Letting Go

It is not an easy thing to accept that what you thought might be your dream isn’t really yours after all.

It doesn’t help that plenty of people are happy for you when you achieve it, and congratulate you on landing your dream job, and you smile and say thank you but deep down you know it isn’t your dream job at all. Nor does it help when you look around at the people you work with, shooting for their own goals, seemingly content and finding joy in the daily grind, and you wonder what’s wrong with you that this isn’t your dream too, the way it seems to be theirs.

This has been the story of my year. But it has also been a long time coming, developing over the last four dance seasons. There were a few things I was sure I would not do after graduating college: join a ballet company at all, join a large ballet company, join a ranked ballet company, and dance full-time. And yet I ended up doing all of those in one. The stories of how I ended up there, and why I kept deciding to stay even though I knew it wasn’t going to be long-term, have been told elsewhere. This is the story of how I have learned to let go.

It has taken a long time to get to this point. The truth is, I wish I was happy here. I want to be content. But I have many other things I care about and want to pursue besides dance, and dancing six days a week has left me with very little time and energy to invest in any of them. I want to be healthy and balanced in all areas of my life. I want to have space to create things. I want to pursue contemporary dance and choreography. I want to be more involved in church and ministry.

I could not escape the fact that these goals simply did not align with my job. I have wrestled with this. But to borrow words from one of my favorite authors, Emily P. Freeman, in the end I am choosing my values over my vanity. Sure, I could stay and accept a promotion and continue to grow and enjoy the benefits of the trust I have created here. I could do bigger and better roles, and reprise some of my favorite roles. I could introduce myself with a new title and have my headshot and bio in the performance programs, as if to proclaim, look at me, look at how I finally made it.

But at the end of the day, all other practical considerations aside, I had to ask myself this question honestly: is this really what I want? Is this really where I can blossom, where my strengths lie, where I can really contribute something meaningful and use my gifts? And the answer is no. I can do this. But I don’t think it is what I am meant to do. This might be what many people dream of, and it is a beautiful dream. But it isn’t my dream. I read that to develop healthy boundaries in life, you have to understand who you are and put it into words: This is me, and this is not me. I am finally learning to be okay with what is not me.

And beyond that, I have learned that the love of dance can function unsettlingly like an addiction. If I just stay one more year, maybe I’ll get a better part. If I just stay one more year, I could be a Snowflake again. Maybe I’ll be valued more. Maybe I’ll be trusted more. Maybe I’ll get promoted again down the road. Maybe if I just stick it out I’ll discover all my unhappiness is in my head and this actually is where I belong. Maybe I’ll learn to handle the pressure better if I just try again. And so we all go on, giving up much of our time and energy for the sake of these hopes, stuck in a strange cycle of both loving and hating what we do, and continuing to do it because…well, it’s what we do. It’s what we have trained our whole lives to do. This is the dream, right? Is not this what we have been working for all these years? Is this not what all little girls wish for when they see The Nutcracker for the first time, or get their first pair of ballet shoes?

The truth is, it isn’t for everyone. Nor does it have to look the same for everyone. And this particular way is simply not the way my path is supposed to look. “What are you going to do instead?” people ask me. I honestly don’t know all the details yet, what shape my dream is going to take. But I need to give it room to change shape. I need to not hold onto it so tightly that it has no room to grow into what it’s meant to be.

I need to learn to wait on God.

