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A friend tried valiantly to comfort me as I suffered through the last phase of a marriage that means all the world to me. As we talked, however, I became intrigued by her apparent need to instruct and convince me.
My friend was certain that it must be agony for me each time I encounter the husband whom I have loved for 35 years, and who has determined to cast me out of his life. She insisted that it will be easier for me once he moves hundreds of miles away and I can "stop dragging it out" and get on with my own life.
I inferred that she thinks I make myself more miserable by persistence in my love for this man, and would be better advised to "face the reality that the relationship is dead."
When I attempted to express my actual emotions and perceptions, she replied that perhaps I am "just really different from everybody else." I had the impression that she actually believed me to be not so much "different" as deluded, or at least in a state of unhealthy denial of "the facts."
I trusted her good motives, so I tried to find some element of her argument with which I could agree, to ease the tension. She eagerly globalized my concession and affirmed, "that's all I was trying to say!" Eventually we were able to move on to less personal topics until it was time for her to leave.
As I pondered the interaction later, I became quite annoyed. After all, I hadn't asked for advice--I really think I am handling my situation quite well (with competent help when I do need it); this woman has no personal experience of divorce to inform her opinions; and what makes her think she could know more about my inner reality than I do myself?
I sputtered until I realized that my rhetorical question might actually have an answer--and that if I could at least form a workable hypothesis as to what that answer might be, I might effectively defuse my irritation and possibly avoid alienation from a woman whose friendship I truly do value.
To rephrase the query in less prejudicial terms, what might be the benefit to her of my friend's interpretation of my situation? One further permutation placed the issue squarely in that realm of personal truth about which I like to claim some insight: why might I wish to persuade someone else that a dreaded inevitability would actually improve her life? Why might I want to suggest that I could understand why or could have predicted that this relationship "wouldn't work" and that the divorce is really "all for the best" in the long run?
Aha! If I can structure tragedy in terms of rational cause and effect, then I can reassure myself that I can avoid any similar pattern in my own life. Only fools build on flood plains or volcanic slopes, right? We humans like to imagine that we have considerable ability to control our own fate; and in some ways we actually do have a great deal more potency that many of us seem able to acknowledge or use.
In terms of power as dominance, on the other hand, we are stringently limited: we do not have the capacity to control the thoughts, feelings, or even actions of other beings--or, in many cases, even objects or natural forces. This is surely a blessing, given that (a) we obviously lack the mental capacity to comprehend even all the proximate consequences of our choices, much less effects remote from us in time or space; and (b) we often seem to lack the moral capacity to act responsibly on behalf of the unity of all-that-is rather than on some warped notion of isolated "self-interest" even when destructive results of our decisions are logically predictable.
Our limitations, however, don't stop us from trying to control just about anybody or anything we encounter. To maintain our delusion of omnipotence, we assign blame whenever "life" doesn't work out to our convenience, comfort, pleasure or plan. We expect to be able to earn rewards, and we react with fury when we don't get what we think we deserve.
Such judgmental anger often floats on a sea of fear: if we can't predict, we can't control; if we can't control, we are terrified of being at the mercy of whatever or whoever is in control of the whole process--but perhaps even more horrified by the suspicion that nobody is "in charge," since we can't conceive that the process itself is trustworthy if it involves personal pain and frustration and loss.
The fallacy of this sort of dualistic thinking becomes evident as we recall times when we knowingly, intentionally, willingly, and even proudly or joyfully endured hardships in order to bring about some higher good: the sore muscles from a new exercise program, the deprivations of dieting, the discipline of budgets, the inconvenience of recycling, the sacrifice of advantage for the sake of principle, the humbling frustration of learning a difficult new skill, the pain of recovery from life-saving surgery, the risks of intimacy, the endless little compromises of one's own preferences for the sake of a loved one.
Just because I can't fathom what the Holy Unity wants to accomplish, which produces as a by-product such pain in this small cell in its left elbow, is no reason for me to deny the possible existence of a goal that even I would consider worth my suffering. I get in trouble when I define "the comfort of a left-elbow cell" as the ultimate goal of all-that-is. That's just way out of proportion: the classic definition of hubris. The cell exists to serve the Unity--and could not itself exist without that unity.
Of course the Body/Self does not want the cell to suffer: I don't actively search for things on which to bang my elbow. But I will stick my elbow in the way of a slamming door to prevent a child (or a cat) from getting hurt by it. If I can't trust the Process (or "God," or whatever name fits) to make choices at least as responsibly and benevolently as I do myself, with my limited vision, then that Process/God is too small to worship.
Logical comprehension is not necessary--or possible; trust is both possible and essential. The popular (albeit crude) bumper sticker, "Shit Happens," certainly reflects a prevalent modern stance of resigned disgust at the way the world seems to work; but consider the alternative: constipation, toxicity, and painful death. That doesn't mean I have to like the smell of it, much less wallow in it; but neither need I waste a whole lot of energy on blame and self-pity. The appropriate use of anger is as energy to bring about creative change: find a way to decontaminate the mess and it as fertilizer. When change is not possible--or when the necessary transformation is simply way beyond my human power to achieve--then what I need to do is grieve, not blame Yes, my hopes, my dreams, my plans are broken by divorce. Yes, my identity as half of a married couple is shattered. Yes, all my comfortable, familiar, safe routines are destroyed: I have no home, no security, no dependable income, no vocation; and worst of all, I am deprived of the opportunity to be and do for the person I love most in all the world, whom to cherish and serve has been my highest delight; and he's not even dead, he wants my absence from his life!
Yes, my memories are all compromised because the meanings I had attached to them have been changed: my name doesn't even have the same meaning any more. I have lost my past as well as my future as I understood them.
