Sometimes I simply stop to ponder the myriad of human dramas playing out at this moment. All the people around the world hurting and healing, arguing and making love, feeling lonely and enjoying friends, loving on their children or ignoring them. So many dramas…and each one of those dramas feels “real” and central and undeniably important to the players.
I know this because the dramas that I have experienced in my life seemed so real and sometimes insurmountable or unrecoverable. Yet, here I am, years later, and I can’t recall all those dramas and crises that I felt would never end. I do recall once, in the midst of what seemed like a horrible conflict with a lover, that he turned to me and said “What if I told you that a year from now all the good in our relationship will dwarf this moment? Would it change our tone of voice? Our interaction?” And he was right. I don’t remember the details of the conflict, but I do remember the moment that we let go of our “real” anger and shifted into a less combative tone. His words gave us a chance to see the difficulties of the moment in a much bigger perspective. The relationship ended and, as he predicted, and the difficult moments are really dwarfed by the beautiful memories.
But we are human, which means that we cling to our version of “reality,” our version of “good” or “bad,” regardless of how ephemeral. My pondering of dramas was prompted by a conversation with a childhood friend who recently divorced. I could hear the deep pain in her voice as she grappled to explain the end of her twenty-plus-year marriage. She was clearly struggling with re-writing her narrative now that the story had an unanticipated ending. Sitting in the pew at her wedding, I, too, had joined her in the belief that the end would be “death do us part.” Over the years since that wedding we lost touch. Now, through the wonders of social media, I was re-entering her life at the moment when she had to craft an alternate ending. I could be a witness to the beginning and end.
When we reconnected, I didn’t realize that the marriage was troubled. Marital conflict is not the first thing that you reveal to a long-lost friend. Sitting at dinner with the still-together couple, I remember marveling at the photos of the happy times and even feeling a little tug of jealousy. If you put the length of both my marriages together, I wasn’t even close to their shared marital experience. But, of course, longevity is not an indicator of happiness. Within months of that meeting, I received the tearful phone call explaining that their divorce was almost finalized.
My friend was devastated, hurt, angry, in shock. Her former spouse was already building a life with a woman that he was having affairs with off and on for decades. Social media confirmed the union with pictures from his wedding only months later. Everything that she believed to be “real” was now shattered. So here is the drama…and the hurt…and the pain…and all the hard lessons that may be learned or not learned…a suffering that gets amplified in the moment.
I don’t want to diminish the pain. Lost relationships must be mourned. But I had to wonder how much of the pain comes from our inability to let go? Our simple desire for things to be other than what they are? We rehash all those moments of hurt. We cling to our sense of the other person being “wrong.” With infidelity and deceit, it is easy to get caught up in our self-righteous anger. So I listened to my friend, comforting her the best that I could.
Yet, I couldn’t quite despise her philandering former spouse in the way that she might have liked at the height of her fury. The deceit for so many years had to eat him up. His face in his post-divorce pictures looked relieved, relaxed. Maybe he was relieved not to live a lie? I understand that after so many years that he might be anxious to get on with his life. If he had asked me, I would have suggested that there was a great deal to be gained by taking time to feel the loss and pain that comes with the unraveling of a collective life. But he didn’t ask and I can’t know his story. Glancing at the photos of his new marriage doesn’t tell the “real” story any more than the photos of his last marriage did.
I listened to my friend explain how she thought things were so perfect. Her perfect was obviously not his. And it reminded me of a teaching by Pema Chödrön. “We think that if we just meditated enough, or jogged enough, or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake,” she wrote, “that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole and self contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air.” Maybe he experienced her version of security and perfection as a kind of death? Whatever happened, it seemed very clear that there wasn’t much room for change. For her, this was stability. For him, it was stagnation. For the marriage, it would appear that it meant a closing off of the flow of fresh air.
How many times have I gasped for that fresh air after so carefully crafting a version of perfection? The pain that it caused…along with the recovery…are a part of the wonder and miracle of human existence. Will there be other dramas? Of course. Who is immune? But right now there seems like a pause and a bit of peace for the former couple, for me. Or maybe not…I don’t know, in fact, what is playing out at this moment. But I agree with Pema that there needs to be room for “something to come in and interrupt all that” otherwise we will kill “the moment by controlling our experience.” Struggling against this inevitable ebb and flow of life only sets us up for failure because sooner or later we have an experience that we simply can’t control. As Pema reminds us, we just can’t “flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice, smooth ride.”