I heard on the radio today that the breakup of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie actually broke the internet. I’m not sure if that’s exactly accurate, but when I heard the report I was immediately struck by it. I mean, it would take a lot of people to actually break the internet, right?
True statement or not, I have no doubt about people’s curiosity to read the gossip. What I do wonder about, however, is their motivation for being so interested. It’s not like Brad Pitt is some hot handyman in the neighborhood and now all the single women have a shot with him (and yes, I’m assuming that most news seekers in this case are women. Terrible how I’m perpetuating a stereotype, I know). But as I think about it, I believe there are probably two reasons for people’s curiosity: people are either saddened or shocked by the celebrity breakup; or people find some kind of relief in being able to relate to it.
Relationships end all the time. We’ve all known seemingly perfect couples who have called it quits for one reason or another. After all, it is so easy to judge a relationship from the outside with statements like, “Oh, they seemed so happy,” or “They were so good together.” The truth is that we never really know the secrets of a relationship; the things that happen – or don’t happen – in private. It may even be true that in some cases, one of the people in the actual relationship is struggling to understand the breakup, not sure why the person they held closest to them decided to disengage or call it quits.
While Brad and Angelina appeared to the world to be the perfect power couple – blessed with fame and fortune, and enough love to adopt children from all over the world – the media is now in the business of citing blame for the breakup. And as more and more people speculate about what happened to cause such an upheaval, more and more reasons for the split are revealed. I guess I don’t understand why there has to be a victim; why there always has to be someone blamed. I’m stuck on the basics of the story: two people who loved each other have decided that it’s not in their best interest to be together, and in the wake of their relationship stand six children of a broken home. Celebrities or not, these are still people. This is a story full of disappointment and loss. Somewhere in the middle of “happily ever after” and divorce, I bet there was also a lot of turmoil and difficult decisions. Perhaps people pay attention to the story because what looked like a strong and good partnership turned into something very ordinary and disappointing.
In addition to those who might see the sadness in the Brangelina breakup are also those who, I think, find some comfort in it. How many of us experience a breakup and are left wondering, “What could I have done differently?” Even more often, I think people begin to question themselves, making “what if” statements about losing weight, being more patient, having more sex, etc. But to witness the breakup of a couple that was so celebrated seems to say, “Look, even Brad and Angelina aren’t perfect.” And in that statement, there’s an opportunity for all of us to be just a little kinder to ourselves. I mean if they couldn’t make it with all their money and privilege, how will we? Right?
When this story’s 15 minutes of fame are over, the truth is that there will still be a family affected. With a divorce rate in the United States somewhere around 50%, a break-up like this – along with Taylor Swift songs and country music – remind those of us who have had failed relationships that we are not alone. And once again we are reminded that while money is great to have, it can’t buy us happiness and it sure as hell doesn’t buy love.
“I gave it all … But you can’t stop taking from me…And way down I know…You know where to cut me with your eyes closed.”
I’ve been thinking recently about loss. Not loss as in the sudden and dramatic kind; more the kind of loss that happens over time. In relationships, this kind of loss happens when one person decides they no longer value a connection as they once did, when life situations pull people apart, or when one friend or partner has made a mistake and the other refuses to budge toward forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s the most painful kind of loss. Why? Because you feel it happening every single second and, despite any effort to close the gap, it continues to deepen and widen. In this way, it is not the loss we experience with death. Rather, it is a living loss. Where a loving and thriving relationship used to be, there is now a gaping hole; a monster that instead of just killing us with mercy, simply tears a limb off every day.
How many of us experience this kind of loss? Perhaps we hold onto something too long, hoping something will change. We bury hurt feelings, look away from indiscretions, and make excuses for times when another person hurt us (and maybe deeply) because the idea of just tearing off the band aid is too much to bear. It’s as if we think we might just bleed out uncontrollably if separation happens too quickly. So, instead, we bleed out gradually. How many of us are in a relationship like this? And while we hold on, hoping to preserve some part of what made us happy, how much of ourselves is bleeding out as well?
There are many reasons we allow this kind of slow death to happen in a relationship. If you’ve been there, you have your own reasons. And they are YOUR reasons; no one should judge them. I suppose we all walk away in the time and manner we are ready. Or, in less often circumstances, perhaps we find a way to mold the relationship into some new form that suits our needs. In any case, there is a grief associated with the loss of something that once was. And that grief can be deep and significant. But the pain associated with loss doesn’t mean that letting go is always the wrong thing to do.
More than 15 years ago, I let go of a marriage. We were married young, were too different, and despite our best intentions, just couldn’t make it work. We tried. For eight years, we tried. Then one day in the car on a Sunday afternoon, I was finally able to let go. I don’t know where that strength came from and I’m not sure I’ve seen it since. But during a perfectly normal moment of silence, I was able to say, “I’m done.”
