If You Love Someone, Set Them Free. If They Come Back They’re Yours

Richard Bach? Jess Lair? Anonymous student? Sting? Peter Max? Chantal Sicile?

Dear Quote Investigator: On his first solo album in 1985 the musician Sting released a song called:

If You Love Somebody Set Them Free

Recently, I heard more elaborate quotations that included the above statement:

If you love something, let it go. If it returns, it’s yours; if it doesn’t, it wasn’t.
If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.

The statement immediately above was attributed to Richard Bach who wrote the enormously popular inspirationally work “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” in the 1970s. But I cannot find this saying in his novels. Could you tell me where this expression came from?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantiation that Richard Bach created or used the phrases above.

The earliest known evidence for a version of this saying appeared in a book titled “I Ain’t Much Baby—But I’m All I’ve Got” by Jess Lair that was privately published in 1969. Lair was a teacher, and he asked his students to create small writing samples. For each class meeting a student was supposed to write “some comment, question or feeling” on a three inch by five inch card and place it on a table in the front of the classroom. Lair read the short texts and made comments at the beginning of the class. The following was written on one card [JL69] [JL72]:

If you want something very, very badly, let it go free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever.  If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.

Lair stated that about half of the cards were unsigned, and he did not identify the person who turned in the expression above. Here are three other examples from junior and senior students:

1. I heard a very profound statement last night. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten it.
2. No guts—no glory.
3. Laughter is the song of the angels.

Lair did not require the words to be original, and he did not request attributions. So the student may have gathered the quotation of interest from another unknown person.

Top quotation expert Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, obtained a copy of the 1969 book recently and verified the presence of the passage. Lair published multiple editions of his book, and in the past a 1974 edition was the earliest known and verified copy [JLYQ] [JLQV].

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1951 Esquire magazine published a short story titled “The Tyranny of Love” by Harry Kronman, and it contained a quotation that prefigured part of the saying under investigation [EQHK]:

“I mean, if you love something very much, you’ve got to go easy with it—give it some room to move around. If you try to hold it tight like that, it’ll always try to get away.”

In 1969 the educator Jess Lair published a version of the saying which he obtained from a junior or senior college student as mentioned above:

If you want something very, very badly, let it go free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever.  If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.

In 1972 a compact version of the expression appeared as the caption of a one-panel comic by the graphic artist Peter Max who was part of zeitgeist of the 1960s and 70s. The phrasing of this version was closer to the most common modern variants. Max did not claim authorship; instead, he used the label “Unknown” [PMCP] [PMNJ]:

“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

The comic was part of a syndicated art series called “Meditation”. Max prompted his readers to send in quotations by asking the following question: “What words of wisdom guide your life?” The words above were sent in by “Chantal Sicile, Staten Island, N.Y.” But she did not claim authorship, apparently. The reward for a published quote was a poster autographed by Max.

In April 1975 the Oregonian newspaper published a profile of basketball player Bill Walton in its Sunday magazine section. The article noted a picture that displayed a different phrasing for the saying [ORBW]:

In the office of Bill Walton’s San Francisco attorney, there’s a picture that is captioned:

If you love something very much
Let it go free.
If it does not return, it was not meant to be yours.
If it does return, love it as hard as you can for the rest of your life.

In December 1975 the saying was published together with several other quotations in an article called “Points to Ponder” in the mass circulation periodical Reader’s Digest. Jess Lair’s book was acknowledged, and the words were identical to those in the book [JLRD].

For several years the actor Lee Majors was married to the actress and iconic beauty Farrah Fawcett. In 1978 an interviewer for the UPI news service asked Majors about this relationship [LMFF]:

“I have an old saying framed in my office. It goes like this, ‘If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.’ That’s how I feel about a marriage partner.”

By the 1990s the expression had implausibly been assigned to the author Richard Bach. Here is an example message from the Usenet distributed discussion system in 1994 [JLRB]:

>In summary, I’d like to add something I read by Alan Dean Foster:  “If
>you love something, set it free.  If it comes back, it is yours forever.
>If it doesn’t, then it never was yours at all.”
Actually it was Richard Bach, but Foster is a great author too!

By 1999 a comical remark had been appended to the maxim [UNSL]:

But, if it just sits in your living room,
messes up your stuff, eats your food,
uses your telephone, takes your money,
and doesn’t appear to realize that you had set it free…..
You either married it or gave birth to it.

In conclusion, the creator of this general saying is not known. Jess Lair helped to popularize one version starting in 1969. He was given the statement by an anonymous student. Peter Max helped to popularize another shorter version in 1972. He was sent the expression by Chantal Sicile.

(Many thanks to Randi who asked about this quotation and inspired the construction of this query and reply.)

[JL69] 1969, “I Ain’t Much Baby—But I’m All I’ve Got” by Jess Lair, Chapter 19, Page 98, Privately published. (Verified on paper by Fred Shapiro)

[JL72] 1972, “I Ain’t Much Baby—But I’m All I’ve Got” by Jess Lair, Chapter 20: Our Magic Cards, Quote Page 203, [Copyright: 1969, 1972], Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)

[JLYQ] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Jess Lair, Page 440, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[JLQV] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 135, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[EQHK] 1951 February, Esquire, The Tyranny of Love by Harry Kronman, Start Page 30, Quote Page 30, Column 3, Esquire Publishing, New York. (Verified on paper)

[PMCP] 1972 September 16, Cleveland Plain Dealer, [Cartoon Panel: Meditation by Peter Max], Page 19-B, [GNB Page 31], Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

[PMNJ] 1972 September 16, News Journal, [Cartoon Panel: Meditation by Peter Max], Page 3, Column 4, Mansfield, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive) (This newspaper mentioned Chantal Sicile and the request for quotations.)

[ORBW] 1975 April 20, Oregonian, Sunday Section: Northwest Magazine, At Home with Bill Walton by Judy Hughes, Start Page 10, Quote Page 12, Column 3, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)

[JLRD] 1975 December, Reader’s Digest, Volume 107, Points to Ponder, Page 201, Column 1, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)

[LMFF] 1978 July 5, Nashua Telegraph, Lee Majors Is No Mr. Fawcett, [UPI newswire], Page 15, Column 6, Nashua, New Hampshire. (Google News Archive)

[JLRB] 1994 April 26, Usenet, Newsgroup: alt.romance.chat, From: Rob Geraghty, Responding to: Michael Aulfrey, Subject: Re: What do women want??? I need a woman’s advice!! (Accessed online at groups.google.com) link

[UNSL] 1999 August 23, Usenet, Newsgroups: alt.support.arthritis, From: Bbaylarry, Subject: OTP: Joke – If You Love Something. (Accessed online at groups.google.com) link


2 replies on “If You Love Someone, Set Them Free. If They Come Back They’re Yours”

  1. I had heard a variation, “If you love someone, let them go. If they truly love you, they will return. And if they do not it was not meant to be…” attributed to Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls. Of course, when I searched for a documented source, I couldn’t find any.

    However, I did find a number of unsupported attributions to Kahlil Gibran, usually phrased, “If you love someone, let them go, for if they return they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.” Again, no specifics were provided.

    Besides that 1999 joke version you mention, there is another humorous variation on the quote, “If you love someone, let them go. If they don’t return, hunt them down and kill them.” Sounds like the National Lampoon, but—yet again—I have no proof.

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