Photographs and the Art of Letting Go

Personal photographs can be powerful entities. Instantly we are transported back to the moment the camera flashed. Silly grins. Outdated fashion. Awkward personal space. When we look at old pictures, we squint and ask ourselves, “Did I really look like that? Was I ever that young? Was I ever that innocent?” Old photographs may give us warm fuzzies, but they also require us to come to terms with past feelings of hurt and anger. There are people staring back at you who have hurt you, torn your heart apart. Time, though, has given you a gift. With age, you realize you also inflicted pain. Your regrets consume you. And as you gaze at these faded photos, you decide to let go, releasing the resentment you’ve hung onto for years. You begin to forgive others and yourself. You remember the sweet joy, the giggles, the softness that surrounded the moments in the photographs. 

A few weeks ago when I was visiting my mother, she brought out some pictures from my first wedding. “Do you want these?” she asked, “Because, if not, I’m throwing them away.” As I flipped through them I said, “Yes, I’ll keep them.” At first she looked a little shocked, but I said, “Mom, these are important. The formal album was lost in the divorce, and you possess the only copies left. Maybe the boys will want these some day. And man, look how cute I was back then!”

Later, after I return home, I spread the photos on our table. Taken almost thirty years ago, I spy glimpses of youth, of promises made, of hope. I remember my dad walking me down the aisle of Westminster Presbyterian Church, acting as though it was the red carpet as he smiled at all the assembled guests. I am reminded of how Bill and I giggled through the ceremony. I see the faces of my dear friends, most of whom are still extraordinary people in my life. Snippets of the reception float through my consciousness: our first dance, my dad enjoying the band, my mother’s smile, Aunt Bug and Uncle Jack, Bill’s parents, all of our friends, and the happiness of that day.

As I am perusing the pictures, I notice another one my mother had added. It is a formal photo from my sister’s wedding the next year. Staring back at me is us: Bill, me, and two month old Christopher. With a tilt of the head, I was transported back to the fog and joy of those first few months of parenthood. Onesies and formula and sleepless nights. Bill falling asleep on the couch with Chris on his chest. Our dreams of the future all wrapped up in this little human being. I see our family.

I begin to breathe, to forgive, to let go. Selfishly, I no longer want to feel the weight of it all. It requires too much energy to hold on to the old shit. I am lighter, almost floating with the freedom. Herman Hesse once wrote, “Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” I am releasing into the universe all that I used to clutch and scream “Mine!” if anyone dared question it, because you see, I no longer require any of it. Most importantly, I am forgiving myself. I am stronger than my resentments, my anger, my gripes.

For now the photos will be tucked away in a drawer, but I am grateful for their gifts: reminders of joyful moments and the wonderful liberation that comes with letting go.