I had a conversation last night with a woman who recently lost her son to a drug overdose. What struck me is that for years, this woman suffered that gradual loss of her son. I’m sure that in moments of hope and optimism, she believed he might someday get clean and rebuild his life. But in her words, she “knew this was coming.” The only peace she now finds is in the fact that the slow bleeding has stopped and her son is at peace. She no longer has to worry. Now, she just has to heal (easier said than done).
I write this with no good words of advice and no real “a-ha” moment of revelation. Instead, I just wonder how many of us are in relationships that are gradually causing us to bleed out. And, I guess I hope that when the bleeding stops – for whatever reason or in whatever way – that we are left able to heal and empowered to grow even stronger than we once were.
(Opening quote is from the song, “Bleed Out,” by Blue October. Hear the song and see all lyrics here.)
I was watching a TV hospital drama the other night. One of the patients came into the emergency room after being hit by a car. He said that he was texting and walked right into the street without even noticing the car that subsequently struck him. Luckily, the man sustained only minor injuries to his lower leg. But over the course of treatment, the head of psychiatry noticed the man’s underlying depression. He asked the man if he stepped intentionally in front of the car. After some prodding, the man admitted that he had. He said, “I have the perfect life, the perfect marriage, the perfect job. I have nothing to be sad about. And yet, I am sad all the time. Nothing makes me happy.”
I continue to think about this episode because it made me wonder how many of us are silently struggling with fears and insecurities and doubts that we do not discuss. How does our notion of “perfect” put pressure on us? Moreover, how does what others call perfect guilt us into thinking that we should be happy and make us feel inadequate when we are not? Are we even able to define happiness for ourselves anymore? And most importantly, do we think we deserve to be happy?
I believe that there are very few people in the world who live a joyous life. Maybe I’m wrong. But my opinion is that people settle, and in that settlement they find comfort. Comfort and joy, however, are two very different things. One can live a comfortable life – and become comfortably numb in the process – without ever knowing joy. I would argue, however, that the greatest life is one that is both comfortable and joyous. And joy comes from living life as your authentic self.
Many years ago, I read a book by Dr. Phil called “Self Matters.” In that book, Dr. Phil defines the authentic self as “who you were created to be.” He also refers to the fictional self, which is “who the world has told you to be.” He explains that when people are asked who they are, they often answer with a role they play or a place they come from (mom, husband, lawyer, Penn Stater, etc.). Different from these answers, however, is a deeper response to the question, “Who are you?”. He states that this deeper response is found in the authentic self; it is found at your core and is not defined by your job, function or role. “It is all of the things that are uniquely yours and need expression, rather than what you believe you are supposed to be and do.”
I think the world is really good at helping us to create our fictional selves. It is easy to listen to outside influences, pay attention to everyone else’s expectations, and fall victim to someone else’s definition of what happy looks like. It is much harder to think beyond convention and listen to our inner self. After all, what if that little voice inside of me is wrong? What if I step off the beaten path and end up lost and alone in the woods? Then what?
Last August, I posted “Walking the Path.” It was then that I wrote: “The path forward can sometimes become unclear, possibly grown over with brush, or disrupted by broken cobblestones. When this break in the path happens, it is easy for us to retreat; to turn and go back from where we came. And I guess that’s sometimes ok. The places we have already been are known to us; even when they are not exactly pleasant, we know we can survive these places because we’ve already lived in them. We know what the expectations in those places are; we know how people will treat us and what will be the norm.”
As I reread that now, I am thinking about the path in a different way. Perhaps the breaks in our path are opportunities for us to consider the life we are living; to evaluate whether or not we are honoring our authentic selves. And perhaps if the path feels broken or challenging, it is not because we are being called to retreat, but that our authentic self is pushing us forward and calling us to break from the fictional self we’ve allowed the path to create for us in the first place. We might sacrifice comfort for a short time as we grow and evolve, but the resulting joy? I bet that’s worth it.
When was the last time you looked at someone and thought, “Wow. That person is sexy”? Can you remember why you thought that? There are a variety of physical reasons, of course, that one person finds another desirable. But for me, truly sexy people are those who demonstrate certain attributes: confidence, an open mind, a sense of humor, a curiosity in the world. The one characteristic that I find most sexy, however, is resiliency.
James Cascio, who was named as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers, said that “Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected… The goal of resilience is to thrive.” What I love about his quote is the idea that despite the unexpected things life throws at us, we have the capacity to thrive. Sure, we can focus just on surviving. But Cascio reminds us that we are capable of much, much more. It is the people who are able to take the unexpected, embrace the challenge, and truly thrive that I find the most exciting kind of people.
