Facing their problems through your own fears

by Kristin on June 17, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Mirko Makari

When I started sharing the news that my now ex-husband and I were getting a divorce, back in 2003, the responses could have been the makings of a fascinating dissertation.

Unfortunately, I was too emotionally wrought then to be fascinated, let alone to embark on a graduate degree in psychology. But time heals. Lately, I’ve been able to more fully contemplate what was happening during that period of my life.

There were a full range of responses or non-responses (I wrote about some of them in this post), but the most surprising, upsetting, and perhaps even most common response was this: You’re getting a divorce? Wow, that sucks for me.

OK, it was never said quite that plainly, but that was the sentiment. You’re making a decision that is messing with my nice life.

I’ve really struggled with that response. Many of the people who reacted like that are no longer my friends. With a couple of others, our friendship went through a rocky period or took a sabbatical before finding a safe enough place to begin again.

I’m not saying I don’t get how my divorce would affect the lives of others. I was able to step outside of my own turmoil enough to see that those people had valid, personal reasons to mourn the end of my marriage, and I can understand it even more fully now than I could then.

But the divorce was hardly a cake walk for me. Yes, I came to the conclusion that I wanted a divorce, but that doesn’t mean I was embracing it joyfully, without struggles or setbacks. My entire life had changed. To have the response be “that really sucks for the rest of us” was maddening.

What I’m starting to get about people (including myself)

Understanding more about how people work always helps me let go of my frustration and anger. It also helps me see more of myself in others. I’m starting to more fully understand at least a couple of things:

1. We’re inherently self-centered creatures. It doesn’t matter how badly we want to think we’re not self-centered beings, or how diligently we work at being less self-centered. We still are. It’s our nature.

Before I’m sorely misunderstood (I realize it might already be too late), let me be clear about this: I don’t believe for a second that we should just sigh at the brokenness of the human race and give in to all our shortcomings. We can and should work hard to fight those selfish impulses, every day. Some people have clearly figured out how to do that better than others.

But we should not, in the process of our hard work, make believe that we’re others’-centered. Like all deceptions, it can be dangerous.

2. Self-centered responses to bad news are largely rooted in this internal realization: “If it happened to her, it could happen to me.” When someone gets a divorce—especially someone we know and associate ourselves with and even respect—suddenly we’re forced to question the health and security of our own marriage.

The same goes for all sorts of messy life scenarios that we’d rather not be forced to face. When someone we know loses their job, we suddenly see how the recession might touch us. When someone we know gets cancer—particularly if it’s someone our age, who was living a similarly healthy life—we realize all the not-smoking and broccoli-eating in the world can’t completely protect us from that possibility. And of course, when someone dies we are left staring our own mortality in the face.

These are completely normal reactions, of course, but it’s good to be aware that we’re having them, and to see how our internal responses might play out for the person right there, hurting at that very moment. It’s good to be forced to set aside our own “what-ifs,” and attend to “what is” for our friends. I’m not saying I’m at all skilled at this, but I’m going to try to be better.

Conquering fear so you can see what’s right there

Next Monday, June 22 at 7:30 pm, I’ll be participating in a reading at Powell’s Books in Portland, along with several other women whose essays were also published in the book Ask Me About My Divorce. I can’t deny that I’m excited to read at the famous Powell’s, but I’m even more excited to meet the other women who share the pages of this book.

Being with people who understand something of what you’ve gone through is always comforting. It makes you feel less alone. I’ve always thought that was just because of the shared experiences, but now I’m beginning to think it’s something else, too: They’ve already faced this particular “what if” that worries and distracts others who haven’t faced it. More importantly, they know they survived it. It’s no longer a potential fear, it’s a conquered one, which frees them up to look outward, at whatever’s right in front of them.

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  • http://bornattherighttime.blogspot.com Wendy

    Aw, shoot–I’ll be in Portland just a few days later. But if you are detouring to the coast as well, give me a holler!

  • http://www.tjhirst.com/ TJ Hirst

    Many thoughts you write are hard to face precisely because we work so diligently to be other centered, as you say. I’m not sure I know any other way to overcome my selfish nature. Maybe that is why we all appreciate opportunities, when they come to gather with those who’ve face what we have, too. Congratulations on the reading.

  • http://emkaysteele.wordpress.com mksteele

    OH such honesty is so refreshing! I think that it is only from acknowledging the truth of our humanity (that we are self-centered) that we can EVER hope to begin to deal with the problems that our humanity creates. :)

    A few thoughts…

    Being in my early 20′s…I’ve lived JUST enough life to begin to experience what you’re talking about. What I’ve come to realize regarding this topic is what you said in step 2. You have to think worst case scenario and literally say, “What if this DOES happen to me?” It’s like you said at the end, “Being with people who understand something of what you’ve gone through is always comforting.” Because of our self-centered nature, I think that one of the only ways to understand something of what someone else is going through is to put yourself in their shoes. Then you will be able to somewhat feel the fear they’re dealing with…the pain…the suffering…whatever it may be. If you begin to put yourself in others shoes, it enables you to be a better support system for those who the event is actually happening to.

