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Column: Learning the Difficult Lesson of Letting Go


Have you ever had the fleeting sensation that you are in the middle of a metaphor? It happened to me most recently as I stood on the edge of a deep ravine on the western fringe of Rincon del la Vieja in north-central Costa Rica.

I had just watched four people clip onto a zip-line and fly across the ravine — my 7-year-old grandson, my daughter and her husband, and my wife — and now it was my turn. It should have been easy enough after watching their giddy swoops and seeing them wave exuberantly from the other side. But I would leave behind a second grandson, younger and not even 4 years old. He would follow, harnessed to the cable with one of our guides, but for a few seconds I would be neither here nor there, suspended on a humming wire between my loved ones. I kicked off, and a few heartbeats later, I was safely across with the others and watching our youngest in flight, all grin and dancing eyes.

We descended the mountain this way in 10 flights lacing back and forth across the valley below. Most of the crossings were about as long as a football field, but one near the end ran lengthwise and four times as long, under a canopy of trees and so exciting that none of us wanted it to end. And through it all, I harbored a persistent sense of metaphor and a belief that this was more than an adventure cooked up for tourists. This was really about the way we raise our children: We feed them, we love them, we protect them fiercely, and then we send them off.

Zip-lining in Costa Rica is vetted for safety, and visitors to the country do it every day. What was there to be afraid of, other than the volcano, the waivers they insisted we sign, the heat and high winds and swirling dust as we ascended the mountain by horseback, and the teetering on platforms cabled to treetops at dizzying heights while we waited for our turn? The pictures I took show it all: the sturdy harnesses with their alloy clips, the helmets on our heads, the broad expanse and the plunge to the valley floor, and the swaying zip-lines. It was a choice we had made weeks before and never doubted, but on this day there were no takers as young as our grandsons or as old as their grandparents.

We encourage our growing children to take risks, to dive into the surf or wobble off on a bicycle, to cross a city street with the light and trust the traffic. Some risks develop practical skills, and others are more symbolic; and sometimes it’s hard to tell if there is any purpose at all. Always, the point is to make our children confident and independent and to equip them for what their lives will require. And every parent has to learn the counterintuitive lesson of letting go.

My own two children are grown and past the point where they could learn much from my wife or me, but the trip to Costa Rica reminded me of moments when we had to let go. With each of our children, it was more of a process than a single event, but for each there was an emblematic moment.

For our daughter, it came in the end of the summer of 1991 as she packed her belongings for a year of study in Moscow. In the planning, it looked like a routine junior year abroad — a predictable step for someone like her, a language student fluent in Russian who had already spent a high school semester at a math and science school in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. But in August of 1991, the Soviet Union was in turmoil, and two weeks before she was to leave, there was news of a coup and house arrest of Mikhail Gorbachev. To her parents, it suddenly looked like a dangerous time, even when Gorbachev was soon restored to office. But in the end, we allowed her to go.

For our son, that emblematic moment came just a year later when he graduated from high school and began what today might be called a “gap year.” In his case, however, there was nothing waiting for him at the other side of the gap. He had finished high school without plans, neither applying to college nor outright rejecting the idea; and on Labor Day he set out on a motorcycle to ride across the country. We had reason to believe he would be safe because he was an experienced rider and had always been able to find paying jobs while he was in high school, sometimes two at once. But when the day came, all we could see were the unknowns — where he would end up, how long he would be gone and what he would learn — and by sundown there were thunderstorms in the sky, and we had no idea where he would spend the night.

I wouldn’t be telling this story if both experiences had not turned out well for our children. For both, they were defining moments in their development, and for their parents, part of the long process of letting go.

So there we were in Costa Rica, crowded on a treetop platform and waiting to begin the longest and most exciting run of the day; and I knew that one day some years in the future my grandsons would set out truly on their own. In the meantime, what we had was a metaphor, an exciting free-fall, full of adrenalin, where letting go would bring us all home together.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.