There is a saying at work my that seems to pop its head up every few days in a meeting where someone seems too reluctant to move on from an idea, or someone gets too caught up in the details of a potential problem that may arise. At first, I hated this saying to the point of repulsion, but now, I have it etched over my wall, like an accolade of achievement, a semblance of a reminder of the power of a decision. “Sometimes, you have to drown the baby in the bathwater.”
Harsh, I know. But once we look past the physical words, and somehow get the image out of our head, we are left with an idea, a metaphor for life. The baby is the thing you love the most. In psychological terms, sometimes parents suffer from separating their identity with that of their children. Who are they, they ask. Am I me, or am I my family? Often, we feel as though we are us, but then, deep down, we know we would sacrifice our lives for our children, so then maybe we are more them. Understanding that we are more of our children (metaphorically) than we are ourselves, and that we hold our children to the highest esteem, we could never imagine harming them.
Why do people shoot up elementary schools? Because if the nihilistic tendencies have reached deep enough in their veins, not only do they see the endless array of injustice and pointlessness of life, but they want to show, as much as possible, just how brutal life is. So what is the worst thing to do? Harm the innocent. This is why the Geneva Convention occurred. What is more innocent than an elementary school child? A baby.
So we, as metaphorical parents, sometimes have to drown the thing that is more of us than we are ourselves. We have to do the unthinkable, and not only let go, but kill what seems like the most innocent, the purest part of ourselves. Why is this?
Sometimes, we get caught up in the weeds of details. Sometimes we hold onto something so tight, that we are unable to pull ourselves away and look at the big picture. Sometimes we are so attached, so enthralled by the potentiality of possibility, that we are blind to any red flags and injustices occurring. When Abraham asked God for a son, God told him to leave his home and venture into the unknown. This is a sacrifice. Abraham had to give up what he knew, in order to get what he wanted.
So, he got a son. Then what? Then God told him he must now sacrifice his son. Wow, right? The thing that we love, the thing that we aim for endlessly, the thing that we finally achieve, may very well be the thing we must sacrifice in order to move forward. So Abraham, understanding this, takes his son to be sacrificed to God. At the last moment, God ceased his proposal. I think this is because it was clear that God had ingrained in Abraham the understanding that sometimes, to move forward, you must drown the baby in the bathwater.
So, when do you walk away? When I was younger, I choose to become a vegetarian. The first time, I hated it so much I couldn’t stand food. It was torture, but I committed myself. After three months, the tension filled my veins and I realized I was unhappy. I remember journaling for hours about what the difference between moving on, and giving up? Where is the line between a good decision, and quitting? While writing, I stumbled across and then jotted down this idea, that I am now copying from the lines of my torn about journal: “If a choice no longer serves you in the manner of growth, then that is making a good decision. If the choice to stop is due to fear, then that is quitting.”
Sometimes, things no longer serve us that once did. Sometimes, things never served us, but we were so caught up in them that we couldn’t fathom pulling away. Sometimes, as much as it hurts, as painful as it is the grab that baby, you have to walk away. This is what Abraham showed us. You have to be willing to sacrifice the things that you hold dearly, the things that you couldn’t imagine sacrificing. You have to be willing to walk away, because often, if you are ready to sacrifice what you hold dearly, you won’t have to.
Often, if we are lucky, the thing we have to walk away from is just that, a thing. We know deep down we must leave our job, we must move from our home, we must change how we eat. While this is painful, the true pain seems to come when the baby is an actual person. There are people who, although you care deeply for them, are harmful to you. There are situations that, although you may try your best, and you may give all the effort, and wishes that you can, will never work out in your favor.
The way I see it, this usually takes one of two forms. There are the relationships we feel obligated to. The friend we have always had, the family we feel is just a bit too controlling, the peer you feel bad for. Deciding to walk away from these situations is tough, but necessary, (for the family specifically). You have to sometimes be the ‘bad person’, in order to be the ‘good person’. You have to be willing to see when something becomes detrimental to you as an individual. When the old friend stays closed minded, when the home town strangles your possibilities, when the occupation has reached it's peak of what it can teach you, you may have to walk away. You may have to(but most likely will have to) leave your family, as God told Abraham to do, or as Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha, before he was the Buddha) finally decided, and sacrifice what is known, for what is unknown. In the known lies order, and the unknown lies chaos, but in that chaos may lie potential.
The other form seems to manifest in romantic relationships, where you may have a deep desire to engage with someone romantically, but despite your best efforts, it is a fruitless endeavor. We seem to hang on to this situation too long, because either we are too infatuated with the potential of this person, or we are dreadful of the fallout of losing them, so we sit in this awkward middle ground of sacrifice and suffering where we consistently hold up the baby, keeping it alive in the hopes it may grow up one day. This may happen, the baby may grow up. But, it also may not, and then you’ll find yourself soaking wet, cold and alone because the baby died on it’s own, and you spent all your time trying to keep it alive.
