Saturday, December 11, 2010

Of Sense and Trust

  An excerpt from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:

"You don't believe in me," observed the Ghost.

"I don't." said Scrooge.

"What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?"

"I don't know," said Scrooge.

"Why do you doubt your senses?"

"Because," said Scrooge, "a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats.  You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.  There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

Scrooge was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then.  The truth is, that he tried to be smart, as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror; for the spectre's voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones."

It has been exactly one year since a friend of mine and I had a parting of the ways. She wrote something to me that hurt me deeply, something objectively fictitious with respect to facts, yet evidently true in her feelings of utter hatred at one moment of her life, designed to annihilate me at one moment of mine, and was a reaction to the hardships in her own life. I thought that I had done my best to shower my friend with love, and I thought that she knew it.  If I swallow my pride, though, I realize how much I try to distract my own attention, like Scrooge, from what most terrifies me. What if she actually didn't know how much I loved her? What if, in my own happiness and contentment with my life, I had missed every clue she had left along the way that she felt abandoned to her choices, without support from either me or other key people (several of us received angry statements, but mine was the most lengthy) at the moment that was most crucial? Are we, or are we not, our sisters' keepers?

I know now where my fault resides: I didn't pay quite enough attention to the emotion of things. I did not tend the garden of our relationship, because I assumed the garden had been founded in good soil and would grow well on its own. When I saw a couple of weeds sprout, I didn't pick them out myself because I feared confrontation and I thought, "She should know that I am not responsible for her choices" or "she should know that we love her and are trying to make her feel braced and embraced by all of us." The problem is, when we assume that people should know anything, we are taking the easy way out. We assume they know, when perhaps it us who fear the reality of how interconnected we all are. We should pick the weeds, even if we really think they are for others to pick.

She didn't feel loved, it turned out. She didn't know how I really felt, how Bill really felt, how many of us really felt. She didn't feel supported---although she will never know how, to those who questioned her decisions, I was truly one of her biggest defenders. Anyone will verify that. She didn't feel supported, despite all of my intentions over the years to create that feeling. Where did I fail? Why did I become an object of hatred? What went wrong? These are the questions that I have asked all year.

The part of me that "tried to be smart" as "a means of keeping down [my] terror" reviewed all the facts of the history of our relationship. I spent hours and days refuting each statement of her message to me, but only in my own mind or to those who knew of what happened. Some statements were preposterous, created only to hurt and not for the truth of the matter. But the emotion behind them was her truth... We can refute facts all we wish, even hide behind the counterarguments we make, but when someone is hurting, he or she hurts and it is that person's inner truth. She was hurt, probably not because of anything I did, but because of the things I didn't do. Things I didn't even know she needed me to do. How could I know? Is it our job to know, when it comes to those we love? Readers, to what extent are we accountable to those we love for the knowledge we don't have? It turns out, we are totally accountable in their eyes even if we could make arguments all day about why we are not. Subjectivity. Do we trust our senses?

Yes, friends, I have had this secret all year. This year has been, in some many ways, the most difficult of my life. Friends and family, my husband, all have reassured me many times that I was not at fault, that we cannot make for others the happiness they are lacking. It embarrasses me even to write about it.

It was easier all year to pretend it never happened.

But I miss my friend, miss who she was, or who I thought she was. It would be nearly impossible, sometimes I feel, to trust her now. Yet I wish so badly that we could get back to where we were. I wish we could erase the writing between us. Those words seared into my mind, long after I destroyed the copy of my letter. And all the while, time is ticking away... Memories being missed together... People growing up and growing old...

My question this year: What is the nature of forgiveness? Does it really exist? At times I have felt it toward her, despite the total absence of any attempt at an apology from her for a letter that she knows (because someone wrote to her on my behalf) was deeply hurtful. At times, I have been flushed with anger just thinking about it. There is not room for both anger and forgiveness to exist in one's heart. I have had to choose, or at least know that I am still in the process of choosing. Part of my process is sharing this tale before the world and admitting that, yes, there was a perfect storm of circumstances leading up to our parting last year, a perfect storm in which I had a part. I had a part in it because she feels I did, and that is enough---because we are all connected. She may never know how much, even to the end, and even still now (despite what she did), I am still her advocate. That's how much I really did love her.

I am still her advocate because, for some others who read her letter to me, the anger is still present in their minds and hearts. I am not a perfect person, but I am a decent person who has good intentions toward others. Those who love me most want to protect that in me. Yet decency brings me to understand that it does not matter what our intentions are toward others if they are unable to receive them, or if those intentions aren't communicated with effectiveness. I was obviously not effective here, with her. I can be in my own world sometimes. I am more prone to celebrate the joy of others than to walk with them step by step in sorrow, which is probably, to some ways of looking at it, selfish. I don't have a high tolerance for pain and sorrow, in myself or in others---I just assume that we can all pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and move forward without dwelling. To some this comes across as optimistic and to others this must come across as not compassionate, or even callous. I actually feel quite a bit of compassion toward others, but I always draw the line at pity. To me, showing pity is offensive to others, and receiving pity would offend me. I have always felt this way. Pity would mean I would think of you as incapable of pulling yourself out of your troubles. I think of you as quite capable... But some people want a little pity; to some, it may even be a way to say "I love you."

Trusting our senses, trusting our memories even, has been a theme for me this week. My daughter has watched A Christmas Carol about a million times, and yet it only dawned on me yesterday that Marley's question about Scrooge trusting his senses is a theme that repeated itself in two of the three speeches at Toastmasters this week.

Tara Fall spoke about cherishing our memories, holding them dear as if knowing that at any moment they could be gone. What if the faces that go with those memories fade away? Or in the case of my friend, what if so much time goes by that everything I remembered about her changes?

Tara, more than anyone, made me pause this week to think about how the memories we make become a major part of the narrative structure of our lives. What narrative do we wish for ourselves? And what narrative are we really writing, word by word? Or in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge, how long is the chain that we have forged in our lives? Isn't mankind our business, to paraphrase Dickens? How do I take this feeling, and begin to put salve on the wound between my friend and myself?

Are we responsible for those wounds on a universal, moral level even at times when we think we are not?

Jerone Lee, another speaker at Toastmasters, gave a beautifully researched and performed speech on the nature of magic. He demonstrated several tricks, which still have me thinking... In fact, he called me up to be one of his helpers. I have no idea how he did it, but he made two foam bunnies appear in my hand, when I was certain I was only holding one.

My senses, my intellect, told me one thing---but the reality was different. I thought I had one bunny, but I really had two.

I have thought for most of the year that I was blameless, but now I am not so sure. When we refuse to see the hurt others bear, or when we think their hurt is their own to palliate, perhaps we are as guilty as Scrooge.

By what magic will this story resolve itself happily?

I have, this one year, learned more about myself, about love, about fate and free will, about connecting, about the places where logic fails, and where logic sustains, about emotions I never wish to see again in myself, about the grace and beauty of the people who know and love me, and about examining my shortcomings---more about all these facets of life than I ever learned, or will ever learn, in any book I've ever read.

And for all that learning, I have not finished yet. Tonight, on the eve of when it all happened, I feel that pang most keenly of all.