing When to Let Go

Biking on the Charles

Biking on the Charles

When is it Time to Let Go?

One of the great markers of spring for me is the first time I take my bike out for a ride.  I ride along the Charles River and through Boston, early on a weekend morning, when all is quiet and spring is in full bloom.  That long-awaited day this year came last weekend.  

And this season started as most have for the past several years…..with me saying to myself,  “I have GOT to get a new bike!”  

My bike and I just began our 21st season together.  As a struggling graduate student, I saved every penny for months, with child-like anticipation, just to have enough money to split the cost with my father for this beauty in the window at my local bike store.  This once state-of-the-art machine has seen many miles and many trails.  And it shows.  It’s a mountain bike, not actually meant for the city streets I mostly ride these days.  I calculated this week which of the parts still works: 1 of 21 gears, 1.5 of 2 brakes, and 0 shocks. The tires are old and brittle, requiring a burst of air before every ride, and one of my toe cages just came loose.

And I love this bike.  As soon as I begin riding, I feel the breeze and the sun, and the familiar feel of the ride, and I smile ridiculously.  As I ride over curbs and ramps, I’m reminded of days past, when I escaped to the woods for rejuvenating rides. And when I glide along the river, I remember all the springs I have spent in this wonderful city.

It occurred to me this year, as I was thinking about getting a new bike, and then, inevitably “….or maybe I’ll just ride this one a little bit longer,”  that my relationship with my bike is a metaphor for other connections I have.  With our shared history and warm memories, familiarity, and knowledge of where the short-comings are, my bike is like an old friend.

Or is it more like an old habit I haven’t let go of?  The limitations of this relationship were immediately evident when I took a ride last year with my friend, who had just gotten a new, beautiful street bike for her birthday.  For every smooth, easy turn of her pedals in whatever gear was best, I was pounding away, in what I think is 7th gear, working like crazy, and falling further and further behind.  I knew then without a doubt that my bike limits me.  Why then, have I been so reluctant to let it go?

Sometimes I imagine riding along on a wonderful new cruiser, sitting upright, shifting easily through the gears and enjoying a comfortable seat.  And I’m ambivalent.  This bike represents me, and so much of my history.  The years of hard rides in the dirt and rocks and water, and on city streets – all represent other “hard rides” in my life.   When this question of letting go comes up, I run through my options.  I’ve considered trying to fix my bike, but I’m sure the mechanics will double over laughing when I show up, and then tell me what I already know – it’ll cost more to fix the bike than to buy a new one.  I’ve considered buying another bike, so that I’ll have an extra.  But I know that a new bike will spell the end of my rides on this one.  

All this musing reminded me of how often my clients and I consider this very question:  “When is it time to let go?” Of a job, a friendship, a romantic relationship, or a habit.  How do we know when the familiar, comfortable, yet limiting connections in our lives have exceeded their purpose?  And, what does it take to step forward, letting go of the old and trusting that we are moving on to something that will be at least as good?

A lot of good psychological research has been done toward understanding these questions.   Regarding my bike,  I draw from the field of Motivational Interviewing (developed initially by Rollnick & Miller) and ask myself what matters most to my riding experience.  The speed, the comfort, the ritual?  And whether my current rides cause me trouble or pain, or prevent me from reaching important goals.  I explore why I am riding, what matters most.  I contemplate change (thanks to Prochaska & DiClemente’s wonderful Transtheoretical Model of Change), and I imagine steps toward it, only to circle back to what is comfortable here and now.  And I realize that I have not yet parted with my bike because I enjoy riding it more than I am bothered by its limitations .  I ride for the pure joy of moving fast through space in beautiful weather, with history and ritual as part of the experience.  Through that lens I realize that I will only let go of my bike when riding it becomes unpleasant or off-putting in some important ways, or when I have a first-hand, better experience on another bike (good old fashioned behavioral theory and social psychology).

I see how this dance I do about my bike applies to the many human relationships and connections we all have.  Letting go is a complex process, and one that we only undertake when the status quo becomes in some way intolerable, or when a better alternative presents itself and seems attainable.  In the case of buying a new bike, I don’t have to worry too much about values, beyond whether I can afford it.  This equation becomes much more loaded when one is considering letting go of a relationship.  But the same process applies, as we include core values in the mix of questions we have to ask ourselves.

So spring is a time of renewal in so many ways, and in others, it’s one of resuming familiar rituals that bring us comfort and joy.  I wonder if I’ll go on to see a 22nd year with this bike?


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