Start by Tearing Something All to Pieces

Over the past few years I’ve painted a lot. And many of those pieces hung on the walls of my various apartments in Los Angeles for months at a time. However, shortly after I started hanging those paintings up, I also began taking them down and zealously destroying them.

The previous paintings were something tangible, I cared about them, and I spent time and effort making them.

But when I got tired of a certain piece, or believed I could do better, I would rip the colorful canvas to shreds as I pulled it free from its wooden frame.

And after having the bare frame re-stretched with new canvas at a local art supply store, what was left? Literally—a blank canvas. Figuratively—endless room to grow as an artist.

Over time, this accidental ritual, driven mostly by frugality, helped teach me an important lesson: To let go. 

Like painting, separating yourself from the treasured or familiar without severe emotional discomfort is not an easy skill to master. It takes time and repetition—it must be practiced.

Here, a small island on the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, materials for art projects are quite scarce. I’ve been using whatever cardboard I can scavenge for canvass and a variety of (what I think are) interior/exterior house paints. Regardless of these crude materials, I’ve created some nice pieces for myself and for others.

Yet, in a month or two, everything I’ve created will likely become trash. I knew this when I took the time and energy to paint each piece. And I know it now as I look up at them.

Unfortunately, this simple artistic practice isn’t enough to create the emotional fortitude needed to withstand the pain, discomfort, and existential confusion that inevitably comes with change. It takes the real thing, too.

It takes losing something you were convinced you couldn’t survive without. It takes the abrupt cessation of something you believed would never end. And it takes opening your eyes morning after morning to a world you never expected, until that world becomes familiar, even enjoyable.

This is what it really takes to be free.

Our lives change with equal amounts of unpredictability and speed. We rarely get to choose when or decide how. So we must embrace both the arrival and departure of all things with humility and self-command.

“Receive without pride, let go without attachment,” Marcus Aurelius once wrote.

I began casually seeing someone a couple of months ago. And recently she informed me she was getting back together with an ex-boyfriend.

There had been a pretty serious language barrier between us all along, making most conversations difficult, but this one was surprisingly easy. I just shrugged, smiled, and told her if that’s what she wanted then best of luck.

“The single easiest way to find out how you feel about someone. Say goodbye,” Phil Knight, the creator of Nike, wrote in Shoe Dog.

While it lasted, it was a pleasant and uncomplicated relationship, and it ended amicably and uneventfully. Because I had practice. I’ve walked away from or been pushed away by far greater loves. I’ve survived far greater battles of self worth and identity.

I went into that brief relationship, just as I’ve done in the past, eyes open but uninhibited because I knew in my bones I’d be perfectly fine coming out the other side.

From the outside looking in, I’m sure our split appeared jarring and ambiguous. But what’s that got to do with me? From the beginning, I knew what the relationship was and, more importantly, how I would likely feel when it ended.

Our individual interpretation of events is the only one we can shape, and, in the end, the only one that matters.

How someone ultimately feels about us is not something we can control. And we certainly cannot control the range of actions or inactions that result from those feelings. All we actually have control over is our emotional response: how that other person makes us feel about ourselves.

The good and bad, the fleeting and enduring, all relationships have something to teach us and add to our lives. But your relationships aren’t you.

“Things, bodies and egos, events, situations, thoughts, emotions, desires, ambitions, fears, drama … they come, pretend to be all-important, and before you know it they are gone, dissolved into the no-thingness out of which they came,” Eckhart Tolle wrote in A New Earth. 

And all these things—especially our egos, emotions, desires, ambitions, and fears—appear in and influence more than just our personal relationships. The necessity for non-attachment applies to our professional lives as well.

The reality is, up until now, you’ve been fired from or quit every job you’ve ever had—yet here you are.

And the same is true for me. After nearly two decades in the working world, the only external evidence of those experiences is a handful of resumé bullet points. But those dots aren’t who I am.

Leaving the field of Organ Donation and Procurement last year and, more recently, my job at a small dive shop here in Thailand felt relatively easy compared to separating from the military or stopping my work as an EMT.

All gave me a sense of identity, and, for the most part, I enjoyed the work and found a deep meaning in it (even the diving, which i’m still doing as a freelancer).

So what was different about these two recent experiences than the similar past ones? Only, I suppose, that I was able to anticipate the brief free-fall that comes with the loss of one’s perceived identity. I had practice.

During a transitional period, such as loosing or leaving your job, you might hear someone say something like, “Ugh, I would love to quit my job.”

But would these people actually love not having an occupation or steady income? Would they welcome the loss of identity? Do they know how lonesome it feels to be accountable to no one?

Even for the well prepared, change can be jarring and quite painful. But it is entirely up to us whether that pain feels like ripping off a bandaid or an arm. Perspective alone determines the extent to which one suffers.

“Where there is no identification, there is no attachment—one of the greatest forms of suffering,” Tolle wrote.

There are more practical (and rational) ways to cultivate the power to let go than mine. I imagine that being an amateur artist who habitually tears his work to pieces is not for everyone.

For starters, don’t be afraid to get rid of things you don’t need. First it can be a shirt, then a lamp. Then maybe you walk away from a job you hate. Then, before you know it, those toxic relationships and bad habits you’ve been clinging to might simply fall away.

You will be shocked how easy it can be to stand alone and watch it all fade into the past without shedding a single tear.

“Loss is nothing more than change,” Marcus Aurelius wrote.

And, in the end, change is the only certainty life offers us. You know it’s coming, as sure as the rising tide, it’s coming. So be prepared—be practiced.

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