The Deeper Meaning of Letting Go

Dr. Karl Menninger was considered the dean of American psychiatry. He graduated from the Harvard Medical School with honors in 1917 and went to serve in the navy in WWI shortly after. Post-WWI, he returned to Boston to work at the Boston Psychopathic Hospital and to teach neuropathology at the Harvard Medical School. After WWII, he played an instrumental role in creating the Winter Veterans Administration Hospital, which became the largest psychiatric training center in the world. Throughout his life, he wrote many publications and books that reached mass audiences, including “The Human Mind”, “Love Against Hate”, and “Man Against Himself”. In 1981, he received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, from President Jimmy Carter, and in 1985, the Menninger School of Psychiatry was named in his honor.

Once, Dr. Menninger was giving a keynote to 5000 psychiatrists and psychologists. After his presentation, during Q&A, someone asked him, “Dr. Menninger, if you met someone who was about to have a nervous breakdown, what would you advise them to do?” The audience all thought he would say something like “get professional help”. After all, they would have liked affirmation from Dr. Menninger for choosing their profession.

Dr. Menninger said, “Well, if I were to meet a person about to have a nervous breakdown, I’d tell them to go out and help somebody…because they almost always get healthy [that way].”

In the past five blog posts, we covered why and how we should reduce the five vain desires for

1. Physical possessions

2. People

3. Ideas

4. Pride

5. Pleasure and comfort

We often seek these things thinking they will bring us happiness, but now we have seen that they only bring temporary pleasure, not lasting fulfillment. On the surface, the message is “Let go of these vain desires, and any worries or stress you have will slowly dissolve.” But the deeper meaning of letting go is giving. The deeper message here is “Let go of selfishness and give yourself in servitude of others.” Why? Because, as Dr. Menninger pointed out, servitude is the path to lasting fulfillment.

Let’s flip the five vain desires.

Physical Possessions

Instead of always thinking about that next phone, car, or thing you want to buy, what if you looked around you to see if there’s anyone you could help through donation? For example, instead of worrying about whether you’ll be able to get the newest iPhone when it comes out and the amount of money you’ll need to have, you can feel good about donating some of your old clothing to a clothing bank.


You’re in an argument with that person yet again. Instead of thinking about this person’s faults and why they need to apologize and change, you can think about how the other person is probably thinking the exact same thing. All you want is understanding and kindness, and that’s all anybody wants. Realize that you can’t control whether or not other people give you understanding and kindness, but you can control whether or not you give it to them. If you do, there’s a high chance they will eventually reciprocate. That’s certainly better than spiraling down the cycle of contempt and unhappiness.

Ideas and Expectations

Things didn’t go as planned again. You think, “There goes all my planning effort. What if this turns out horrible?” It’s so easy to get worked up and stressed when our ideas and expectations get shattered. But being stubbornly unhappy about what should have been only hurts yourself. And when those around you see you stressed, they’ll get stressed too. Instead, you can be courageous, open-minded, and adaptable. When others see your example, they will learn from you and respect you. Besides, nothing great was ever achieved both on purpose and without any failure.

Pride and Reputation

So you’ve been unfairly criticized. “You think my ideas are bad? Have you heard yourself? You’re a lousy excuse for a human being.” It’s so tempting to fight back and argue. But that just leads to a cycle of contempt. Or perhaps you put the pressure on yourself, thinking, “I need to get that job, get famous, get rich, so that others will respect me and admire me.” At the end of the day, being right, famous, or rich in it of itself does not give you lasting fulfillment. Nobody really cares about your reputation; they’re probably too busy thinking about their reputation. If someone unfairly criticized you, they were probably angry. And no one’s mind is clear when they’re angry. So you can give them peace by accepting their criticism and not fight back. And instead of wanting others to respect you, you can think about whether or not you deserve their respect. Have you really accumulated enough merit to move others?

Pleasure and Comfort

Sure, it’s fine to relax on the weekends. After all, everybody needs to recharge. But don’t sit there wondering why you can’t find a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Also, don’t try to cover up that empty feeling by distracting yourself with entertainment because that empty feeling will only grow and come back stronger. If you really want that promotion, work more hours and really care about your company’s success. If you really want to improve your relationship, study and practice being a better person. Nothing worthwhile can be attained without diligence.

All the blog posts thus far have been about letting go of selfishness and giving to others. The next set of blog posts will go deeper into giving for the major aspects of life:

1. Self: giving passion and sincerity

2. Relationships: giving kindness and humility

3. World: giving a good example

As Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.