(Un)conditional Love and Break-Ups

I think about the nature of love and loss of love every time I hear of a divorce or break-up.   If we assume it’s a given that divorce and break-ups will happen, then within this context, how do people go from “death do us part” to “I hate you and never want to see you again”?  Why not (as we used to say in middle school):  “It’s been real.  It’s been nice.  It’s been real nice… but it’s time to part ways”? (I added the last part.)

A good psychologist would undoubtedly provide a long, thorough and logical thesis on the subject of love turning to hate.  Or perhaps such transitions boil down to a few key ideas, such as failing to take responsibility for one’s own role in the relationship.  It’s hard to imagine how else one goes one extreme to the next without vilifying the other in some fashion.   It’s also hard to imagine how to demonize someone else whom I perceive to be only 50% responsible for the demise of the relationship.  However, if they’re the villain and I’m the victim, then it’s easy to go there. I might feel innocent and vindicated, but how will I learn to be more effective in my next relationship when I choose the same sort of partner?

To me, love is not connected to a switch that we flip on or off.  My love for my ex friends, boyfriends, husband and in-laws do not shut off because we’ve decided to not spend our time together any more.  And if I don’t vilify them, I think there is a tendency for them to not  vilify me (though clearly not a guarantee).  We can then part ways amicably and wish each other well on their new path.

Many people think my relationship with my ex-husband (and my boyfriend from college for that matter) is odd.  We still do an occasional holiday together, hang out together at celebrations and events, enjoy chatting and catching up around our co-parenting conversations.  We neither go out of our way to see each other, nor do we avoid each other.

I don’t know for sure how he feels, but I will always love him and have his back.  Yes, I wish he could’ve done more to help us resolve our relationship issues that led to our break-up, but he tried his best and that’s all I can ask.  I could’ve done more too, I am sure, and he seems to have forgiven me for my shortcomings as well.  In this manner, perhaps we are able to maintain our “love, honor and cherish” part of our vows, even if “death do us part” went by the wayside in terms of our daily living arrangements.  I don’t feel we’ll ever be completely separated.  After all, we do share our children, and someday we’ll share grandchildren if we are so blessed.

Continuing to honor part of our vows is some consolation from the divorce.  But having a real partner and ally out there in the world, instead of an enemy, even if it’s primarily from a co-parenting perspective, is a big plus in the good karma column.

Bringing Personal Meaning to National Tragedies

Terror at the Boston Marathon

Terror at the Boston Marathon

I had a sense of déjà vu after the bombing in Boston on Monday.  It brought me right back to 9/11, Sandy Hook, and Columbine and was akin to a seismic shift in my world.   How about you?

Almost 3000 died in the 9/11 attacks, 26 including 20 children at Sandy Hook, and 3 in Boston but with over 170 casualties.  The images from each event are of unspeakable loss, senseless violence and lives changed forever.  No doubt, such catastrophic events not only impact the victims and their families but the whole country as well.   After 9/11, the whole world mourned with us.

As awful as those events are, what is also equally, and possibly more disconcerting is the number of people who die each year due to accidental death, suicide and homicide.  According to the CDC, over 120,000 and 38,000 died in 2011 from accident and suicide, respectively.  The good news is, homicide fell below the top 15 causes of death starting in 2010 to a mere 16,259.   Combined, that’s approximately 3 people per minute who die from these seemingly preventable, tragic reasons.

But why do Boston, Sandy Hook and 9/11 feel so much worse compared to the literally scores of people dying from preventable tragedies each day?

I’m sure the reasons are many.  But for me, the other thing I mourned when the twin towers came down in 2011 was not only the 3000 lost lives but the feeling that my world would never be the same.

The reality is, of course, that the world has always been a dangerous place.  Up until 9/11 though, I was able to insulate myself from that reality.  Even with scores dying from preventable deaths every day, and right here in my own community, I was firmly and undeniably invested in the concept that the world is a safe and logical place.  Maintaining the façade of this belief is sort of like a James Bond movie – it requires a suspension of reality despite all logic or available evidence.  In this reality, bad things only happen to people who are doing the wrong thing, are in the wrong place or are with the wrong people.  Though I never went so far as to blame the victim, a part of me believed that.  It couldn’t happen to me.

Maybe that’s one reason, in addition to the loss of life, why Boston, 9/11, Virginia Tech and Columbine are all so upsetting to us.  They all did happen to people just like me.  Just like us.   Now I have to confront, head on, my delusion about being in control of my world, each time it happens.  And it’s happening at a rate of what seems like every few weeks.  More frequently if you include the international community.

Intellectually, I knew control was an illusion.  In my heart, for years, I deluded myself that it was also my reality.    So, in addition to 3000 lost souls, on 9/11 I am mourning the loss of my illusion of control over my environment, my loss of innocence.  Each tragedy thereafter serves as salt in that wound.

The world has not changed.  The world was not markedly different on 9/11 compared to 8/11, or on Monday compared to Sunday.   I have changed.   Does that mean I should act differently?  Feel differently about myself or the world?  The world is the same – so do I become paralyzed by fear and anger now anyway?

I think it’s foolish to take unnecessary risks;  these days we need additional precautions.  I’m not going to travel to Syria or walk in unsafe neighborhoods.  I will still lock my house and car doors.  We should still pursue justice for the guilty for the sake of everyone.  But I refuse to let someone else determine how I should feel in this world – whether I walk with peace, love and forgiveness, or fear, hate and vengeance.   I choose to keep my personal power and look for ways to be a positive influence, despite local, national or international events.  I don’t have any control, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take action – write a letter, donate money, volunteer, speak my mind, donate blood, attend a rally.