The first sign this year that something was wrong was how my emotional and spiritual health began to suffer. I spent the majority of the year at least a little unhappy, and some of it mildly depressed. I felt emotionally unstable, sometimes unable to get through what should have been a normal conversation with my husband without crying. I didn’t want to talk about dance with people who were trying to be kind, asking how things were going.  I didn’t want to meet new people because I was exhausted by the thought of trying to explain all over again who I am and what I do and why I do it. “How lucky for you, that you get to do what you love,” they’d say. But what if I don’t love it? I would scream inside. The love would come and go, and that got incredibly confusing. Some days would be fine, other days would be terrible. Sometimes I felt desperately insecure about my dancing, about what little it seemed I had to offer. Other times I got overwhelmed by what felt like unreasonable demands on my time, how I was supposed to be a good dancer, a good wife, a good friend, an organized housekeeper, an involved churchgoer, and a disciplined athlete all at once, all while maintaining a balanced life with rest and a little time left over to explore my many other interests. I felt angry. It wasn’t fair that I was expected to do all these things well, and in fact it was impossible. On top of all this, it was utterly exhausting to try and squeeze meaning out of each emotional change. If I had a bad day, did that mean I should leave? If I was trusted with a good opportunity and it seemed that I was valued at work, did that mean I should stay? And who determined the “should” anyway? Was this just up to me, and what I wanted, or was there some greater purpose behind it? What if I had no idea what I wanted?

I still don’t have all the answers to the questions I have asked this year, but I’ve had a couple small moments of epiphany as I’m learning to let go. One was that anger, sadness, depression, and other tough emotions are actually a gift from God, because they are a sign that something is broken and needs to be fixed. We wish sometimes that God would just help us carry on and have all the good days without interruption or inconvenient emotions. Instead, sometimes he brings things to the surface that weather and break us so that the problems can be truly dealt with. This is a gift from the best kind of Healer, who doesn’t try to cure just the surface symptoms but instead helps us get down to the root cause.

Another epiphany came in the locker room one morning, at the start of a day on which I felt small and weary and was hoping to stay in the background, anonymous, only to discover that I had to step in during rehearsal to a role I didn’t know very well for someone who was injured. I reflected on how I really didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to do this, didn’t feel happy, didn’t want to deal with the pressure. And this thought came to me: You don’t have to be happy, but you need to be at peace.  

I realized it was unrealistic to expect myself to paint on a smile and “be joyful” because that’s what Christians are supposed to do and pretend like everything’s fine and just carry on because I am a professional. I can’t conjure up happy feelings that I don’t have. But what I am called to do is to remember what is true, and remember Who I belong to, and come to a place of peace – a peace that trusts all will ultimately be well, my worth is not dependent on this one moment in time, and even if I fail, it’s okay.  I was reminded of the lines of a Hillsong Young & Free tune: All anxiety bows in the presence of Jesus, the keeper of peace, and peace is a promise he keeps. Peace is not something I can conjure up either. But Christ is called the Prince of Peace, and I am called to let the peace of Christ rule in my heart. That little word “let” means it is my choice whether or not to allow Christ’s peace in. That morning, I let it in. I no longer felt like I needed to impress anybody or have everything figured out. All I needed was to accept that this is where I am, this is what I can do today, and I can be at peace right there.

There was another prayer I prayed many times, especially when the happiness and motivation weren’t there: Help me to live this one day well. I had been trying to read into and make meaning out of every situation: if I do this well, maybe they’ll notice. If I do this poorly, maybe I’m not worth anything; maybe I can’t actually do this. If I’m unhappy, maybe I should leave. If I find joy in this, maybe that means this is my calling and I should stay. If I have good camaraderie with the people here, maybe I’ll be happy after all in the long run. I tried to turn everything into a sign, pointing me to the right direction for the future. I was making everything so complicated. But I’ve been learning that there is only one moment God calls me to live in, and it is this one. I don’t have to have it all figured out, and he doesn’t expect me to find that big profound reason why I’m doing this, and he doesn’t need me to impress anyone in order for him to fulfill his purpose for me. All I need to do is be faithful with what I know I’m supposed to be doing right now, with what I can see. This is the day that the Lord has made. All I need to pray for is that I can live this day well. And if I lived it well, it doesn’t need to mean anything more than this: God answered that prayer.

That prayer had to come back during my last weekend of shows, when I could barely hold the emotions at bay during warm-up, full of memories and nostalgia and sadness and fear and exhaustion. I had to force myself to be in the present moment. Take it one breath at a time. Focus on what you’re doing, on the slow rhythms of plies and tendus, on the performance you’re about to give. No need to be scared of a future you can’t yet picture, or even to look back with longing at the past. Just be here.

