Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
When I got divorced almost five years ago, I moved back to Indianapolis for the third time in my adult life. I was NOT happy about it at the time; but, it seemed like the practical, expedient thing to do. I needed an affordable place to live, to go back to school, and to restart my career that had laid mostly dormant for the previous ten years. I was living just south of Boston at the time and felt completely at home in New England. Moving back to the Midwest – after living in Colorado, and Upstate New York, and Massachusetts -seemed dreadful. That time in my life felt like a huge, overwhelming death: death of my family, death of living in a place that spoke to my soul, death of the lifestyle that I was grown accustomed to living, death of the belief that I might be one of the few people that made it through life without being scathed by divorce.
It was death all mixed with the tiny glimmer of hope that there would be a resurrection on the other side that might possibly lead to a more abundant life than what I was currently enduring.
I was grumpy for the first year to year and a half that I was back in the Indy, wishing I could be so many other places in the country besides Indiana. I was convinced that, coming back to Indianapolis as an entirely different person than who I was when I had left it it five years before, that I would never find my people, or things, that I loved. It would be a matter of biding my time until my youngest graduated from high school and I could escape back to some much more interesting state or country.
Now, five years later, I feel so completely different about my situation than when I arrived. It almost feels like a lifetime ago that I left Boston, and where I once felt a tremendous loss, I now see that I not only brought with me all that was real and enduring from my time there, but I also gained, since then, so much more than I could have ever imagined. Gift after gift has come my way: some packaged in what first looked like loss, others in metaphorical boxes of free, unsolicited, undeserved joy. My time in Indiana over these last several years has helped to change my overall perspective on everything, and everyone, that comes into my life. I used to separate them into sheep and goats, good and bad, things I welcomed and things I would rather send on their way. Now, finally, in the fourth decade of my life, I am learning to welcome it all….the people, the circumstances, everything…that comes into my life. (My therapist still has to remind me weekly to let go of my rules-based approach to life, and to stop worrying about right and wrong all the time. It’s taking some time to undo these deeply ingrained patterns in me, but it’s gradually happening). Most of all, I have learned to welcome the people, because I have learned this one great lesson, even if I forget it from time to time…..everyone…EVERYONE… you encounter in life brings you a gift.
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post called The Gifts of Microrelationship. In it I talked about how I was discovering that relationships, of any kind, don’t have to last forever, or even be that long, to still be very meaningful and life changing. Just because a relationship ends, or doesn’t evolve to the depth you might have hoped for, doesn’t mean that it didn’t matter. In the post I remembered some of the people who had slipped in and out of my life very quickly, but during their brief stay they had encouraged me or in some way influenced me to change my own way of doing things….or to open my mind just a little more….or to reconsider something. I still look back on these people as major game changers in my life, and since the time of writing that post I have added so many more people to the list. Many of these people are no longer in my life, they may have even forgotten about me, but I remember, and am grateful, for what they gave to me.
-the person who basically told me to stop goofing around and start taking my writing seriously, and be willing to risk putting myself out there
-the multiple people who influenced me to try to run a little further than I thought I ever could
-those coworkers so long ago who developed in me a love for road biking, when we would hit the road in 100 degree weather after the workday was over
-person after person who introduced me to their brand of art, or music, or writing and in so doing, broadened my own appreciation of how we each express ourselves and our experiences in the world
-specific people who engaged with me in conversations about science, and philosophy, and spirituality that helped me reframe a particular perspective or validated my own journey toward understanding and wisdom
-the handful of people who made me realize that maybe there is a little bit of poet residing in me, when i used to think I was too dull and bland to adequately paint with words
-the people who helped me find my love of music and playing piano again, after years of forced compliance had ripped the joy away
-the ones who have been showing the many different ways that relationships can exist and grow, and there is no one right way to do any of it
-the ones who told me that I had found my path, and my calling…that I was moving in the right direction
And so many more…too many to be listed here.
For someone like me, who attaches quickly and strongly to certain people I meet, the ending of relationships, or relationships that fizzle out quickly, or relationships that just never take off, feels horribly painful to me.
