There is little as frightening and unsettling as having the ground pulled out from under your feet. While the reality of that is predominantly impossible, save earthquakes, the stomach-churning, heart-thumping feeling us Californians receive when the ground shakes is an apt analogy to the emotional distress we face at times of heartbreak, disaster and loss. An earthquake, however, lasts only a few seconds; healing the heart takes much, much longer.
Upon receiving a call in late July from my wife of nine months saying our marriage was ending, the ensuing reading, reflection, crying and emptiness forced me to think hard about the appropriate way to move forward. Joseph Campbell’s succinct quote—“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us”—has proved especially meaningful. This does not imply that the entire ordeal was ‘destined’ to happen, however. The life waiting is the one we construct from the shattered pieces of our former selves. Choosing a path of healing is part of that process. Following are steps I have found most beneficial among the myriad forms of kind-hearted advice from the good friends and resources I have turned to, and can be applied to any level of relationship you may be engaged in.
1. Communicate...In Person
Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment was recently featured on Radiolab’s The Bad Show. In a very brief nutshell, people were asked to shock others in a separate room at the bidding of a moderator. The experiment showed that most people kept on shocking, even after the person at the receiving end screamed in pain and even stopped responding, even though in reality they weren’t actually being shocked. The experiment supposedly proved a sort of moral failure in human genetics. Subsequent (and less well-known) experiments have shown, however, that when that person is in the same room, the shockers have a harder time hitting the button. And when forced to actually touch the person in order to deliver the shock, most shied away, even when the moderator taunted them. This supports the notion that empathy truly manifests when we are forced to look into one another’s eyes.
Since receiving my phone call, I’ve talked to people who have been divorced via Skype, email and lawyer’s letters while traveling on business. The importance of personal communication cannot be overstated, at any point in any relationship. This is in part due to mirror neurons, which fire both when we the individual acts, as well as when someone else we’re watching acts—it has been argued, rightly I believe, that mirror neurons are the neural basis for empathy. One reason Americans are disgusted by military drone strikes is because it takes all the humanity out of something—war—which has little humanity to begin with. Whatever stage of a relationship you might be in, communicate as much as possible in the flesh. It’s ridiculous that this even needs to be mentioned, but given how much time we spend typing on tiny keyboards, it’s something we seem to have forgotten.
2. Don’t (Always) Stay Super Active
Upon learning of my situation, numerous friends rushed to my side with invitations to go out, talk and simply leave my apartment for a walk. I deeply appreciated every one of them. Yet we need time for reflection and quiet. It’s too easy to revert to old or bad habits, which only provides a false sense of comfort. Thinking you’re going to bounce right back does not honor the grieving process, which is a very real and powerful process all humans experience one or many times in life. Looking back, I can recall the ways I’ve avoided grieving in the past, thinking I was arming myself with iron chains. That is not the path of warriorship, however; it leads to bitterness, regret and anger. I have been able to keep busy, between various jobs and hanging with friends, but I make sure to give myself time every day for meditation and remembrance, which can be explained by...
3. The In-Between Space
In her books, Pema Chodron talks about the ‘in-between space,’ essentially the grey area of limbo that occurs when the ground beneath us slips away. It’s a dark place we avoid at all costs. I was prepared to run from it before reading Chodron’s work. She believes the most powerful space to inhabit happens when our life falls apart and we have no idea what is coming next. It teaches us impermanence; more importantly, it opens our hearts and teaches us to be kinder. It is sorrow and grief that unites humanity, not joy and exaltation. Those states are important, but the ways in which we celebrate are much more diverse than the ways in which we grieve. Grieving always has to do with loss, whether by death or divorce. Meditating in that space has been my strongest ally these last six weeks. The idea is to disassociate the feeling with the event that caused it. By stripping the emotion of context and sitting with the feeling itself, you recognize that it too is fleeting. Honor what is lost but understand there is nothing to hold onto—a challenging yet liberating ideal to strive towards. The only way to accomplish it is to dive straight into the source of the pain, the emotion itself.
4. Love Again...Later
This sort of training softens us and, hopefully, opens us up again for love...later. I’ve watched friends take unrealistic routes to healing, which often involves falling in love immediately after a break-up. It’s unfair to yourself and your new partner to attempt to replace your previous relationship with visions of a future one. This habit can easily be witnessed in two well-meaning but disastrous statements: that the divorce was ‘meant to happen’ and that you will ‘be in a much better place.’ To fool yourself into thinking that the arc of a long relationship was, by design, supposed to end abruptly does not honor the beauty of the relationship itself; it is, essentially, a selfish way to perceive what was happened. Likewise, musing over a brighter future does nothing to stay in the in-between space. This is not to say we shouldn’t be positive and keep an open mind. But wounds can always be seen by the scars they leave. The question is: Do we honor the scar as something that made us stronger and more alive, or do we hide and cover it up at every opportunity? If your answer is the first, you must allow the wound to heal without rushing the process. We all know what happens when we pick a scab and the blood starts to flow again—it takes that much longer to heal.
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