This is not a strength of mine. I am always full of plans, thinking ahead to what I’m going to do, imagining the possibilities, trying to paint the big picture out of the thousand details. But this learning to be present is a gift. This moment is all we have. God, help me be here.

There was another need that weekend: I needed God to be small with me. I felt like I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t perform well, I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t stay, I couldn’t live with this decision I had finally made. I couldn’t see the future and I couldn’t stay in the past. I couldn’t curb the emotions nor could I let them come. I couldn’t stand the truth that this season has been an important but ultimately small part of my life, alongside the truth that it has been so formative and has wrapped up in it so many of my dreams and goals. I couldn’t reconcile how much time, energy, sweat, emotion, and effort I had put into this performance and so many others, all the nuances I had worked on, all the moments on stage I wanted people to notice, with the truth that this will never mean as much to anyone else as it does to me. A performance is not only about the dance I’m doing, it’s about me showing you some of who I am through that dance, being vulnerable and joyful and sad and quiet and powerful on stage, and when I get off afterwards, all you say is “good job!” You mean it so well. But I just showed you me, and that’s all you can offer – not because you don’t care, but because you can never truly understand what it feels like and how much of myself I have put into this, just as I can never fully understand what you do and what that feels like for you either. These turn out to be intensely personal experiences that neither I nor you can ever fully share with anyone else.

Except your Creator. And when you feel like you can’t do it anymore, he is right there with you, bearing you up. When you feel exhilarated and exhausted all at once by this thing he has given you to do, he knows what it is like. When no one else sees, he does. When you can’t put it all into words, he already knows all the things in your heart. When you need to be small, he will be small with you.

This has been the most difficult decision I have ever made, and I’ve never cried more about anything else. Even if the logic and the reasons are there, the emotion has taken a lot longer to catch up. Sometimes I second-guess myself: are you sure you’re doing the right thing? But there was a beautiful moment in a recent meeting of a Bible study I’ve been part of this year, when one of the other women shared how she had felt God speaking these words to her:

“I am making more room in your heart for Me.”

This whole experience of the last four years has been both incredibly challenging and very rewarding. God gives you hard things so that you can fight through them with him, and he gives you good things simply as a gift from above, and sometimes he then asks you to let those good things go. You know he is faithful. And you know that if he has given you good things before, he will do it again. He can do abundantly more than you ask or think. It might not look the way you thought it would. But maybe you have to let go of a good thing in order to make room for a better thing.

Letting go is painful and hard. But at least now I know why I’m doing it: He is making more room in my heart for him. This has practical implications, in that I’ll have more time to invest in my spiritual life. But on another level, this decision requires a lot more faith of me than staying where I was would have. Staying is comfortable and safe. Staying is known. But leaving? Now that is brave.

“Faith is not a leap in the dark,” read the Bible study notes one week. “Faith steps out and finds firm ground as it believes that God is who he says he is.”

I cried uncontrollably at the season finale party after my last stage performance. The tears came when my mom, who has supported me in so many ways through all these years, handed me a big bouquet of beautiful flowers. This feels so final. It feels like I am ripping away the part of me that only comes out on stage and in the blood, sweat, and tears of dancing every day. I wonder about very dramatic things, like if I’ll ever perform in a real ballet again, if I’ll ever be fulfilled by anything as much as I have been by dance, that addictive side of it rearing its head again. I wonder if leaving means I have failed somehow. I wonder if leaving means that I have wasted the last four years of my life. I wonder if leaving means that I don’t really love dance and haven’t really been dedicated.

None of that is true. My fears are ungrounded. I already know I will keep performing. In reality, I am very happy when I’m not dancing full-time but am doing it more on my own terms, simply for the sake of it and not necessarily to please or impress anyone. The truth is that God does not waste anything. I have a much better foundation now for whatever he may have me do in the future, with dance or not, because of this season that’s now coming to a close.

And I do love dance. I love it enough to not let it rule my life anymore.

I belong to God, and therefore my life is not my own. When he asks me to let go, painful though it is, he is waiting for me on the other side. The ending of one season simply means the beginning of another.

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.