In addition, I believe it’s also important to remember that if we are in mourning, it is because we have been blessed with a precious gift.  Even though my feeling of almost complete safety was a delusion, it also represents that in this country we enjoy an unparalleled level of affluence and security, even now.  Our brethren in the Middle East do not enjoy even our current level of security, and haven’t for generations.  How can we resent the loss of a privilege that too few in the world enjoy?

It’s also up to each one of us to create meaning out of a senseless loss of life  and our own loss of  innocence.  The Sandy Hook parents have rallied to create peaceful reform in response to their unimaginable loss instead of seeking vengeance and hate.    We too have the choice as to whether to perpetuate violence – whether physical, psychological, financial or emotional, or to foster peace, love and healing.  

We also have the choice as to whether to live in the past with our anger,  in the future with our fear…. or in the present savoring each precious moment on earth.   Yes, feeling that we have no control makes each day feel more precious.  Like the control we never had, our brief time on earth has always been precious, even if we have taken that time for granted.  Maybe, in exchange for our loss of innocence we gain a new appreciation and awareness for what we’ve had all along.



Attachment and Letting Go

Downsizing, insight and opportunity

Downsizing, insight and opportunity

You definitely learn what you’re attached to when you must let it go.  The past couple of years have been an exercise in letting go of what has been most important to me – my marriage, my sons as they leave for college, my beloved canine companion, the best car EVER.  Soon it will be time to move and downsize from the big family house that helped us raise our boys and several pets.

It’s interesting then to see what pulls at me as I go through the bowels of the house, clearing the sedimentary layers of my life.

Here was my process.  One area at a time, three piles – trash, recycling, or Goodwill.  The green part of me is proud the trash pile is relatively small compared to the others.

Discovered/Discarded/Donated – My 17 year old son discovered 65 T-shirts he can finally part with (note:  we purged about 30 last year), a prehistoric sandwich, a shoebox for size 4 shoes.  He can now close his drawers again.

Discovered/Kept – A small box of mementos from my childhood, including a gift of a tiny realistic-fur-mouse doll once chewed by a dog, an autograph book from my elementary school friends, and some jewelry given to me by my parents when I was a child.

Discovered/Recycled – Oh boy, I learned I was a box and gift bag hoarder. I kept nice boxes of all types, tin, cardboard, plastic, jewelry, shipping, shoe, gift, decorative, and storage boxes.  Just-in-case.  I recycled almost all of them but now that I’m reorganizing I wish I had – you got it – boxes.  To my delight I found a large tin box in the attic that was spared my earlier recycling frenzy.  I’m keeping that.

Discovered/Donated – Because decades ago the Communists literally took almost everything from my family, I have no family mementos except for some of the few things my parents had after leaving China and while living in Taiwan.  So my Mom’s traditional chongsam-style dresses are precious to me.  But she did give me literally dozens of them, overflowing a spare closet that will no longer be available.  I kept the nicest and most interesting pieces but donated the rest to the Department of Fashion Design at my school.  I was able to part with them, and felt better about it knowing they’d be used for education.  It helped that a colleague I care about and trust stewarded that transfer for me.

Stuff I had no trouble parting with – Majority of the Christmas decorations, lots of glasses, dishes, clothes, sports equipment, furniture, old electronic and computer equipment, the ugly chandelier spouting big, white leaves that came with the house, 2 toaster ovens in the attic (don’t ask me).

Stuff I didn’t want to part with did so anyway – In addition to  my oh-so-useful box collection, 16 years of cooking magazines, dozens of cookbooks, remnants of baby toys and clothes I kept over the years, my Ex’s heirloom China set (went back to him), much of the kid’s art work accumulated over the years, some original art (shared with my Ex).

Perhaps more revealing, the stuff I haven’t given up yet, but need to – In addition to the majority of the gift bags, gift ribbons, my stability balls (they’re huge), possibly my Mom’s dining room set, some family games that we rarely play, maybe a lot more of my clothes, a few really nice pieces of serving ware, including stuff from my Mom.  Unavoidably, my beautiful, gourmet kitchen, my lovely bathtub, and sunny, inviting Florida room will be gone when we move.  I would take them if I could.

Stuff I won’t part with, no way – Family photographs, my giant stuffed bear, my kitchen table, autographed novels, yearbooks, the remaining original artwork, what I’ve saved of the Chinese dresses.

Though I’m attached to a few things, to me it feels good to get rid of stuff – clutter in my house feels like clutter in my brain.  What I cling to are mementos from my personal history.  What I’m weirdly attached to has to do somewhat with my passions, but also my insecurities, my recovering control-freak/perfectionist self.   Buddhists believe that attachment is the cause of suffering since the elements of our world are transient and unsatisfactory.  Non-attachment is both the path toward, and the reward of enlightenment.

Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering” – Dalai Lama

I’m no expert on Buddhism, nor am I remotely close to enlightenment. But I can learn from the lessons of the Dalai Lama and not judge my desire to cling to my things.  Both my desire to cling, and the grief I experience when I part with my stuff are also transient and unsatisfactory.  They too will pass, just like my grief for the losses I’ve incurred over the past few years.

The content of our lives, and our lives themselves must cycle.  The fire burns the forest but a healthier, stronger forest emerges.  Likewise, loss has opened new doors and opportunities for me and my family*, and so will closing down this house and this chapter of our lives.  

*Other blogs on this subject – Mourning the End of an Era, Single Again After a Twenty-Two Year Marriage, On Loss, A Defining Moment:  Discovering the Hidden Gifts in Chronic Pain and Illness