LEAVING PEOPLE BEHIND
"If someone has their foot on your neck, neither of you can go to the prom."
We do it all the time, even the kindest among us—we leave people behind. We leave spouses behind, if only for a rage-filled moment as we feed on our righteousness and their utter folly. We leave spouses behind altogether as we head for the divorce court with a mixture of guilt, relief, shame, pride, sadness and hope. We leave neighbors behind as we move to the opposite Coast, with faint promises to keep up. We lose friends over the summer as we move up a grade or go to a new school. We drop some friends because we can't take them anymore and we say goodbye to other friends because, well, "You can't keep up with everyone."
Leaving people behind--it is life's most frequent road taken, road not taken. Sometimes we leave people behind in a happenstance sort of way. We drift away from them by not calling, not writing, not visiting and the relationship is severed not with a radical, deliberate conscious on/off switch, but more with a dimmer switch that gently darkens our connection until it is no more. This happenstance way lulls our guilt and makes us seem of kinder ilk. Sometimes there is a conscious decision to get someone out of our life.
I offer the following thoughts to provide a framework for conscious thinking about keeping people in our lives and leaving people behind. They do not offer a systematic answer to relationship difficulties, but offer a slant, a piece of truth, and an angle that may not have occurred to you.
- Say you grew up in the kind of home they write sensational books about. You were put down, made to feel guilty, neglected, and abused —or some combination thereof. Or let's say you were brought up in a religious home that leans way overboard in stressing patience and forgiveness and turn the other cheek. Or let's say life and genetics have shaped you to be soft, tender, vulnerable and sensitive. You will think that you are "too sensitive" and others are "not that bad." You will then not have the very thing that makes it easier to figure out who to leave behind in your life—a sense of your innocence, a sense of your own worth, and a clear, guilt-free vision when someone is doing you wrong.
It is far more important to figure out your worth than to figure out who to get rid of or who to leave behind. The former is the indispensable tool for the latter. We may want to get rid of someone when what we really need to deal with is our dismay at our own lives or how poorly we view ourselves. It is far harder to fix your own life or your half of a relationship than it is to simply dump someone because you are having a bad time of it.
We will ultimately leave some people behind when it becomes clear that having them in our lives gives us more pain than pleasure. It is that simple and that complex. What if keeping someone hurts us in a big way or in various small ways that add up to a big way? Most of us will reach the state where we "just can't take it anymore." And if we keep people in our lives who hurt us badly, it is usually because we are trapped or feel trapped—by lack of money, excessive guilt or shame, loyalty to children, habit, and fear's conviction that it cannot get any better.
- Think long term. Have you thought out the consequences of getting rid of or keeping someone in your life? What if the person you are thinking about is your spouse, your boss, a friend, your dreadfully acting-out teenager, or a lover whose heart is entwined with yours? What if your decision has global consequences for your life and hurts people who have been dear to your heart for many a moon? What if your decision hurts you? What will you feel tomorrow, next month, a year from now?
It hurts to hurt people, unless one is a sociopath. And yet you have to face that you are dealing with your one life, and maybe your one chance to be happy.
This back and forth thinking reflects the true staggering complexity of our decisions—a complexity that is not erased or solved by our clichés and our simple one-liners ("stay for the sake of the children", "you've got to do what makes you happy", "just let it go"). I understand also that it is very hard to think at all, let alone think long term, when we are consumed by the present moment and its attendant emotions.
- What if we are greedy, self-centered and never satisfied? What if we are all conned by our fantasies about "elsewhere?" What if we are all conned by the present very painful moment and forget the good times? What if we are all conned by the present very pleasant moment and forget the bad times?
- What if a know-it-all thinks he can figure out your life in a heartbeat? You have to be very careful who you listen to when it comes to people. Only listen to people who are seriously going to listen to your situation and to you. Only listen to people who will study the situation, who will give it time.
