Educational Philosophy, Home Education, Other Thoughts

Masterly Inactivity: A Million Letting-Go’s

November 11, 2019 by Brandy Vencel

Never again will I call you mine.
-C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces (::: spoiler alert :::) is a story of self-deception. Orual, the Queen, has doomed her sister Psyche (also called Istra) through a supposedly loving act. Orual fears Psyche is living with a veiled beast — or perhaps Psyche is being ravaged by an outlaw who has deceived her. No matter. Orual is determined — for love, she believes — to either bring Psyche home … or kill her where she stands. Orual will not suffer Pysche to live in disgrace, abuse, and shame.

As readers, we know Orual is mistaken. We know that Psyche is actually married to a god, a god who adores her. But we have compassion upon Orual. We understand (or think we understand) that she truly loves Psyche and wants what is best for her. Orual, we think to ourselves, it just misguided. She would never purposely harm Psyche.

When the mountain falls apart and her castle is destroyed (and Psyche flees weeping), we see the evil in what Orual has done, but still we maintain. Orual didn’t know any better, we remind ourselves.

It’s not until the end of the book that we realize we have missed the target; we have failed to understand. Orual’s confession tells the real story:

“You said a brute would devour her. Well, why didn’t it? I’d have wept for her and buried what was left and built her a tomb and … and … But to steal her love from me! Can it be that you really don’t understand? … The girl was mine. What right had you to steal her away into your dreadful heights? … I was my own and Psyche was mine and no one else had any right to her. Oh, you’ll say you took her away into bliss and joy such as I could never have given her, and I ought to have been glad of it for her sake. Why? What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which I hadn’t given her and which separated her from me? Do you think I wanted her to be happy, that way? … Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the word means? Mine!”

Till We Have Faces, pp. 331-333

It goes on for pages; this is but a sampling. It’s enough to reveal to us, though, how mistaken we were about Orual. She “did it for love?” Not quite, unless we count self-love. This grasping selfishness horrifies us. Orual, with her hideous face, has proven to have a hideous soul. She would rather her sister die a horrible death than part with her, even when the parting meant joy and happiness for the “beloved.” We really must put “beloved” in quotes at this point. Orual’s love, while strong, is perverse.

It’s a relief to find repentance and redemption at the end. We are consoled when Orual declares to Psyche, “Never again will I call you mine.”

There is a kind of love that ought to grasp. The love between husband and wife, for example, is one where others may not trespass. The doors are closed, the hand holds tightly, and so it ought to be. But Orual is Psyche’s sister. Orual raised Psyche. Children — sisters — are supposed to grow up, leave home, and be joined to another (as a general rule). It is unkind and unloving — grasping — to hold tightly when the time has come.

Masterly Inactivity Means an Open Hand

We’ve talked about masterly inactivity many times before, and we’ve even discussed this quote:

When we recognise that God does not make over the bringing up of children absolutely even to their parents, but that He works Himself, in ways which it must be our care not to hinder, in the training of every child, then we shall learn passiveness, humble and wise.

Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 35

Isn’t it so easy to think the children are ours? We look at them with love in our hearts and secretly cry out, “Mine!” Charlotte Mason acknowledges this:

We have many ingenious, not to say affectionate, ways of doing this, all of them more or less based upon that egoism which persuades us that in proportion to a child’s dependence is our superiority, that all we do for him is of our grace and favour, and that we have a right, whether as parents or teachers, to do what we will with our own.

Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 80

That was the tragic source of Orual’s folly wasn’t it? The belief that she had the right to do what she would with her own?

It’s true: we don’t often condemn our children to wandering across the unknown parts of the world completing impossible tasks in the service of a vindictive goddess. But we condemn them nonetheless. We hold on when we ought to let go, and weaken them in the process. Like Orual with Psyche, the more we seek to over-protect, the more harm they must suffer for it in the future.

Letting Go Doesn’t Begin at the End

The ultimate letting-go of motherhood is when the chick flies the coop. I haven’t had to do that yet (though I see the first time haunting my horizon and it grieves me). But I have had to let go in ways I didn’t expect. Turns out, all the little letting-go’s are preparing us for the Big One.

I remember the first time I dropped a couple children off at a birthday party rather than staying and supervising. It’s not that there is anything wrong with family parties. We almost always host family parties ourselves. But this particular party was for just a handful of kids and ours were invited. I remember being so nervous, but they did well and it was good for them to do it, to be together and watch out for each other without a mommycopter hovering in close proximity.

I remember the first time my oldest drove himself to class. I was a wreck the whole time he was gone. But it was good for him to do it, to have to be responsible and make decisions about his route and lane changes without an adult there to prompt him.

On and on it goes. From the first time they sleep in their own beds to the last time they leave the house (as a resident, anyhow), we are letting go.

In Charlotte Mason Boot Camp, we do an exercise where I have everyone work through the list of freedoms Charlotte Mason recommends for children and imagine what those might look like when played out in real life. Some of the freedoms make the campers really uncomfortable at first, but pretty soon they get more comfortable with them and realize that, as long as given in age-appropriate ways, these freedoms are healthy.

Every freedom on the list requires us to let go. It can feel so dangerous the first time we watch a child blow all his money on something silly. We could have made the decision much better than he did. Why are we allowing him to fail in this way? It’s a struggle and we want to take back control.

Responsible Letting-Go is Gradual

Do we really think that we can just dump the burden of full and complete freedom upon them at age 18 when they move out without any practice at all? What a disservice to them that might be!

We don’t want their adult lives to be felt as a great shock. We hope that the changes and growth — the addition of one little freedom after another along the way — will have smoothed the transition for them and prepared them for the next stage of life.

What I didn’t realize all those years ago when I forced myself to let them go farther, climb higher, and fail harder — when I invented my Don’t Look Theory of Parenting — was that I wasn’t just preparing them. I was also preparing me.

I still often have a smothered sob in my throat, even though I swore I was going to enjoy this first senior year and not worry about him leaving until it happened. I’m sure it will worsen as the months pass by. But the favor Charlotte Mason has done me cannot be replaced. Her voice was often in my head, reminding me to let go and give freedom. Don’t hover. Don’t control. Don’t make an idol of your own dreams or plans or opinions.

Don’t play God.

God used Charlotte Mason’s wisdom to prompt me to practice letting go and I am incredibly thankful. It was hard — I know it will be hard. But it wasn’t until reading Till We Have Faces that I ever considered the alternative. Grasping and holding on is a selfish, ugly thing. It cries out Mine! concerning something that was only on loan to me for a time, something it was my duty to eventually release.

And so motherhood really is a million letting-gos. We let go for their sakes. We let go for our sakes. We let go because it is good and right to do it.


Want to Go Deep With Masterly Inactivity?

Masterly Inactivity: Charlotte Mason's Secret to Successfully Leading Your Homeschool

My talk on this subject (you already own the video version if you purchased the Leading Well retreat in 2017) is available in the Afterthoughts Shop. Wanna learn to let go in healthy ways? Try masterly inactivity! It’s not a hack — it’s a way of life. ♥

Click here to grab your copy!

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