To Life! Stepping up and stepping back


I arrived in Tucson in the sweltering heat of the summer of 1976 with the intent of visiting my Aunt Gen for a few weeks and enhancing my already freckled tan. But what began as a pit stop on a cross country trip ended up 43 years later as my cherished home and community.

Gen always took care of others; babysitting the grandkids, driving friends to doctors’ appointments while counseling them on relationship issues and bringing meals and doing errands when they weren’t well. But when she was in her late 60’s, she shared a story with me that has only recently taken on meaning as I enter my Medicare years.

Gen had received a call about a neighbor who had an accident. A group of women were creating a food tree; could she bring dinner on Tuesday for the family? Almost 40 years later, I can still hear her voice. With total clarity she said to me, “You know, I think it may be time for someone else to bring the chicken soup.”

That moment taught me a solid life lesson. That there is a time to step up and be actively engaged, to go the extra mile for family and friends, to guide the actions of our children. But there is also a time to step back and reevaluate our commitments to make space for others to take the reins. As Kenny Rogers sang so succinctly in the Gambler, “You’ve got to know when to hold them, and know when to fold them.”

Now, 65 years young, I wonder if and how I can borrow from Gen’s chicken soup wisdom. When, how and to what do I decide to hold on or let go? What baton do I pass and to whom? And, if I am honest with myself, can I deal with how I will feel when I “let go” of taking care of the world I love and everyone in it?

Of course, I don’t really think that the world will fall apart – or perhaps even notice – when I step back so that someone else can bring the soup, plan the holiday or make the baby shower. In fact, in creating space for others to take the lead, what may become apparent is that I am actually placing my faith and confidence in them. I think about this a lot these days, particularly in regard to my relationship with my adult children and the relationship my aging parents have had with me.

In the Jewish tradition, parents have a responsibility to teach their children. The Hebrew word for parents, horeem, comes from the word “teacher,” and teaching our children is one of the centerpieces of the Shema. The Talmud in Kedushin 29A, tells us that, among other obligations, we are required to: teach our children Torah so that they can choose well and live moral and spiritually meaningful lives; teach them a vocation so that they can become financially independent; help them choose a suitable life partner so that they can live emotionally and spiritually fulfilling lives; and teach them to swim, so that they will feel secure in their physical surroundings.

Our Jewish sages were pointing to the heart of all parenting, the idea that we should work towards enabling our children to become independent, competent and self-sufficient human beings.

The natural corollary of that is that we must also learn to honor their independence at the appropriate time and let go of attempting to manage their lives or control the outcome of their decisions.

Stepping back from the active role we long played as parents when our children were in their formative years is not easy for many of us. It requires a certain type of discipline on our part – to not interfere in their lives or family dynamics or offer advice when not asked. The idea of “zipping it,” of keeping quiet and not meddling, or becoming involved in a way that is neither needed or welcome, requires a conscious commitment on our part as parents if we hope to truly accomplish the goal of creating fully independent adults who can “fly from the nest” when it’s time.

In letting go, we create the space for the next generations to engage in the values and traditions that we have hopefully inspired. We also manifest our trust in their ability to craft a life that is authentic, gratifying and meaningful and in so doing, accomplish our task as parents and can take joy in a job well done.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide, amyhirshberglederman.com

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