Yes, I must acknowledge and accept that I have failed in marriage: my love was not sufficient to heal what was damaged in my husband. And yes, that failure is the source of untold anguish on the part of all who care about us individually and corporately; and that failure contributes to the dis-ease of the community, for no relationship is ever only a private affair; and I feel pain on behalf of all those others who are affected, as well as for myself.
All this, and more, is absolutely devastating to me: what I experience now is teeth-grinding, gut-wrenching, head-splitting, eye-burning, throat-aching, breath-stopping, muscle-clenching AGONY.
And no, I did not and do not "deserve" to be treated this way. In no way did I "earn" abandonment and rejection, or "justify" what my husband feels he must do. This cataclysm is not "for the best" in any humanly comprehensible sense. "Best," in any meaningful terms, would have been for us both to be able to keep our promises to love each other for better and for worse, and to contribute our love to the foundation of a society that much more stable, strong and sane. For as long as I was permitted, I did the best I could--and that best was no shabby offering, either; but it wasn't enough to save our marriage. It wasn't enough to enable my husband to move beyond his fantasies about "what his wife should be," and learn to love the real woman who married him.
Is it unfair? Sure it is! But whoever told us that life would be "fair"? I used to tell our children that "fair doesn't mean equal; it means what's right in the particular circumstances of each here-and-now moment." And, I might have added, right in view of all the data available to us about the past, present, and possible future: innocence means "harmlessness," and that is not the same as culpable ignorance!
Another thing life is not, is "safe." The only guarantee we have is that we won't get out of it alive. To a large extent, what we gain in life--the value and depth of our experience--is directly proportionate to the risks each of us is willing to take. We learn and grow from being vulnerable, not from staying safe. People do live on flood plains and on the slopes of volcanoes for a variety of reasons that they consider worth the risk.
So--to get back to the friend who came to comfort me: perhaps the difference in our approaches is that I'm not particularly interested in what might make the situation "easier" for me. What seems best, because it seems right under all the circumstances, may in fact make my grief most painful; but I am not a victim in my grief. I do not blame my husband because I do not hold him responsible for my emotional climate, and because I am absolutely convinced that he, too, is doing the very best he can with the resources available to him.
I do not agree with his reasoning or his decision: I feel he carries much psychological baggage that needs to be unpacked before he can proceed much further on his spiritual journey, and I think he is unable and/or unwilling to do that work--at least at the present time, or in my company.
Still, I can't take refuge in any certainty that I am right--that I'm not somehow evading difficult truths about myself by a "patronizing" attitude about his presumed pathology. After all, he could be right: he may truly need to assert his independence or separateness in order to learn his own lessons. Should I resent or hinder that, if I love him? Or, as so many suggest, does my acquiescence "collude" in his "treating me like a doormat"? Does being one's "brother's keeper" include being jailer? I don't think so--not between consenting adults, at any rate; but my crystal ball is full of fog on this one. I, too, can only do the best I can with what I have to work with, and watch to see where way may open.
Therefore, I make my own choice in fear and trembling: I dare to risk loving him by permitting him to divorce me--even though he has no legal grounds to do so, and in fact could not afford to do so if I did not make it possible by waiving my own legal rights. I intend not to manipulate him, but still to do whatever serves his highest happiness, to the extent that I am given light and strength to perceive and do whatever that may be. In my heart and mind, this choice is totally compatible with my marriage vows; and though my pain and grief may at times obscure my perspective, it is my love and respect for my husband that make this requirement of me--not persecution on his part.
This is the costliest gift anyone has every asked of me. That I grant it causes family, friends and lawyers to question my clarity, if not my sanity--and their arguments make an awful lot of sense: it is hard to disapprove of a person's actions and still affirm the individual. Making that effort tends to produce an extra dimension of loneliness, anxiety, and the insidious temptation to "claim the high moral ground" and "zap" my husband through public criticism as retaliation for pain that is no less real for being accepted.
Sometimes I doubt that I have the spiritual, psychological or intellectual resources to be that detached, even if I can manage the relentlessly pragmatic aspects of starting over again, alone, at 55. It's easy to let pain lure me into resentment and anger and self-pity. Simply to stay focused and balanced sometimes requires so much energy that I wonder why so little else gets accomplished all day.
Still, it seems to me that the alternative is worse: I've been far enough down that road to see the signposts that point toward cynicism, despair, bitterness and futility. As hard as it is, I prefer the path I've chosen--for I believe it leads to wholeness, and a greater capacity to give and to love, and yes, eventually, even to happiness. If this direction leads to even a little more peace and hope in our world, it will have been worth all the pain. Will good come of this grief? Yes, definitely. Was the grief a necessary precondition for that future good? I don't believe that. I don't think there's only one possible "best path" at any given moment. The good which comes after the flood deposits a new layer of silt in the delta is not the good which would have followed the normal planting. The good produced by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge differs from the good of continued innocence. The good of resurrection differs from the good of avoiding crucifixion. The good that I will be able to plant in the harrowed soil of my disrupted life will be very different indeed from the good that might have proceeded from a life-long marriage with my beloved husband.
So I grieve deeply for what I hoped might be, while I go out to plant seeds in the mud, and hope and watch for new life. I do know that time dulls the jagged sharp edge of grief; but I also know that deep sorrow is never really erased. Rather, the mourner learns to live with and around the loss, to integrate it somehow into his or her own journey, and to trust the Process and the Unity--even when it hurts.
* * * * * * Dorothea Peregrine's divorce becomes final just as this issue of Sena Magazine goes to press. She writes here under a pseudonym to protect her husband's privacy. She can be reached via email by readers who might wish to discuss her observations.
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