As graduation season approaches, ABC’s Cougar Town presented an episode this week appropriately titled “Letting You Go.” That’s what graduations are all about, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if it’s a high school, college or grad school. Every ceremonial moment is meant to facilitate the process of looking back then moving forward—letting go. In many ways, these transitional chapters might be the most enjoyable of our lives apart from the messiness of letting go. There is almost nothing more exhilarating than having long-worked-for accomplishments honored and embracing a new challenge in your field and location of choice. But as someone who has graduated three times now, trust me when I tell you that every graduation, exhilarating though it may be, is accompanied by some new, often painful, level of letting go. It’s never about the obvious academic/professional crossroads. We expect that. And it doesn’t really matter if you’re headed for a job across town or a school across the country. The real process of letting go is personal and complex, involving your family, your friends and yourself.
In Cougar Town, Jules (Courtney Cox) showcases the complexities of letting go as she struggles to respond appropriately to her son, Travis’s (Dan Byrd) rejection from Winston University, an institution whose appearance on Cougar Town is an unnecessary subtle tribute to co-creator Bill Lawrence’s Scrubs. Given the starring, not-so-subtle presence of Christa Miller along with guest stars who have appeared in both shows, about the only way they could make the connection more obvious is for Janitor (Neil Flynn) to make a cameo appearance in uniform on Cougar Town from time to time … but I digress. Jules really begins to struggle with letting Travis go when he is subsequently accepted at two other colleges—one very close to home and the other across the country. Most of us have heard her argument before: it is an argument common to parents, reasoning that if it really doesn’t matter which college you attend, then closer to home is always preferable, right?
Uh … right … except for the fact that Jules still sobs for the entire drive home from campus, even though Travis is only 20 minutes away and even though he is only staying on campus for the night. Nothing is quite the same, because in the end leaving is still leaving, whether we leave to go very far or not. When we graduate or witness someone else’s graduation, a lot is being gained and a lot is being left behind. We have to be ready to let go as part of the celebration. Cougar Town doesn’t address Travis’s process of letting go. Maybe this is because Jules is the focus of the show, or maybe it’s because with a family dynamic that dysfunctional, it will take him way longer than average to miss the family and friends he is letting go of. But don’t be fooled. Jules is not the only character in transition. Travis is in transition as well. Be warned: whether you are graduating or supporting a graduate, a significant chapter of transition is likely on the horizon.
When John Steinbeck wrote his classic, Depression-era tale, The Grapes of Wrath, he included several chapters throughout the book that break away from the action of the character story to provide below-the-surface information that grounds the story in historical time and geographical place. Life seems to have these chapters as well—breaks between parts of our stories that demand patient, grounded faithfulness rather than quick, flashy action. And while we might read such a chapter in a book in only a few moments, in life, no such swift passage is guaranteed. These chapters could be lived from beginning to end in relatively few moments. As I write this, my latest chapter of transition has lasted almost a year. I graduated from grad school last May, and other than the diploma on my wall, nothing has changed. This fact is hard to accept, sometimes. “Nothing" is definitely not what I imagined would happen in my life after graduation, but this extended period of transition has forced me to let go of many misconceptions about life and hold on for the ride. I hope leaving these misconceptions behind will enable me to embrace my future, whatever it holds, as never before.
So wherever you find yourself this spring, whether graduating from high school, or college, or graduate school, or celebrating with any of the above, take a lesson from Cougar Town. You’re going to have to let go of how things are. (You already knew that, but maybe the show can help you laugh about it.) And take a lesson from me. It may not be a short journey through transition into the next chapter, so in all of that letting go, don’t let go of the principles and people that ground you.