Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. –Normal Maclean
Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: we are willing help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them: we can love completely without complete understanding. –The Reverend Maclean in “A River Runs Through It”
There is a person in my life who I have tried to love for many years. She is a beautiful, creative, wonderful person who sees things differently from most of us, and try as I might, I have never been able to see through her eyes–or rather, even when I have been able to, what I have seen is not what she wants me to see–and so I have, over time, worn myself out trying to love her enough to heal her. I come by this sort of endeavor honestly, because I was raised by parents who were what is commonly called personality-disordered, which to my way of thinking means that they were unable to give or receive love. Of course, there are many more clinical definitions and qualifications for this particular problem with living, and as a psychologist, I know them; but that is the one I would say really describes it. For a child, new to the world and lacking in knowledge of human relationship, to be parented by such a person can be a very confusing and traumatic thing, and I would say that the worst part of it is that the child will tend to think that the way their parents are is the way people in general are, and unless there is something–or someone–to present a comparative picture of “normalcy,” it is a very difficult way to grow up. Of course, unless one lives at the ends of the earth in a completely unpopulated place, there are always people around who can show a child the difference, and I kept myself sane by reading books that taught me how to live–those wonderful classics that taught me about morality and humanity, The Wind in the Willows, Little Women, etc. . . . and I remember a few people who came and went in my life who showed me that things could be different. Yet I suppose I got in the habit of trying to emulate the Buddha and “rain on the just and the unjust,” and was poorly equipped for it for much of my life. Thus, I grew up a starved and codependent person, and was foolish enough about relationship that I married a man who had most of the same qualities my parents had, and went on to draw into my life many people who were the same, and I kept trying to rain on the desert, and it just didn’t work. By the time I reached my thirties, I was a very, very tired person indeed. It was during these years that this person I mention here came into my life.
There are various kinds of relationships, and some of them we can relinquish if we realize they are not getting us–or the other person–anywhere, and there are others that aren’t going to go away no matter what choices we make. You can draw your own conclusions about that one; the fact is that it is one of the latter, and I cannot say more about the person with whom I am in this relationship. Yet I tried and I tried and I tried, and in the trying, I turned myself into a person who kind of became a sitting duck for people like my parents and my first husband and this young woman. In fact, I became an excellent scapegoat . . . until I stopped.
Well, we do grow, right? My spiritual teacher found me and I found him when I was in my late teens, and through his willingness to take the fall(s) for me and his unwillingness to give up on me, along with numerous other relationships and a growing spiritual practice, I finally realized that I was tired of trying to rain on the desert, and I decided that I wanted relationships in my life that were reciprocal. I began to work with my tendency to draw miserable relationships into my life and I began to hold out for happy, loving ones.
It worked. I have a loving, happy marriage now, and a family I feel loved by, people who are able to receive love as well as give it.
Yet this person is still in my life, and I am at a crossroads concerning our relationship, being fully convinced that I have nothing to offer her that is of worth to her, yet still feeling bound to her. The situation is further complicated because now she has a child, and that child has become my friend and someone I care for deeply, and thus I am caught in two webs of meaning that I can neither understand nor fix. As to the person I speak of here, she is convinced that I must give her something, anything, everything . . . but she isn’t sure what that is that she wants, and as soon as she thinks she has it figured out, it . . . changes.
Is it ever alright to walk away from a relationship? Inayat Khan wrote a little poem on this topic:
Before one becomes sharp and the other blunt,
Before one is hot and the other cold,
Before one doubts and the other suspects,
Before one gives up his confidence and the other his trust,
It is time that they left one another.
Before one closes his eyes and the other his ears,
Before one turns his head and the other his back,
Before one talks and the other disputes,
Before one is in wrath and the other in rage,
It is time that they left one another. –Inayat Khan
I’ve always thought of it as “the divorce poem,” because that is the obvious topic this poem speaks to, but what about other relationships? Friendships, for instance, or parental ones? What about relationships with people who are chronic addicts, or personality-disordered people, as discussed above? Relationships where, no matter what one tries and does, for no matter how long, the other person simply cannot receive the love that is offered, who cannot see, cannot hear, and is bound to get even for the terrible lack they feel? How do we be with someone who simply–often through no fault of their own–cannot be in relationship to us, yet holds us in a death-grip in the awful belief that they need us? I think most “normal” people would walk away, finally, would probably wish the person well, but move on to other things and people they feel they can offer something to.
With my background, of course, I am not “other people.” I am carefully trained to feel that it is my fault if the other person cannot feel my love, cannot respond to it and make use of it and give it back. And so, I have kept trying for well over 30 years in this case, and I find myself at this aforementioned crossroads, considering where my duty lies. I am well aware that my “sins” are many, that I have done many things wrong where this person is concerned, and I am also aware that my compulsive clinging to the relationship, my need to fix it has done a great deal of harm to others who love me, who have felt drained by my ongoing need to help this person, to bring her in and out of our lives, to allow her to follow me and cling to me and beat me up mercilessly for some sin I still cannot name (or that has a million names), but am fairly sure is the one that says she can’t love herself; and therefore, it must be my fault. This young woman lives her life in intense and histrionic pain, and she is the center of it, and her pain is such that she cannot conceive of any other person, situation or thing so important, so all-encompassing, so needful. She goes from relationship to relationship, each time convinced that she has found the person who will fill her agonizing, aching, emptiness, beating them away with her wings when they can’t do it (if they don’t flee first). She brings animals and friends and things into her life, hoping they will fill the void . . . and they don’t, and therefore must be thrown away, sacrifices on the altar of her terrible, aching emptiness. It goes on and on, and I see no reason to think that it will end any time soon, although I remain hopeful that someday she will find what she needs.
