After participating in the Ultimate Blog Challenge during the month of April, I decided to take a break for a couple of weeks from writing here. A lot happened during April that made me reevaluate some things in my life, and to do some hard pondering about where I’ve been and where I’m going.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories that we tell, both ourselves and the world at large. Originally I wasn’t going to write this post because I wasn’t sure how far out on the honesty and vulnerability limb I wanted to go, but then I paused and thought, well, why not? I’ve already gone out far beyond my comfort zone in writing about finding and creating joy in my life, publicly admitting that I have difficult moments and that sometimes life is just hard or sad.
We all tell stories, whether they are about our childhoods, about the “glory days” of high school or how we couldn’t wait to get out because we were outcasts and perceived ourselves as friendless. We tell stories about our failed romances and marriages, about our careers and how we made our way up the ladder. Perhaps we made a mid-career shift, and we tell stories about how we got there. We tell stories about almost everything.
Why do we tell stories? It’s how we relate to one another. In those narratives we reveal how we want the world to see us. We tell ourselves stories because it’s easier than facing ourselves in the mirror and seeing uncomfortable truths. The more often we tell those stories, the easier it is to believe them, and before too long, our stories become our truths.
A friend once opined that there are three sides to every story: his side, her side, and the truth. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that every situation in life can be broken down in such stark terms, I do believe there is an essential truth in that theory. Each person involved in a situation has their “truth,” while an objective observer would report a completely different truth. We all filter “the truth” through our biases, our fears, our excitement, our anger, our desires. We unconsciously make ourselves braver, stronger, better, more adventurous, more or less a victim … there are infinite ways in which we change ourselves through our tales.
My own stories have hidden from me the myriad paths I’ve taken in my life. After my divorce twelve years ago, I found myself stymied and unable to move on to the next chapter because I blamed my ex-husband entirely for the demise of our marriage. Until I accepted that I bore some responsibility for the fact that things ended, I was unable to find peace and joy.
When we had been living together for a while, I knew that he wasn’t ready for marriage, so I applied for and got a job in another city, telling him I was moving out and ending the relationship because we were in different places. When he surprised me at our “goodbye dinner” with a diamond ring, instead of sticking to my guns and moving on, I accepted his proposal and stayed.
Although my participation in the story in no way excuses his behavior that ultimately led me to leave the marriage, it wasn’t until I accepted my part in the drama that I was able to forgive him and move on. Looking hard at my reflection, while uncomfortable at first, made me see some things I hadn’t noticed previously, things I didn’t necessarily like, but that I needed to see in order to understand and accept myself.
Some time ago I asked a question on my Facebook page; I asked people to tell me their stories. At the same time, I asked my friends and family to tell me theirs. I got some doozies, some funny, some not so much. The thing they all had in common, though, was that they taught something.
One woman’s husband blew up their lengthy marriage in a spectacular fashion, telling her that he had never been truly happy with her, despite their long life together and the family they had created. He quickly moved on, leaving her floundering in her grief and feelings of betrayal. She suffered a nervous breakdown and fled, leaving her family and friends behind. It took many years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for their divorce to be finalized. Through those years, she rebuilt herself and her life, changing her story as she went. In the initial aftermath of the divorce, she painted herself as the victim of a bastard husband; later, she presented herself as the instigator of the divorce, claiming she was the unhappy party.
According to her now, neither portrayal was really accurate. Years have passed, and she admits that until she accepted the truth as being somewhere in the middle of victim and instigator, she was unable to move on. Until she accepted that as a participant in her marriage she bore some responsibility for the way the relationship had played out over the years, she wasn’t able to stop being angry and find her own happiness. She remained bitter and mired in that anger, directing it at everyone around her, wreaking havoc on many of the same people who had supported and loved her through what she deems her difficult years. Those relationships are gone forever now, and it pains her to accept that the blame for their demise rests squarely on her shoulders.
I heard from a man who was so afraid of his own vulnerabilities that he pushed away with inappropriate and dangerous behavior the woman he calls the love of his life. After their relationship had ended, he moved on to engage in the same behavior with several other women, never able to find peace and a lasting relationship until he accepted his role in the way those relationships played out and ended. He spent years blaming the women in his life for being the problem and never looked at himself, never saw that when he felt vulnerable he drank and became abusive. Until he recognized that and got busy understanding it, he was not able to change the behavior for which he now feels deeply ashamed.
Another woman told me she fell in love with her older, married boss. She believed him when he said that he loved her, that he wife didn’t understand him, that he was going to leave her when the kids were old enough. Ultimately the relationship ended with a phenomenal betrayal by him of her trust, but now she wonders who she was to think that any relationship built on such dishonesty could ever survive, could ever end any way but how it did. For years, she told herself that she was his victim, but now she understands that she has to own the role she played. Afraid that her own capabilities were not enough, she now believes that she hitched her hopes to his wagon. However, when she achieved professional success on her own merits, when she no longer needed that part of their relationship and pushed him away, his actions were the result.
It’s hard to look in the mirror and stare at ourselves. The first thing we see is the imperfections, and that tends to make us turn away. The braver and more honest thing, however, is to keep staring, through the blurry vision, until our eyes focus again and we start to see things we never noticed. It is only then that we can start to examine those little imperfections that can often hold us back from finding real happiness and joy in our lives. The courageous thing is to admit the truth we don’t want to see. The audacious thing is to admit who and what actually went into getting us to our present, and honor those people and things by so admitting.
One thing I have learned from this process: forgiveness is not forgetting. It is possible to forgive someone for the way they treated you without forgetting. Forgiveness allows you to move beyond how someone treated you, how they wronged you. It doesn’t allow you to fall victim to that person again, it simply allows you to let go of the anger and the pain, roll it up in the sheet of parchment on which you write your life story, and move past them onto the next wonderful thing in your life.
We are where we’ve been, and we all tell stories.