How To Respond When Life Gets In The Way
Less than a decade ago, I faced the biggest challenge of my life. My 25-year relationship with my husband ended. The marriage was dying a slow, agonizing death and, to his credit, he stepped up and ended it.
I loved my husband deeply and felt like the “walking dead” as I dealt with attorneys, mediators and divorce papers. Perhaps the most painful moment was standing with our respective attorneys in a Travis County courtroom, in front of a male judge and being declared divorced. His pounding of the gavel to declare the case closed made me flinch and with it came nauseating shame and gut-wrenching failure. I was a “till death do us part” wife and for me this was an unspeakable defeat. Broken to my core, I walked out of that courthouse alone, afraid and totally confused and conflicted about my future.
What followed were five years of searing, soulful pain that at unexpected moments literally took my breath away. A few times, when these pangs hit, I’d get my head below my waist to prevent myself from hyperventilating.
While I counseled with wise people who assured me I would not always feel this way, deep down I knew the reality— only God’s infinite love and my problem-solving spirit could heal this deep wound. I needed a fresh start, but even more, I needed answers.
So, I got busy looking for them. First, I moved into a new space and hired a decorator who helped me get my bedroom in order. She intuitively knew that’s where I would spend many hours (and she was right.)
I cried every day for a year.
I saw my counselor, Dr. Morris, several times a week. There in her familiar office I questioned the how’s and why’s of failing at my marriage and imagined out-loud this do-over and that do-over and how it could have saved us.
Session after session, I talked through every “responsibility” card in my head and imagined myself as both judge and jury–testing and retesting the argument that I alone was responsible for my marriage’s demise.
Between visits, I pulled every healing lever I could find. For example, I reluctantly joined a divorce recovery group. Our first meeting was in the Fellowship Hall of a local church. As these total strangers filed in and took their seat in a circle of chairs I noted similarities- dark circles under our eyes, blank stares and hunched, defeated postures. There were 30 of us. Our leader was a man in his seventies named Larry who had led these groups for over 30 years. He would lead us through a six-week program.
We began meeting once a week in member’s homes where potluck dinners were served. In small, facilitated groups spread throughout these rooms we shared our stories and were required to call at least three members between meetings to visit more.
I listened to and learned from members who were struggling (as did I) to explain their own bewilderment at being betrayed or tricked or running from abuse and trying desperately to find new footholds. Some were impatient with their new singleness and looked for ways to quickly fill that void. Others, not so fast.
I took a more mystical approach. I began sensing that my soul was longing to be fed a new meal of sorts and I felt my “job” was to find what that nourishment needed to be.
Naturally, several books called out to me. For one, Women Who Run With the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. This became my “You can do this” field guide.” The book had crossed my path years ago but I wasn’t ready for it. Now I was. Its inspiring myths about down-trodden women who rise up from their ashes fueled my imagination and determination.
Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Broken Open, was another book that resonated deeply with me.
Lesser points out that Philosopher William James observed there were two kinds of people in the world: The Once-Born and the Twice-Born. Simply put, Once-Born people never stray away from familiar territory. If life pushes them to the edge, they turn back. Or they may go through life never knowing what lies beyond the woods or that the woods exist at all.
She quotes Robert Bly: “A Twice-Born person pays attention when the soul pokes its head through a half-lived life. Whether through choice or calamity, this person makes mistakes, suffers loss and confronts what needs to change in order to live a more genuine and radiant life.”
All this reading, counseling and workshops got me to thinking: Was it possible to emerge from this void of deep suffering and design a new life on my terms? The answer was yes!
Over those five difficult years I slowly emerged from the ashes and found my way. I discovered the pain had made me a more empathetic and less judgmental person. Moreover, I came to forgive my former husband and most importantly, myself.
I discovered some new truths:
1. You simply cannot outrun grief. Sooner or later you have to stop and let it entrench you.
2. Life is far wiser than we are. Trust it. Give up the wheel and let God drive. The sooner you do this the better.
3. As I’ve said often in the column, Failure is our best teacher. Heartfelt pain is perhaps the wisest instructor of all. Pay close attention to what your heart whispers to you. Ignore these whispers at your own peril. They can manifest into illness or attract demons.
4. Weeping is healthy and healing. Cry as frequently as you need to. But know it can make even your closest friends and family uncomfortable. (They want to “fix” the situation and your tears frustrate them.) I learned it was best to have a good cry in the privacy of my bedroom and in my counselor’s office.
5. Journal about your experiences. I filled several books during my five years in the wilderness. I also wrote up my notes from the year we spent in marriage counseling. I recorded facts but, most importantly, I wrote about the feelings that surfaced over the course of those 50-minute sessions. I learned to write this in long-hand because as a close psychologist friend informed me writing it out helps heal your brain.
6. I read many, many self-help books and gleaned nuggets of wisdom from each. I came to understand and believe that Elizabeth Lesser is right. Many of life’s crises are truly angels from heaven trying to get our attention and showing us a better path through life.
7. Some marriages simply run their course. Important lessons are learned, couples outgrow each other and it’s simply time to move on. If this happens to you, see it as a blessing and move on.
In Broken Open, Lesser shares that the esteemed thinker, Joseph Campbell spent half a century studying the wisdom found in myths, art and religion. Near the end of his career, skilled interviewer Bill Moyers (LBJ’s early press secretary) asked Campbell what his deep studies had taught him about the meaning of life. Campbell surprised Moyers by saying it wasn’t “meaning” people were in search of. Instead, it was something Campbell called “feeling the rapture of being alive.”
As Lesser writes, “If we try to love or lead, or work or pray, from a dry well, then we will serve a bitter cup to those around us and never really live the life we were given.”
In my new life I truly feel the rapture of being alive. My new love, my friendships, travel, consulting, book writing and board service–all have been injected with a renewed love of life. I have even taken up acrylic painting and charcoaling. Who knew?
As Lesser so aptly described it, the end of my long marriage broke me open, and crushed me to my core.
But with God’s guidance and a lot of hard, personal work, out of these mangled, warped pieces an exciting, renewed life arose within me something more glorious and richer than I could ever have imagined.
I wish the same for you.