Sometimes an impromptu night out with a friend can become a starlit, rhapsodic evening for nourishing the figurative soul. It was an exceptional opportunity to see Esperanza Spalding live at Hong Kong’s Cultural Centre, so I did not pass up the chance to see, with my friend, her bassist magic. Aside from her dazzling capabilities as an entertainer and the stellar talents of her Radio Music Society troupe, one of the songs she performed that night felt particularly resonant with my thoughts about what Buddhism teaches about love. ‘Smile Like That’ tells the story of a woman who is coming to terms with her partner’s secret but apparently badly hidden affection for someone else: ‘And it’s nothing but natural to wonder if you’ve ever loved her… Guess it’s something I can’t help when I notice the way your eyes focus… If it’s something you can’t help, don’t worry.’
Through the song, a story of gradual recognition and release unfolds, with the acknowledgment that she cannot lock herself in a relationship where she wants us to be ‘two lovely people, and not really like three.’ In the Buddhist tradition, the ability to let go with maturity is real hallmark of sincerity and progress on the spiritual path. To be able to let go is different from burning bridges and not a mark of callousness or lack of care – it is the most basic way we become unburdened, the foundation of freedom and of freeing ourselves from life’s dissatisfactory moments.
And sure enough, Spalding presents the process of letting go in a beautiful and really quite desirable manner. Such a loving release is free from resentment or passive anger and aggression, with a simple request that the subject of the song stop pretending ‘you don’t see and feel what’s obvious to me.’ In other words, Spalding’s girl recognizes her partner’s open heart and freely given love, but if they cannot have it as a couple, it would simply be better to ‘let you be and maybe find someone that makes me smile like that’: if she cannot enjoy his (or her?) smile like that, she would rather set her partner free so that she can also direct a similar smile to someone else, and enjoy that same smile herself.
There are few sentences that people desire to hear more than ‘I love you.’ But these words can also be binding, words of commitment not to be withdrawn lightly. They are words of responsibility, and can grow to become shackles for various unfortunate reasons.
Yet how liberating is it to hear, ‘I set you free’, as is Spalding’s final haunting line? Not only is this important in the liberation theology context of oppression and repentance, but at a personal level, there is a heartfelt recognition that separation need not be painful or undesirable: it can be an act of love and affirmation, an acceptance that the other is fine the way he or she is and the last thing you want is to be an obstacle. In fact, letting go of someone you deeply love might just be the best thing you’ve ever done for them.