I’ve been thinking a lot lately about blame, and how easy it is to slip into… and how un-useful it is. I mean, I guess there are times when you need to assign blame, i.e. in the case of a car accident. Determination of which insurance needs to pay for the damage to both vehicles should rightly be dictated by who was acting negligently, right?
But in the case of so many situations, we rush to assign blame when there is really no purpose and when only harm is done by doing so. Divorce is ripe for this pitfall. When people hear about a couple that is splitting up, isn’t the first questions out of their mouth: What happened? Was there an affair? We want to get the facts so that we know which side to land on and whom to support. Otherwise, the muddiness of the crash-and-burn is too chaotic for our brains and our hearts to deal with. We have a need to make sense of things, to place things into neat boxes. “He was the wronged party because she bailed after 15 years.”
To the extent that we do this when other people split up, we do it a hundred times more when it’s our own breakup. The ground shakes beneath us as the life we have created with our spouse starts to crumble, and we’re afraid. More afraid than we’ve ever been in our whole lives, probably. The fear has to do with financial instability (how will I pay the mortgage this month, or next?) and insecurity about changing relationships with the kids (will my ex turn the kids against me?). But the fear runs much deeper than this.
I’m reading a book right now, called The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer, in which he talks about the fear that teachers unconsciously face when they walk into a classroom of young folks. The fear has to do with feeling exposed, and being revealed as a fraud, similar to the Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls the curtain away. Teachers protect themselves by portraying themselves as “experts” as a way of mitigating their fear, but what this ends up doing is building an impenetrable wall between them and their students – a wall which cuts off curiosity and excitement for learning and intrinsic motivation.
True communion with others, on the other hand – whether in a classroom, in a long-term relationship, or even with a stranger on a bus – requires that we expose ourselves. That we show our vulnerabilities. That we admit to not having all the answers.
Have you ever met someone who was so incredibly refreshing because of their guilelessness? I have an image of a young woman I knew in college who still serves as my role model for how I want to interact with the world. At the time she was carefree, laughed easily at herself and the world around her, and sought adventure as if there were no other way. Her approach to life scared the living daylights out of me, since I was about as diametrically opposite to her as could be, but I was also enthralled. I was attracted to her attitude and her stories of adventure, and although I didn’t admit it consciously to myself at the time, I know now that I longed to be like her.
I was serious and studious and responsible. People knew they could “count on me.” I felt dull and lifeless, like a worn old kitchen utensil, and I longed to shine like my friend. But I didn’t believe I had it in me, and I was also afraid to throw off the rules that bound me in. These rules kept me safe, and they kept others safe, and safety, ultimately, was more important to me than exploration.
I sacrificed so much by clinging to the safety of the rules. I rarely laughed, I didn’t talk to people who weren’t in my inner circle of friends, and worst of all, I thought I had the answers.
What I know now is that having the answers is the best way to kill a genuine human connection. As soon as I’m sure about the motives of another, or I want to tell them “the way it is,” I leave no room for the humanity of that Other to be revealed to me in trust.
My divorce forced me to question all my rules and assumptions about myself, others, and the way the world should operate. I didn’t throw them all out, but what I did throw out was the conviction that I had held so dearly and for so long that if I just kept everything tied up neatly then things wouldn’t fall apart. Relationships would remain steady, my loved ones would be safe from harm, and I could count on a stable future.
Of course, what I had to learn the hard way is that 1) No one can hold things together, no matter how hard they try, 2) The more you try to hold things together, the more they crumble from within, and 3) When things fall apart, they’re actually okay despite your greatest fears.
These three realizations, recognized over the long period of my divorce process, have freed me in many ways. I am free of the notion that I can tell another person what to do or how to be (and I can’t even think it); I am free of the certainty that if I “figure it out” and “make the right decision” then there will be no heartache; I am free of the idea that there are even answers to most of life’s baffling questions; and I am free to laugh uproariously at myself, others, and the wonderful complexity of the world around me. I don’t always laugh – sometimes I weep from a place deep in my soul – but that’s the way I want it. I want to live in the highs and lows, knowing that closing myself off to any of it means closing off the connection to others.
So, bringing this back to blame and - since this blog is about divorce - blame during and after divorce, I am struck by how fear leads to years of bitterness between divorced folks, and how that bitterness negatively impacts the people who are at all connected to the divorced individuals. Talk to most people going through divorce, and they can give you a mile-long laundry list of how they have been wronged by their ex. I’ve heard some pretty compelling stories, and empathy naturally swells in my heart when I hear these tales, but I also think to myself and sometimes say out loud, “So how is it serving you to hold onto these stories?”
I’m not suggesting that we should turn a blind eye to situations where emotional or physical abuse is occurring, but once you have removed yourself from harm’s way, why not let go of the need to be justified? It might feel good in the moment to prove to someone or to yourself that you are the injured party, but that negative energy you’re inviting into your world by hanging on actually holds you back from embracing happiness that could be yours right now.
You could be laughing! You could be exploring. You could be meeting new and interesting people, and pursuing a path that you never allowed yourself to pursue before. I went to grad school (actually about to graduate from my second grad program in three years) and launched a new career for myself.
Mindfulness is the ability to remain open to the experience of reality as it’s occurring right now. It encompasses flexibility of thought and action, and it definitely requires the surrendering of the notion that you control what’s happening or that you have the answers. It leads to tremendous heartfelt joy, as well as gut-wrenching sorrow, but in the end it leaves open possibilities that are life-giving. And blame certainly cuts off the ability to be mindful.
One final thought for today. You know the college friend I talked about earlier? The one who was filled with life and adventure? Well, sadly, I ran into her about 10 years ago and was crushed to discover that she had become cynical and closed off to exploration. Life had dealt her some hard blows, and she showed scars from her experiences. I haven’t seen her since that time, so maybe she has been able to regain some of her joy of life. But the good news for me is this: I don’t need to depend on her to show me an adventurous spirit. I have come to embrace that for myself, and I’m light years closer to the person I want to be than I was in college, and I don’t ever have to go back!