By Jennifer Richwine, author of The World Spins Madly On

Today I threw away an entire pantry shelf, and it felt amazing. I bought this house fifteen years ago, and for over a decade I’ve been fighting with this shelf that never performed the one duty for which it was designed. One night early in 2000 I decided to clean out the pantry, rearrange it so I knew where everything was and throw out what was out of date. And as I moved all of the soup and vegetable cans to one particular shelf, it collapsed under the weight. What I quickly understood was that this wasn’t the first time the shelf had fallen. It had obviously been jury rigged by the previous owner, with pegs that didn’t quite fit in the holes that had been drilled into the pantry walls. Over the years I’ve been to the hardware store numerous times, taken measurements, photos on my iPhone, purchased a variety of pegs and fillers, supports and products guaranteed to fix the problem. But nothing ever worked. The shelf collapsed under even the smallest weight, or tilted so far to one side nothing would stay on it. And it frequently betrayed me with no warning, sometimes falling in the dead of night, waking me up with my heart racing as its contents clattered to the floor. I tried to pretend it didn’t exist … every time I opened the pantry the perfectionist in me avoided looking at the shelf that taunted me with its glaring flaws.

This afternoon, while looking for ingredients for a recipe I was making for a neighbor who just lost her father, it finally dawned on me … I didn’t have to keep this shelf! Why was I fighting it? Why was I insisting it do something it clearly wasn’t ever going to do? Why would I knowingly keep something around that disappointed me time and time again and obviously made me unhappy? So … I threw it away … yanked out the cans and bottles, ripped the shelf, pegs and all, out of the wall, and thew it into the garbage. And as I rearranged the pantry to accommodate for the missing shelf, it was incredible how suddenly the pantry worked! The space left by the missing shelf provided a place for the tall items that in the past had to be placed on their sides. I could see everything, and everything had a place. All of a sudden, the pantry was more functional than it had ever been. As I poured myself a glass of self-congratulatory champagne, my one thought was why had it taken me so long to figure this out?

Now, as I sit here and try to answer that question, what I’m quickly realizing is that the shelf is just a metaphor for some things, maybe even some people, in my life that it’s time to throw out, to give up on without it feeling like failure, to realize that there might just be joy in letting them go. By nature, I don’t really like to give up on anything – I’m stubborn and I want things to work the way they are supposed to, and when they don’t I often think it’s up to me to fix it. Even when it can’t be fixed. Even when the pegs don’t fit in the holes provided and the shelf tilts time after time after time. Even when the imminent collapse rips me from sleep with my heart racing and my mind reeling.

I hate to admit that I can’t make something work, I never want to give up on things or people that I love but that don’t make me happy. I always think with more time or just a little more effort on my part, things will right themselves, even when I kind of know deep down that they won’t. And wanting them to, even in the worst way with the best of intentions, won’t change what just … is. Too often I learn this the hard way, the stubborn way, the way that only leads to more pain and frustration and a sense of failure that is unfair to myself and maybe even to others.

Years ago I read an article about turning forty … long before I was anywhere close to that momentous birthday. The woman writing the article was in her fifties, but she was celebrating the breath of fresh air that is the forties … when you are finally somehow free of the must-dos, and should-haves, and yes, the people who never make you as happy as you deserve to be. She rejoiced in the fact that in her forties she was finally able to let go of friendships that only ever worked because she put in all of the effort, because she grasped onto the fraying strand that was all but broken. At the time, I couldn’t imagine this freedom … couldn’t fathom even having the desire to willingly let go of people in my life that had once made me happy, and certainly not without the gallons of guilt that were sure to follow.

I think the joy I felt this afternoon when throwing away the shelf is a sign that perhaps I am ready to let go of other things. To make smart decisions for what to keep and what to throw out, or give up, or put away for another day and time. To know what makes me happy and then be willing to make the hard decisions to make it so. To somehow find the courage to stop forcing things that don’t want to be, trying to fix things or people by sheer will, to admit when it’s time to say that something that once was good has run it course. I love the idea of making room for better stuff, for things and people that fit in my life without constant struggle. And as I peek one last time tonight at the finally-functional pantry, I have every reason to believe there really is joy in throwing out … there is an undeniably sweet freedom in letting go.