Sunday, August 16, 2015

In the Ashes: Finding Grace Against All Odds

"Grace cannot prevail until...finally and for good, our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed."~Robert Farrar Capon

I was the queen of scorekeepers. I never entered a room that I didn't subconsciously compare myself to everyone there. Was someone prettier? Was someone smarter? Was someone more gracious? More fun? More popular? Only be feeling in some way superior could I feel good enough. Which left me feeling almost consistently diminished.
I also kept score with my husband. Who did the dishes? Who spent more time with the kids? Who ensured that a good meal was on the table each day? Who made sure our children ate from all of the food groups? For each of these things, I gave myself a mental checkmark – a subconscious assurance that I was the superior mate.
I sound insufferable, don't I?
I wasn't. At least not constantly. Much of the time I was open-hearted and loving. Much of the time, I was appreciate of his contributions to our family. But I cannot deny that there were periods of time – sometimes long periods of time, especially when my three kids were young – that my score-keeping fed a hunger for superiority that bred resentment and disappointment. Hardly the hallmarks of a healthy partnership.
And then! Then, when I discovered my husband's affair (followed by his confession of an entire double life), I was left with little choice but to declare myself morally superior. I was practically a saint. I would never EVER do what he had done.

It was only when I began to really unpack the psychology of affairs, to dig deep into the whys of affairs in general and my husband's cheating in particular, that I began to challenge my own conviction that my moral compass was somehow less subject to movement. I began to wonder if, raised by the same cold judgemental mother that my husband was, raised in the same guilt-and-shame-infused home, I might have made the same choices he did. Might I have sought escape as he did? Might I have developed the same unhealthy addiction to emotionless sex?
I was willing to admit it was possible.
And within that admission, grace took root. Grace, says Ann Lamott, "meets you right where it finds you, but it does not leave you where it found you. It moves you toward breath; moves you towards things being a little bit better: wow. Grace WD-40. Grace is water wings. Grace makes you shake your head with wonder, and laugh and cry."
Grace allowed me to unclench my jaw. To unhitch my shoulders from my ears. To smile.
But mostly grace allowed me to see my husband, not as some inferior creature, lucky that I was magnanimous, but as someone on the same journey as I but filled with pain and confusion that he barely recognized let alone knew how to handle. Grace allowed me to see him with compassion. Which – and this is the incredible part – allowed me to see myself with compassion. 
I'm far better at silencing that critic in my head that compares myself with everyone else and mentally ticks off the score. I'm no better or worse. Just different. And lucky me! I get to live my life according to my value system, not anybody else's. Lucky you because you get to do the same.
And within that value system, there's room for mistakes. My own, my husband's, my children's. We learn from them. We do better next time. We shake our heads – often – with wonder, and laugh, and cry.

(I'm leaving the country for a few weeks for a vacation with my family. We're heading to Italy to play, explore and EAT. I will have only sporadic access to Internet so please be patient if your comments take a few days or more to be posted. I'll be back in September. In the meantime, hang tough my warriors.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

We Must Forgive Ourselves First

"The more I could forgive myself, though, the more I could forgive other people, many of whom I had placed on pedestals from which they were destined to fall. I had to get everything back into perspective: I’m not the greatest, or the worst. Where is my place in the middle?"~Sarah Hepola, Author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget

It's an odd thing to suggest, isn't it? That those of us who've been betrayed – those of us who haven't lied to and deceived our partners – begin by forgiving ourselves. What do we need forgiveness for? We behaved ourselves. We held ourselves to higher standards.
And yet...
What do we need forgiveness for?
In my case...everything.
Behind my polished veneer, my look-how-fast-I-can-dance performance of the perfect wife and mother and writer, was terror that I was nowhere near as good as I pretended I was. That I wasn't worthy of the accolades, or the success, or the love.
I was only barely aware of that, of course. Mostly I performed so convincingly that I believed myself. I believed I had transformed myself from the shame-filled adolescent who feared that people would discover the truth about her hospitalized mother and her alcohol-soaked home life into someone respectable. Someone who needn't fear others' judgement. Except that I still did.
So when I discovered that my husband, the "perfect" spouse, was anything but, those monsters I'd barricaded behind closet doors came crashing through. Of course he cheated on me, was their rallying cry. I was a nobody. I came from dysfunction. I was a fraud. I didn't deserve love or loyalty. 
How could I even think of forgiving my husband for what he'd done when I couldn't forgive myself for being who I was. 
As long as I was fuelled by self-loathing for not being perfect enough to deserve a faithful husband, I could offer my husband nothing but loathing for his imperfection. And that's what I served up. Anger. Disgust. Hate. Shame.
I demanded to know how he could do this to me. How dare he?

I remember the day when I finally understood that his affair wasn't my failing, it was his. If I'd been a cartoon, there would have been lightbulb over my head. 
And it was at that moment that the grip of loathing I felt for my husband – but which was really at myself – loosened a bit. 
If it really wasn't my fault that my husband cheated, then maybe it wasn't my fault that my mother chose alcohol over me. Maybe it wasn't my fault that my father chose self-pity over me. 
Maybe the only person who ever had to truly choose me was me. 
It was a radical thought for someone who believed her value lay only in who she could be for other people. What if, my thought process went, I gave myself permission to be myself. Flawed. "Not the greatest, or the worst." Somewhere in the middle.
It felt terrifying. 
But if I allowed myself that freedom, could I – dare I – allow my husband the same latitude to be neither the greatest nor the worst. In the middle.  A guy who'd made a colossal mistake but wasn't a monster.

Forgiveness has been the single greatest gift I've ever given myself. I still – often! – fall into my self-bashing ways. I must be constantly vigilant against the critic (what's up with your ass? When did it get so big? You look old. Of course, that publication rejected your piece. It sucked. And so on.) Not surprisingly, I've noticed that my self-judgement runs lockstep with my judgement of other people. And that, when I can be gentle with myself, I can be gentle with others. 
Whatever your path toward healing from betrayal, I believe it begins with self-forgiveness. Only when we let ourselves off the hook for being who we are are we able to let go of what others have done to us. Their choices become entirely about them. We need only take responsibility for our own.
Whether we allow those who've hurt us room in our lives is another question entirely. Forgiving others doesn't necessarily mean an open door into our world. That's another choice that is ours.
And that choice need be neither the best nor the worst. But in the middle.


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