Everyone knows the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” I’m not a big fan of that saying. Reason is that to make lemonade means taking those lemons, watering them down to nothing, and covering their tartness with batches of sugar. I’m not one to sugarcoat anything. I’m also not one to pretend that a situation always has a silver lining or that there’s always an easy fix. Some things just suck. But I am an optimist most of the time. And instead of covering the true taste of the lemon, I believe there is value in learning to be comfortable with the bitterness. Without the sting of lemons, could we truly appreciate the kiss of something sweet? Sexy people don’t make lemonade.
This reflection does not ignore the fact that sometimes life is really, really hard. Sometimes, right out of the blue we are smacked with a situation we never even saw coming. Sometimes, we are left feeling not like ourselves at all and we get tired. It is easy at these times to become a victim. But it is those people who can take these times to learn something about themselves – and who become better people as a result – those are the sexy people. Those are the people I want to be around.
I looked up the word resilient in the dictionary and found three definitions:
1. springing back;
2. returning to the original form or position after being bent, compressed, or stretched; and
3. recovering readily from adversity, or the like; buoyant.
The last definition is my favorite. I never thought about being resilient as being buoyant. But the idea of being able to float on top of the adversity in our lives is a really beautiful image to me. Floating on it does not deny its existence. Instead, challenges become like an ocean under the boat of our lives. We can learn to navigate them, to maneuver them strategically, and to appreciate the swells that constantly move us forward. We may not always move in the direction we intended and sometimes we get splashed right in the face with a mouth full of brine, but we keep floating. It is when we can savor the smell of salt air, appreciate the wind through our sails, and continue to chart great explorations, then we are living … thriving … I’d get on that boat any day. (If there happens to be a sexy first mate on board, even better!)
We’ve all heard the saying, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” But recently, I heard that saying amended to include the phrase: “But that hallway sure is a bitch.” This week – on two separate occasions – I was reminded of this phrase, complete with the addendum. For me, that last line is the most powerful part. It is the critical piece of maintaining hope, maybe even in preserving optimism. Without it, the transition from door to window seems instantaneous; as if, by some divine miracle the loss of one valued thing comes automatically with the opportunity for something new. Sometimes, the door just closes. It could be days, or weeks, or even years before the window opens for us. And I believe it is how we behave in that bitch of a hallway that defines us.
The two conversations I had this week that reminded me of the door/window phrase were not easy conversations. They were with two different people who experienced dramatic shifts in their lives caused by circumstances they never predicted. Both were completely uprooted, personally and professionally, when things stopped going “according to plan.” Their lives – and the people they are today – are completely different than they were not all that long ago. One of the people I spoke with survived the hallway and found her window. The other is still lingering in the hall, waiting for opportunity to once again shine through. It’s a test of time and perseverance that comes with the realization that life just doesn’t go according to plan; at least not the plan we’ve developed for ourselves. There are just too many variables to think that we can control everything. What we can control, however, is what happens in that hallway between the door that closed and the window that will open. Perhaps those who never find the window stopped looking because the hallway got too dark or too lonely. Maybe they just got stuck in that metaphorical place between having what we think we want and finding what we think we need. Perhaps they never realized that the hallway – if we use it correctly – is the area that makes us grateful for the opportunities we’ve had and gives us hope for what will come. It is the place where we can learn the most about ourselves.
As I write this, I am struck with one other realization. It comes to me just now. And while I normally like to process thoughts before I share them here, it is too powerful for me not to just keep typing. What if the metaphorical door and window represent our hearts and minds? What if we get so comfortable in our ideologies, our patterns, or routines that those things become like heavy wood doors? They keep out the things we don’t want to address and keep us safe inside an illusion of security. When the door is closed, we are naively safe inside walls that make us comfortable. Perhaps when a change in our circumstance pushes us outside a door that closes behind us, it is a push for us to open our hearts and our minds to realize something new. And maybe that’s why it is not another door that opens, but instead is a window. That window lets in light and fresh air. New ideas, new ways of thinking can shine through. Not only can we see out, but others can see in; and it is perhaps that ability to let others see in that frees us. Certainly, the window represents a more reciprocal relationship with the world.
If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I am all about building relationships, about communication and learning, about finding strength to accept who I am so that I can share it with others. Perhaps we shouldn’t look at life as a series of doors to open at all. Instead, maybe we should be looking at our hearts and minds as windows – wide open windows that let in new ideas, welcome new possibilities, and allow us to push joy back out into the world.