It’s not so much a “Man, I feel sad about that”, but, in all honesty, it feels like tangible pain…a real, substantial loss. I recognize that alot of this is probably melodramatic hyperbole resulting from my tendency toward anxious and disorganized attachments stemming from childhood, but it also results because I take people…and their stories….and what they bring to the world… very, very seriously. When I decide that I’ve found one of my people, I’m ALL in…and losing that, for whatever reason, feels like another death.
I always used to think that short relationships meant they had failed. Like, if you couldn’t sustain them for a long period of time, then their meaning was lost….they didn’t offer anything enduring. And most of the time I thought that when relationships ended, it was my fault or that I wasn’t compelling, or attractive or witty (insert whatever adjective here) enough to stay in a relationship with. There was something inherently broken about me that ran people off. Maybe I was too much for them, maybe I wasn’t enough. I was good enough until a better alternative showed up.
I still struggle with the voices that shout these things at me sometimes, but most of the time I understand that not every relationship in life is meant to be intense and “forever”. Every encounter with a person, every relationship…has a purpose. I’m not really trying to fall into the the “everything happens for a reason” sentiment, but I believe enough in the benevolence of the universe that Life brings us situations and people that will grow us, stretch us, and wake us up. But they don’t each have the same kind of purpose…either in timeframe or depth of substance.
I think one of the great lessons of life is to learn to not ascribe to relationships and people what WE think the purpose is. When we do that, we attach too strongly, can often become manipulative of the relationship, and then suffer when the relationship ends or evolves into something we weren’t expecting. The goal is to catch and release, touch but not grasp….to welcome what comes and stays but always let it be free to leave. I still suck at this on the regular, but at least these days I’m aware of it when I’m doing it and can try to work through my angst in healthier ways.
One of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned is that the gifts that are brought to us by people don’t always come in packages or timeframes that we welcome. In fact, alot of the time it is only through hindsight that we can recognize the gift that someone gave us, and that what felt terrible or cruel at the time was something that would eventually grow our pain cave or teach us to be brave or save us from going down a path that would never have been good for us or felt the truest for us.
Sometimes to be able to see the gift that we have been handed, we have to work through a crap ton of trauma, anger, grief, and sadness. I also think that being able to get the value out of whatever happened to us because of someone is based on our perspective and ability to reframe events that have happened in our lives. If I didn’t have the supportive, wise friends that I do, and if I hadn’t gone to alot of therapy, I’m pretty sure I’d still be absolutely stuck in certain memories and places of the past. But in reframing and through what I call sacred imagination (where I intentionally try to ponder how the Universe might be working things for my good), I can get to the place where even the worst thing that ever happened to me can be accepted as a gift…not in a flippant or trite way, not through a Pollyanna mindset…but acceptance that comes after working with the pain, affirming that what was done was wrong and not OK, but then refusing to remain a victim or allow that pain to be in vain.
So, honestly, when I look at things from this vantage point, I can begin to see that everything that comes my way in life is a gift. Every single thing that happens to us can grow us, reveal harmful patterns in our lives, broaden our minds, teach us how to empathize with and have compassion on others, delight us, etc. It just goes back to the quote from Richard Rohr that I have tattooed on my arm: Everything belongs. Meaning, that life doesn’t waste anything; everything, even the wicked hard, or scary, or terrible things, can be incorporated to growing your heart and keeping you open. And so in that way, everything is a gift….or, has the potential to be a gift in the future. I can’t help but think about a verse in Genesis that says “what you meant for evil, God meant for good.” However you feel about the Bible or religion, I think the point here is that life can work what seems unworkable….it can transform evil into good…it can somehow help us keep moving forward in the chess game even when it feels like all we see is Checkmate.
There are certain things that I struggle to convince myself are gifts. My crazy eye movements because of congential nystagmus doesn’t feel like a gift. Some relationships I’m in that are difficult and probably require necessary endings don’t feel like gifts. These constant quirks or struggles of mine that I still can’t seem to resolve after 30 years and alot of desperatel hard work, don’t feel like gifts. But, when I look back over the length of my life, I can’t help but spot gift after gift after gift that sprang up from the good things AND the bad things, the people who loved me AND the people who hurt me. And so, because of these, I have the hope that life will continue to transform these things and people I struggle with, and that what is painful and feels dead right now will one day bloom.