    For me personally, it is my belief in a loving God that I know travels this life with me, who completely understands the events of my life…truly mourning when I mourn…that gives me strength to face these life scenarios. For Christians, it’s important to trust God with these “what if’s” in order to build the supportive community that Christians are *supposed* to foster. In my opinion, you have to be able to face your own fear and find your own sustaining strength, before you can help others believe in themselves and face their fears. (Kinda like in an airplane, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can effectively help others put theirs on.)

    I loved this post. Such great words… :o)

  • http://www.jenx67.com jenx67

    What a blessing to have that opportunity. This seems like a gift for the courage you’ve shown! It is so hard to talk about divorce. I still don’t talk about mine very often and it’s been 10 years.

  • http://compostermom.blogspot.com Daisy

    A conquered fear: that’s a good way to put it.

  • Carmen

    I love this line: “It’s good to be forced to set aside our own “what-ifs,” and attend to “what is” for our friends.”

  • http://www.roseyposeyconfections.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    I think my sister experienced this same response from a lot of people when she decided to get a divorce. That and people coming out of the woodwork, suddenly “caring,” but clearly just wanting “in on” what had happened. It was very hurtful but also helped her see who her real friends are.

  • http://www.roseyposeyconfections.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    And wow I wish I could be at the reading!!!

  • Cobalt-Blue

    I presume that you and your ex-husband have somewhat of a respectful relationship being that you so openly share you divorce and life there after. Does he ever read your blog and comment to you or others? What does he think about your writings on divorce and children? I apologize if I crossed any blogger/reader lines by my questioning. It is not my intention to disrespect you. I am just curious. Congrats on reading in Powell’s.

  • Trina

    Kristen, you are so real. Enjoy the experinece at Powells, so far all roads have lead to this, and it sure seems like a good place to be :-) Best, Trina

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Wendy, I’m sorry we’ll miss each other in Portland! Are you moving to Michigan? If so, perhaps we can meet up for coffee some time down the road in that great state. Blessings on your move!

    TJ, you’re right—we can try really hard to overcome our selfish nature, but what else can we do? It’s not like we can take some fancy medication or have a procedure done! That’s what’s so difficult, too, about many of these situations we simply *haven’t* experienced. If I’ve never had cancer, the only thing I can do is ask questions and listen and try to understand as much as I can.

    mksteele, you nailed this: “it is only from acknowledging the truth of our humanity (that we are self-centered) that we can EVER hope to begin to deal with the problems that our humanity creates.” You’re also right about how important it is to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Sometimes it feels next to impossible, though, doesn’t it? I think married parents can begin to imagine what it’s like to be a single parent, but certain things, like being diagnosed with cancer, are so difficult to imagine. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and for sharing how this whole topic connects to your belief in God.

    jenx67, I don’t know if it’s courage, or if it’s just finally full acceptance of this: “My life hasn’t turned out at all like I thought it would, and I think I can honestly say I’m grateful.” That realization and acceptance translates to something very powerful.

    Daisy, isn’t that an amazing moment, when you realize you’ve conquered something that others desperately fear? It’s very freeing.

    (Sorry all—I’m super tired and will finish responding in the morning! Good night!)

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    Our crazy, terrifying journeys through life do have unexpected and wonderful rewards. Enjoy your experience in Portland.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Carmen, you’re a great example of someone who’s figured out how to set aside your own worries for the people in your life. You have a great compassionate spirit, and I’ve learned a lot from you. :)

    Cheryl, some of these difficult experiences really produce wheat-and-chaff moments, don’t they? The difficult thing is that we’re all human, so we all respond at times in ways we wish we wouldn’t have. We also often misinterpret people’s responses, by projecting our own pain into them. In other words, it’s complicated. I try not to write anyone off too quickly. (Come to Portland! It’s just one state away. I know—Cali is a big state.)

    Cobalt-Blue, that’s a really interesting question. My ex and I do have a solid, respectful relationship. It’s that respect that makes writing about divorce etc. feel safe and OK to me. In other words, if I knew I was harboring a lot of resentment and anger still, I would hesitate to write anything at all about the topic, for fear that negative attitude would spill over. But I trust my feelings toward him are positive, and my motivation for writing here is to help others. Another guideline I use, any time I write about other people in my blog, is this: Am I telling *my* story, and is this person a natural, important character in my story? Or am I trying to tell *their* story? If I ever want to tell someone else’s story (and sometimes I do), I ask them first.

    Trina, thank you, once again, for your encouragement and your genuine, consistent activity in this Halfway to Normal community!

    Elaine, that’s so true—you understand it better than anyone!