But there is me. Well, I’m not worth much (just ask her), but I do have others within my enfoldment, and I have work I want to do and have tried to do with the limited amount of energy she leaves me, and I have this inner life that saves me while I try to save her, and the thing is, I keep getting tireder and tireder, and it keeps getting harder and harder to stay inspired to do my work, while she continues to demand my love and reject it on a daily, often momentary basis, loudly and vociferously letting me know that what I try to offer her is unacceptable to her. Over these last years, I have developed some of the physical problems that people in these kinds of situations develop: fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, auto-immune problems. . . But they are never as serious as the never-ending string of physical and emotional problems she has, problems that keep her from giving to her life (and the responsibilities of her life) its due.
I may have mentioned here: I am a sucker for a child. Having been a child who grew into a person who is still astonished to have survived her childhood at all, I am prone to try to rescue children who come within my enfoldment from the kind of starved, exhausting childhood I had.
Perhaps some of you reading this know such persons. They are so often beautiful, creative, intelligent persons, yet they are persons who seem to implode the atmosphere in a room just by walking into it. One feels that there is no space for one in a room where one of these people is. For me, well-trained as I am, I have an extremely accurate radar that starts beeping the minute I come near a person like this, and in this particular case, I have, by now, thoroughly convinced myself that no matter what move I make, what words I say, how I say them, what I do . . . they will be the wrong ones, and I will again be beaten up and thrown aside…until I am wanted again, whereupon the same thing will repeat itself.
Where does my responsibility lie? Do I get to choose me and my family over her endless needs, and–here is where I stop–the needs of her child? For if I walk away from her, I walk away from the child, because that is the price I will be made to pay. This has been made clear to me again and again.
And so I pray. And I try to love without understanding. In the film quoted from above, A River Runs Through It, there is a difference, because the person the Rev. Maclean is referring to is his son, an alcoholic and a gambler, a kind of puer aeternus, who is not of a particularly demanding nature, but is more inclined to remain remote from his closest relationships. The conundrum is the same in both cases, however, in that one and in this one where the person says “gimme, gimme, gimme” but cannot receive and cannot give back . . . and cannot and will not hear.
And now, I am considering walking away, for the last time. I have tried this many times before, you understand, and have not succeeded. I almost succeeded the last time, but she got pregnant, so I, the Eternal Mommy, got sucked in again.
Yet it is time. It is past time. It is time I stopped acting as a sort of psychic doppelganger, lending my being to her, since she cannot muster up any of her own, eternally failing to save enough for myself and my family. Failing myself and my own purpose in this world in the interest of giving her–eternally–one more chance. And so I named this essay “Always Endings,” because that’s what we always have, and it is invariably joined immediately with another beginning, when “things are going to be different.”
No longer will I be screamed at in public places. No more will I receive long emails detailing my faults, calling me filthy names and beating me down, down, down in the hopes that I will reach her perceived level. No more will I tiptoe around, trying desperately–and always failing–to say and do the right thing. No one can do the sidestep like I can! Yet it never works, and the only thing that works worse is when I finally indulge myself in losing my temper and saying what I really feel . . . And paying the price for that. Again and again I promise myself: no more will I buy what I can’t afford, give what I don’t want to give, say what I don’t want to say, do what I don’t want to do, in the hopes that these things will be received and loved and I will be thanked for them.
Always endings, and finally, someday,
A new beginning.
There is always hope. When Norman Maclean’s brother was finally murdered over some gambling debts, his family had to come to terms with his death, and their inability to help him:
As time passed, my father struggled for more to hold on to, asking me again and again: had I told him everything. And finally I said to him, “maybe all I know about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman.”
“You know more than that,” my father said: “he was beautiful.” And that was the last time we spoke of my brother’s death. —Norman Maclean
I am considering allowing a relationship to die, and when it does, I will go through much the same process, and I will know that this young woman was beautiful, but never knew it, and to date, never would. I will have to live with that.
Below him was the multitudinous river, and, where the rock had parted it around him, big-grained vapor rose. The mini-molecules of water left in the wake of his line made momentary loops of gossamer, disappearing so rapidly in the rising big-grained vapor that they had to be retained in memory to be visualized as loops. The spray emanating from him was finer-grained still and enclosed him in a halo of himself. The halo of himself was always there and always disappearing, as if he were candlelight flickering about three inches from himself. The images of himself and his line kept disappearing into the rising vapors of the river, which continually circles to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, they became rays of the sun. –Norman Maclean
Perhaps relationship, like souls, are like the rays of the sun, always being drawn in and always unfurling, over and over and over again, which is why the sun comes back every morning. Perhaps beyond our concept of time, the relationship that recedes will inevitably unfold again . . . out of time. In the right time.