- If someone hurts us, a wall begins to build immediately that will lead to distance, resentment, bitterness, anger or passive-aggressiveness, shouting, ill-will and possible rupture of the relationship. We are not built to take abuse. We're built for heaven, not hell.
- If you routinely hurt people, you will get so used to it that you won't bat an eye at your behavior. If you routinely hurt people, chances are someone did it to you. Hurting people will eventually leave you hard, cold and alone. If you abuse people, you will eventually have to pay people to keep you company.
- If we regularly get hurt by people, we have to look in the mirror and see if we are doing anything that elicits the hurt. We might be, we might not be.
- The call to patience and forgiveness is a necessary reality for broken people. We are not machines, any one of us far from perfect people. But healthy patience and forgiveness is rooted in a context of justice, mutual growth, love and fair play. For example, the wedding vow of "for better, for worse" makes sense in its context of loving and cherishing each other. The vow doesn't make sense if your partner is going to forget the love and insist on making your life worse. Forgiveness implies repentance in healthy mutuality.
As a professional immersed in the worlds of spirituality and psychotherapy, I can say with absolute certainty that the religious culture of our day has made it easier for sadists (those who give pain) to get away with abuse and harder for those who receive pain to flee from horror. It seems that all we hear about is "turn the other check" and "forgive, forgive, forgive." It may be illuminating to hear other words of Jesus:
"Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector." (Matt. 18:15-17)
"Go and tell him his fault" is usually not mentioned in the religious clichés of our day, and the abused wife is usually not told that her husband is a "tax collector" (the biggest slur of Jesus' day). I believe that Jesus himself would endorse the following advice from David Schnarch, noted marriage therapist:
Folks often overlook their sadism because they are looking for the feeling "I
deliberately want to hurt you"; they overlook, "If you really love me, you will be patient forever." The obvious self-interest and "selfishness" mask the component of "It's OK with me if the person I love hurts because I don't want to deal with myself."
- It is regrettable that we all can't get along and that so many people lead disconnected and lonely lives. We are all social outcasts, in one way or another. There is always a group that doesn't like our kind, and vice-versa; and there is always an individual who doesn't care for us, and vice-versa. Sara Miles' book Take this Bread challenges us, as does most healthy spirituality, to stretch ourselves away from our stereotypes, our dismissive prejudices and our fearful, small-minded unloving ways. We all live in too small a circle and need her wisdom and experience:
"Baptism and the pantry would both carry me through fear into a richer, if untidier, life with a wider, more complicated humanity."
"The face of the stranger is God's face, and all people are one body: God's."
All this is stretching and loving, but the following is in this spiritual book too, and this is the other side, the necessary side, the not-said-enough truth that is a vital aspect of our thinking and our actions in relationship to people:
"One skanky guy, a hustler to his core, had started trying to con a retarded girl into giving him extra food, then twenty bucks, then a place to live. I'd gone over and asked, in my sweetheart religious voice, if we could talk. He sat down next to me, with a look of expectant piety on his face I was sure he'd practiced for years on church people.
"That girl is precious to me," I told him. "She is precious to all of us." My voice hardened. "So stay the fuck away from her," I said.
"His eyes had widened. "I can't believe you're accusing me—what are you saying?-how can you talk like that in a church?" he stammered.
"Don't ever fucking talk to her again," I said. "Stay away."
I once had a discussion with a divorce lawyer who handled a lot of cases where women were abused by their husbands and eventually left them for, hopefully, a better day.
I asked him if any of the women ever regretted their decision. He said a very quick and emphatic "No" and added, "In fact, I get Christmas cards every year from most of them thanking me for helping them get to a way better life."
The decision to leave people behind is a process where we can be helped by guidance and clear thinking. Sometimes that process is a quick and decisive "Stay away" and other times it is a slow process that involves growth and maturity and a movement of the soul. No one can decide for you what you will do with people because it's really about what you are going to do with yourself.
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