I respect my mother for a lot of reasons, but I have always been most proud of the fact that after fifteen years of a tumultuous marriage, she packed up her five children and moved on. I love my dad and we got along a lot better than she and I did when I was a teenager, but I never regretted the divorce. And I am convinced that I wouldn’t have had any of the experiences the last ten years have brought me had they stayed together, so I am grateful for her decision.
But what I loved the most about her decision is the lesson it taught me. By leaving, my mother taught me that it is never too late to make a change and that you don’t have to stay in a situation just because you started there. I took that lesson to heart and applied it to all aspects of my life. I’m all about the leaving. I don’t feel tied to anyone. Parents, siblings, friends – any tie that is toxic can and will be cut out.
I was always proud of this trait. I feel strong when I purge. I have what T.D. Jakes calls the gift of goodbye. There are people who are stay in a bad situation because they believe that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. I rebuke this mentality. I will leave and move on to the next situation. The new choice might also be the devil, but there is a chance that I may find an angel and I’m not going to knowingly stay in hell just because I’ve memorized the devil’s blueprint. No, absolutely not. I thrive on goodbye anthems and am always ready to “throw that middle finger up and let that index finger follow.”
I have run away from a lot of people and things over the past ten years and for the most part, I have no regrets. My treks have taught me that there are new beginnings everywhere and that I always have a choice – I am nobody’s victim. I have learned to cherish the person I am because the relationship I have with myself (outside of the one I have with God) has been the one constant. I know that if I have myself, I will always be ok and that’s a beautiful thing.
But, lately I have been noticing that I live at an extreme, the opposite extreme of the “better the devil you know” camp. At the first sign of trouble, I run. I haven’t learned how to distinguish irreparable brokenness from the blemishes and stains that mar every person.
I have this one friend whose parents remind me a lot of my own. My friend and I keep finding more similarities in our childhoods. Her parents’ marriage and my parents’ marriage are similar, but also have very marked differences, one being that her parents stayed together. Being in their home is interesting because I know so much of their family drama and yet when I see the family interact, I think, there is love here and that is beautiful.
This experience jars me because I had long ago internalized the idea that when someone hurts you, happiness can only be achieved by cutting the tie, but now I wonder sometimes if leaving isn’t always the answer. I code staying as weakness, but as I watch my friend’s mother live and love, I have to face her truth and see that she is a strong woman and while her relationship has not been without its share of pain, she knows love and joy.
I’ve been thinking that I need to shift towards the center and Guatemala has proven to be the perfect place to take this journey. I came down here last August with my same old modus-operandi: creating bonds, investing in relationships, and then come hard times, tossing matches over my shoulder and burning bridges. I don’t really care about killing relationships because deep down, I believe that they all die soon enough. Nothing gold can stay and I’m not interested in living in the ashes of what was once a beautiful thing.
To quote the wonderful Mr. Butler from Gone with the Wind:
“Scarlett, I was never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together and tell myself that the mended whole was as good as new. What is broken is broken — and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken places as long as I lived. Perhaps, if I were younger —” he sighed. “But I’m too old to believe in such sentimentalities as clean slates and starting all over. I’m too old to shoulder the burden of constant lies that go with living in polite disillusionment. I couldn’t live with you and lie to you and I certainly couldn’t lie to myself.”
My fear is that staying after problems begin to show makes me an enabler or willfully blind. When I see people who are unrepentantly selfish and self-involved, I’m always convinced that their personality is a direct result of having people in their lives that are always ready to accept them, no matter what, and if they didn’t have that contingent of enablers, they’d probably be better human beings. I believe in unconditional love from a theoretical perspective, but in practice, it looks like enabling and insanity: doing the same thing and expecting different results.
And then there is the matter of turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the truth. There are those I know who persevere through the struggles in their relationships by pretending the struggles don’t exist. Everyone has the friends who disappear when their lives are in turmoil or who start posting excessively on FB, trying to paint a picture of their lives that is quite the opposite of their reality. I have a friend who lies about her life so much that I have learned how to decode the stories and it’s always a delight when the truth slips out later and I can compare it to my interpretation of the lies.
I hate that crap. I don’t ever want to lie about my life to others and definitely not to myself. Growing up under the mantra of “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public,” I spent a lot of time putting on shows for other people when what I needed was to share what was going on in my home and in my heart. I would sing Christina Aguilera’s, “Refection,” under my breath all of the time and dream about a day when I wouldn’t have to conceal what I thought or what I was feeling. I’m grown now and I refuse to perform for others. I choose to live the truth every day, no matter how painful or uncomfortable. Unfortunately, living my truth has looked more like chopping out anything or anyone who doesn’t fit my view of what the world should be.
Freshman year of college, my best friend was chastising me for my brusque attitude towards people. She said that I have these ideas of what friends should be and I try to force them on people like outfits and when they don’t fit them exactly as I want them to, I am ready to cut them out, but just because they don’t fit my ideals doesn’t mean they aren’t good friends.
Those words have come back to me often over the years, especially now. My life in Guatemala is interesting because I work in a small and insulated community. The microcosmic nature of my job makes the staff a lot more intimate than the average workplace. The cracks in people’s personalities started showing up immediately and got deeper as the year ran on. By the end, all I could see were the imperfections. That one is arrogant and catty. This one over here is hypocritical and vapid. Ugh, I want out. I can’t thrive here. Working there was such a test of my patience and I already knew I was in short supply of that. In Steve Chapman’s book, Love as a Way of Life, he defines patience as accepting that people are not machines. They will not do things how and when you want them to. I have a real low tolerance for people not behaving the way I think they should and every time I turned around, someone at work was tap dancing all over my impatience triggers.
I was so ready to leave, but every time an opportunity to jump ship approached, I felt this deep tug in my chest telling me to stay. By April, I was convinced that I had to stay. I had turned down some great opportunities, so I was committed to another year. Still, the last day of school found me in the fetal position of the media lab, angrily asking myself why I was still here and why I was coming back. I remember screaming in my head, “Andrea, you’re better than this! Get out of here!”
But I came back and I’ve started picking up the pieces of my burned bridges. Right now, I’m trying to pull the seams back together and reinforce them with a stronger thread. There is no danger of false pretenses because too much has transpired. The reality is right in front of us and the only way to move on is to clean up the debris and rebuild.
Through this process I am learning that staying doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring the cracks. Maybe it’s about not allowing the cracks to paint the whole picture and finding the beauty in the imperfections and defects that make up every person and every relationship. We ain’t picture perfect, but we worth the picture still.
I’m also learning a lot about grace and humility. When I had to go to a friend and atone for being a jerk, the friend smiled and welcomed me back with open arms. I know that had the shoe been on the other foot, the reconciliation would not have been so smooth. As I acknowledge the way I have been shown grace when I am being the worst, I am better able to extend it to others.
I’m a little nervous about this upcoming year. It’s going to be more challenging because I have lost my right to complain to my friends back home. They don’t want to hear it because this was supposed to only last for one year and I knew what I was getting myself into. Complaining was my security blanket and I don’t have that anymore, so I have a bit of anxiety. But, I’m also excited. I don’t really stay beyond the honeymoon period, so this will be a new experience for me.
What does love look like when it’s not blind? What trust is possible when you walk eyes wide open into a commitment that has disappointed you in the past? What kind of joy emerges from the ashes of misery? I’m curious to see how this coming year will answer those questions.