(Ending note: as I was looking for a photo to use with this blog, I came across a fellow blogger whose sentiments related not only to this blog, but to ones I’ve written about my struggle with infertility. To find the blog was a window opening right before me! Life is so funny sometimes and sometimes we get just what we need at the moment we least expect. Anyway, because her sentiments echo what I’ve just written about, I share the link: http://juststoptryinganditwillhappen.com/2012/10/12/closed-doors-open-windows-and-the-hallways-in-between/)
I was recently having a conversation with a close friend. It was one of those conversations that began as a simple shared observation and soon evolved into one of those experiences that shapes your view. It became a very deep and difficult conversation about life circumstances, predicament, and the possibility for change. As we talked, my friend referenced the Serenity Prayer; specifically the line that says, “accept the things I cannot change.”
I don’t know about you, but the more I try to control, the more OUT of control I feel. I just become a ball of nervous energy, questioning what and how to do something to influence another person or situation. I’m working on accepting that some things will just happen, despite any effort to prevent them; that some people will make decisions or choose paths I will not like. In the meantime, I just do the best I personally can. Instead of being a control freak, I’m more of a control freak in recovery these days.
But to truly pray the Serenity Prayer, one must also acknowledge that there are things that can be changed. It just takes courage to do it. The movement from one place – maybe somewhere familiar or safe – to another is not an easy one to make. As creatures of habit, we continually return to what we know. Sometimes, that is a place of discomfort or sadness or frustration. Sometimes, it is the easy place to be, or the one that keeps us financially stable or under the radar. Sometimes it is not that a situation can’t be changed; it is more that we lack the courage to make change happen. There is risk involved.
What’s interesting about the Serenity Prayer is that it was written by an anti-Nazi theologian during the height of Hitler’s regime. Talk about a time of risk! Reinhold Niebuhr was a first-generation German-American who wrote the prayer to capture the ethical predicament faced by him and his fellow Germans who emigrated to the United States, free from persecution, but powerless to help their friends and fellow countrymen who remained in Germany. They were forced to accept the true evil at play in the world while others in Germany sought for the courage they needed to make a difference against the Nazi regime. Today, the Serenity Prayer has become the staple for AA and other self-help programs.
Writer Susan Cheever, in “The Secret History of the Serenity Prayer,” wrote “It’s rare for us to be able to see and touch evil in our daily lives. We sometimes recognize such moments as a result of other people’s behavior—and our own complicity or silence. There are times when human beings—individuals, families, even entire societies—are possessed by powers that seem to contradict everything we think of as human. Occasionally these times are so disorienting that the victims can often seem stranger and crazier than the perpetrators and bystanders. That is what it was like to live in Germany under Nazism, and, on a much smaller scale, that’s often what it’s like to live in an alcoholic household. Action seems necessary, but confusion, danger or powerlessness render action seemingly impossible.”
All of that said and history considered, the true power in the Serenity Prayer for me lies in the phrase, “and the wisdom to know the difference.” Many of us find ourselves in situations that make us unhappy or challenge us in some way. Sadly, these situations sometimes threaten our well-being. But not always are they situations that cannot be changed. Very often, in fact, the change doesn’t need to happen to something or someone else. Instead, it is one we must make within ourselves.
And so I’m left thinking about the “wisdom to know the difference.” Are the places in my life that cause me frustration really ones that cannot be changed? And what about the things I can change? Do I have the courage? I am left with one impression: that true serenity comes not in focusing on the things we can’t control, but in focusing on the one thing we can master: ourselves. Seems to me that the rest (with the help of God) will all fall in line in good time.
In the book of Jeremiah, we are asked, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” Modern day interpretation of the question leaves us with the more widely known phrase: “A leopard can never change his spots.” And perhaps the implied question is the same: Can we, in fact, change who we fundamentally are?
This week, as I listened to the Passion of Christ being read aloud in church, I wept. I was overwhelmed by humanity’s cowardice; by the ease in which we follow the popular opinion; by the power of our fear and the intensity of our anger; and by the limits of our closed-mindedness. I reflected on those same qualities in myself. And now, in light of the passage from Jeremiah, I am led to question the spots I bear on my own coat.
This reflection was also strengthened by an interaction I had with another leopard. His spots are well known to me. He’s been showing them for years. And despite my naïve hope that his spotted coat will someday turn into a more majestic demonstration of character, that remains to be seen.
I don’t think it’s true that people can’t change. In fact, I think they change all the time. But I do think it is a choice. And that choice – or free will – is a gift to us from God. To say, “This is just who I am,” is a cop out. Only when we abandon the excuses we make for our spots can we make new discoveries about what lies within us.
Changing and staying the same are choices. As the season of Lent comes to a close, I am looking at my spots. While they make me human, I also know that God will help me to change them. I just have to choose.