Words of dubious wisdom

We were circling the perimeter of our college, as we did every morning before the first class. These were the times when we discussed our quarter-baked ideas with such intensity, such earnestness. On one of those occasions she told me about a break up with her boyfriend of a few years. Apparently he had expressed a desire for some space, some time away.

That’s when she told me, “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.” When I heard that I was stunned for a moment at what seemed profound then…shows how untouched by cynicism I was back then… I also hadn’t read Jonathan Livingston Seagull until that time.

Not only did this friend apply this philosophy to her lost loves, she did the same with her things, with inanimate objects. If she loved something she owned she gave it away to people who praised it (some people are just too good to be true).

It might be a wonderful thing to do with things – with inanimate objects, however, I often think about the concept of setting someone free these days. It isn’t as profound a statement as it seems at first glance, after all.

Set them free” implies you owned them in the first place, doesn’t it? How can you ever own another person? How can you even make yourself believe you owned someone? And so, how can you set free someone you never owned?

There is so much hubris, so much self-delusion tangled up with this Richard Bach-ian cliché. In fact the more I think about this statement the more egregious it sounds.

It makes one seem pathetic, as if one was trying to convince oneself that one is being the bigger person in setting someone free…either that or one is really self-absorbed and narcissistic enough to believe that the person one is “setting free” was nothing but an insentient object, someone with no will, held for awhile and being magnanimously let go.

The other thing that hints at a pathology of sorts, in this philosophy, is the second line that appears to have been added as a loophole filler, the hope that the person one is letting go would realize how much they lost by leaving and will fly right back into ones arms…and as long as there is that hope, how can it possibly be a real letting go or “setting free”?

The last bit “if they don’t they never were” appears to have been added as an afterthought, acknowledging the chance that they may never come back. Wouldn’t it have been so much easier on the mind to just cut to the chase and believe that this person was never theirs from the moment they decided to leave? How many people ever decide to come back? In matters of the heart isn’t there always a yearner and a yearned after? Is it ever equal?

Perhaps I just haven’t lived long enough to shed uncontrollable tears at reunions of long lost loves or comeback stories.

How much of this ostensibly detached philosophy is nothing but disguised pride; believing that you are the soulmate the other person sought, the one whose loss he or she will acutely feel after being set free? Why do we even cling at an idea like “soulmate”?

The whole thing makes me imagine a scenario, an alternate plot development for Stephen King’s novel – Misery – where a character like Annie Wilkes’s , transformed into benevolence after a sudden epiphany, decides to let Paul Sheldon (the author in the novel) free after days of brutal imprisonment.

We’re always searching for an un-laterally inverted mirror image of ourselves, someone who thinks, feels, acts the same as us. The idea being that such a person will really understand us. But mirror images are trapped behind glass, you see them, but do they see you? They cease to exist as soon as you walk away from the mirror, don’t they? Isn’t that hint enough that we’re doing time here, on this planet, by ourselves, in solitary confinement, until the end of our days?


  1. Oh really. I've always found these words strange and soppy myself. Though never analyzed them the way you've done. Yes, I believe strongly that we are each one of us here alone, and the best we can do is be honest and giving in our relationships while they last. Also, read your yoga post. I tried yoga for 2 months, and gave it up because I didn't have the patience to 'breathe'. But you tempt me to take it up again.

  2. This profound advise has started many a debate and discussion :)I guess the idea was to give hope (false hope) and remind exactly what you have suggested – that nobody is ours to set free, so stop holding on to someone who'd rather leave, let go. A lot of us need to be told this.

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