clench (klench), v.t. [ME. Clenchen; AS. –clencan (in beclencan), lit., to make cling, caus. Of AS, clingan (cf. CLING); akin to OHG, klenken, to bie, bind & G. klinke, door latch; IE. Base *gleng(h) <  *gel- ; see CLIMB-]  1. to clinch, as a nail.  2. to bring together tightly; close firmly, as the teeth or fist.  3. to grip tightly   n. 1. a firm grip.  2. a device that clenches.

I tend to hold on tight. Whether that be to people, to possessions, to places that are important to me. I sometimes misinterpret this closeness, this tightness, for connectivity. If I can only hold on tight enough to these things or people, I won’t lose them. If I grasp hard enough, what I have created around me will remain stable and secure. And it is in this holding, this clenching, that I am most prone to lose the things and people that are important to me.

The same thing that happens in my mind and heart sometimes is also reflected in my body. I carry around knots and tension in my shoulders that I seldom release. When I am doing healthy things for my body, like going to yoga, the tension dissipates and my body feels more at peace. I feel healthier and more in touch with my own feelings about what is happening around me. But with this kind of fluidity comes openness and vulnerability.

Clenching is often used in reference to anger: clenching teeth, clenching hands. When I think of the word clench, I get images of fists with knuckles turning white or teeth held tight in a grimace. But I think the act of clenching is less about anger than it is about fear. When we are in situations where we feel unprotected, where we feel the potential—real or imagined—to be harmed, we clench. We try to bring ourselves in as tightly as possible to arm ourselves from what we fear.

As much as I think that we need to protect ourselves, I wonder how much clenching we do that is completely unnecessary and that actually dramatically limits our experience. If we are always closed off, our hands balled up, we have no way to receive the good things that are presented to us. Then, we have a choice. We can unclench in that moment and trust or we can stay clenched. We can let go and present ourselves unarmed, or we can remain armed and stuck exactly where we are.

Within the past week, two of my friends gave birth. One of my closest friends gave birth to her first child in a pool of water, surrounded by those assisting her and her husband. Within the next few days, a dear friend’s dog will give birth to puppies. I have found myself thinking about the process of labor, the process of birth. In order to give life to something else, there is first a time of preparation. Then, there is contracting. But ultimately, this giving birth is an act of letting go. The baby is released and begins to participate in the world as a creature all its own. The baby, of course, needs the nourishment of its parents and the community around them. But as I understand it, the act of being a mother really means one act of letting go after another.

Some of these acts are little, like letting your child choose his own clothing. Others are big, like letting them leave the house alone or watching them move far away from you. By bringing another being into the world, you are also accepting the responsibility that this being will grow up, will have its own aspirations and dreams and will go off to pursue them.

And just as it is with people, this letting go is something we must do over and over again in our lives. When we have produced art or writing or music, there is a time for letting it out of our hands and into the world. When we move from jobs or homes or cities and towns, we let go of the identity we had there, of the people who we spent so much time with, of the places that have become familiar and comfortable to us.

Letting go, even when it is what we want or what we need, is never easy. There is something in us that wanted us to hold on, and when we let go, we feel the thing slip through our fingers. We feel the absence in our palm. There is nothingness for awhile before something else comes to fill that space. And sometimes nothing comes to fill it.

Although it is often used in a negative context, I don’t interpret clench in a negative way.  To hold closely, to grasp tightly to things or people is not always a bad thing. I think of holding onto family heirlooms or cultural traditions. I think of couples who have experienced breaches of trust who choose to repair and hold onto their relationship because they want to be with each other, because they love each other too much to let go of what they have together.

For myself, it’s a matter of awareness of how and why I hold onto things. Only when I’m conscious of these reasons can I determine when it is time to hold on and when I need to open up and just let go.


Filed under weekly words

2 responses to “clench

  1. Vera

    …what a word “clench, I have learned from this process and I have learned from the release even if it is a bit scary of the release to what? Now as I prepare to let go of something so LONG important to me…my position, my job, my co-worker and their gifts of presence and co-creating as we worked with and for others, I am taking my time to feel EVERYTHING about this clench and about this letting go. At times, when I let myself feel the letting go as pain ONLY fear…fills me and the present time stifles what options I have to be, to be with, and to continue dreaming and creating life.

  2. Jim

    Thanks for a powerful reflection on “clench”. Just a week ago, addressing the oil spill clean up workers I held up a clenched fist, invited them to do the same and then reflected that if they held it clenched, soon the grip would weaken, their muscles stiffen, and utimately they would have to let go. But if they grip and release, grip and release they could work all day with strength and stamina and without stress. One exercise I do with my graduate students is to stand in a circle with clenched fists(that represent their prejudices, opinions, assumptions, and dogmas) and then ask them to connect with the person on each side. The obvious discovery is that the only way to really connnect and form a circle of trust is to let go, release the clench, open their hands to each other. How symbolic of how one lives one’s life, with a clenched fist or an open hand?

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