When do you walk away? When does it shift from persistence to ignorance? From courageous to foolish? Where is the difference between giving up a part of yourself in order for a better whole to grow, and sacrificing who you are in hopes it’ll please another. There has to be a line, somewhere, where you realize that you deserve better, that the feeling of inadequacy and feeling of an inability to manifest your Being at all times are not worth whatever potential may arise from this relationship. That is when you walk away.
In romantic and platonic relationships, where does the line between holding an attachment to an Animus or Anima and having real needs or expectations of a relationship meet? Where do you cease to swallow your pride and say no more? At what points do you refuse to bend, and instead break?
We have to see our worth, and then hold others to a very high standard of treating us in accordance to it. Because, it seems, the greatest tragedy is not loneliness, “but in feeling lonely around others”. Staying in a situation because you feel that is the only thing to do is not righteous, or virtuous by any means, in the same sense that harmlessness has no virtue. Staying in a situation when there may be options at the door, when there is the possibility of walking away, that is worth praise. If you stay with a loved one, or a situation because you decide to, not because you have to, that is virtuous. Anything else is just weakness or a lack of options.
So when do we walk away? When we feel stifled? When, like a goldfish, or a Bonsai tree, our surroundings are limiting our growth? When we no longer see, or experience the meaning in the suffering, and instead, the experience is just suffering in and of itself? When something does not put us in a place to have meaning today, and have meaning in the future (while also allowing others to do the same)? Maybe there isn’t a clear cut answer. Maybe the line between persistence and ignorance, or patience and gullibility is one that bends and bows in accordance to a specific instance. Maybe the devil is in the details, and we just have to trust our gut reaction. Regardless, we have to know that when it comes down it, when we are faced with no other options, when something ceases to provide meaning in life, when an experience, or a situation has turned the corner from helpful to harmful, we must drown the baby in the bathwater.
There are some games where we don’t get an out. Sometimes, we are in situations where quitting, or walking away can’t be an option. Marriage, or some relationships are one of these games. The idea that divorce is an option creates an back door. If you always have a way out, why would you suffer with your partner? If you give yourself the option to leave this person, why would you ever deal with the deep seeded flaws of this human, which will inevitably manifest? If you tell yourself that divorce is an option, then working through the issues that arise will never seem worth it. This is why we take marriage vows, because we say: “I am in this game with you, I will not walk away under (almost) any circumstance. We will suffer, and grow together”. If not, if you had another choice besides: “Work really hard to fix this now”, or “Suffer unimaginably for the next 40 years”, wouldn’t you take it? If the third option was something along this lines of: “This is no longer my problem, this work is too uncomfortable”, would you blame yourself for taking the out? This is why outs are sometimes counter-productive. If you leave your boats on the shore for the voyage home, then retreat is always a possibility (There is an old story - probably fiction- that Alexander the Great had his army burn their ships when storming another beach. This is due to the idea that if they wanted to return home, they will take the enemy’s ships. There was no out). (Yes, divorce is sometimes necessary, and works in some cases, but it seems the liberalization of divorce and the “freedom of choice” has had unforeseen negative consequences on marital quality, children’s development, and society as a whole. )
Another one of these games is life. Do we ever have the option to walk away from this game? (This is a touchy subject. Suicide, obviously, has merits on both sides. Epictetus, and the Stoics, had this idea of an “always open door.” Essentially, he said, ““Remember that the door is open. Don’t be more cowardly than children, but just as they say, when the game is no longer fun for them, ‘I won’t play any more,’ you too, when things seem that way to you, say, ‘I won’t play any more,’ and leave, but if you remain, don’t complain.” Modern Psychologists, such as Dr. jordan B. Peterson argue that Life, as marriage, should be a game where you just can’t quit. The only option is to make it work, in a manner that seems sufficient to you.)
Some things, such as any type of growth, and most things worth meaning, require that you suffer first. This is why enlightenment is a seldom walked path, because it requires one to go first to the depths of hell. This is why the Knights of the Round Table, after deciding to pursue the Holy Grail, all entered the forest at the place that seemed darkest to them. This is also why dragons hoard gold. In many cases, you must first come face to face with the thing you fear, and you must find a way through it, before you can have the thing you want, whether it be gold, the Holy grail, meaning, a relationship, etc. If you bail just because things seem hard, you’ll never reach the point of return. Plus, in many instances, the trials never stop. “Behind mountains, there are mountains”. So I am by no means saying to run from any adversity that presents itself, I am saying to carefully and thoughtfully decide what or who or where is worth your time, effort, and meaning. Sometimes, the baby grows into something you could have never imagined. You have to let some of them live.