In Absentia

Yesterday was an emotional day.  I cried in the morning because I felt so disconnected from my family, and once my family meant the world to me.  They still do, but I’m not part of the day to day anymore.  The existence that defined my life for twenty years.  I’m not sure exactly why yesterday, but I just broke down and cried, remembering all these joyful moments of togetherness, and feeling like I’d ruined it all.

I invited Zoe and Nick over to dinner, and it felt good to see them, especially Zoe – even though she didn’t stay long.  Then I went over there to drop Nick off and I stayed for a while.  I asked Christine if she was happy living without me, and she surprised me by being honest and saying she was lonely.  She has a way of talking about her feelings like it’s no big deal, which maybe is healthier than my tendency to feel everything in such a full-blown way.

I asked her if she was angry with me and she hesitated before saying no, sometimes things just change.  But I know she is, sometimes.  I’m sure she feels rejected and replaced, and I hate making her feel that way.  Of course I can’t control it, but I can show her that I still care about her, and even though it is personal it’s also not personal.  We had grown apart, as they say.  I was seeing someone else, and so was she.  We were seeking fulfillment elsewhere because we couldn’t do it for each other anymore.

And that does make me sad.  I think back to the time we spent together before we had kids, seven years.  Almost all the memories are good.  Even the difficult parts of childraising are erased by the passage of time, and luckily what remains are pleasant memories of raising these little babies into cute little kids, and then watching them grow up.  I think we did a good job together of raising those kids, and continue to do so.  We just couldn’t provide for each other emotionally.

I wanted someone I could really talk to and bond with, someone who wanted to travel and do things with me.  Someone who would excite my heart and my mind.  Someone to hold my hand and sleep with, to make me feel loved in a way I hadn’t felt for years.  And which I couldn’t give to Christine anymore, because it didn’t seem like she wanted it.  At least not from me.

And now I have that, at least during the times I can be with Christy.  I know she’s the one, and I made the right choice.  When I’m with her, I feel the fullness of love in a way that leaves no question about what I’m doing.  Where else could I be, what else could I be doing?  It’s the only place to be, and everything feels right.

But it’s a love I can’t share with my family, obviously, and sometimes it does seem like a zero sum game.  When I’m with her, I’m not with them, and I’m robbing them of my presence.  The same thing goes for Christy, I guess, although we can talk about it openly and I know how she’s doing.  She deals with being apart better than I do.  And she doesn’t demand that I choose between my family and her, for which I’m grateful.

So I feel guilty sometimes for not being around them like I was for the last twenty years.  For not being there when Zoe comes home, to hear how her day at school or work went.  I don’t know if she feels my absence or not, or how much it hurts or doesn’t hurt.  Maybe I should have waited longer before moving out, but at the time I didn’t want to wait.  I could have waited, could have been there physically, but emotionally I would have been somewhere else.  It’s probably better that I can be alone here, figure out what I want and how I feel, and how I want to try to manage this.  But it’s lonely, to be between two worlds and not fully in either one.  It feels freeing also, sometimes, but freedom can be a lonely thing.

I want to be involved in Zoe’s life and I want her to know that I care, even though I’m not there all the time.  I don’t want her to feel I chose Christy over her, or over the family, even though in a way that’s what I have done.  I was desperate to feel some kind of love and happiness and joy, even some of the time, and that wasn’t going to happen living with Christine anymore.  And it does happen with Christy.

At some point I’ll explain it to her, and ask her how she feels.  I don’t want to bring it up now, because I have so little time with her and I’m afraid of scaring her off.  But I want her to know that it hasn’t been easy, that I miss her, and that even if I’m not physically right there in the same house that I’m always there for her.  I never wanted to be a father in absentia.  Those fathers, like Mike, always seemed sad to me.  But that’s essentially what I am now, and I guess the sadness of it hit me yesterday.


Love flows downhill

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He hit the back of her seat with his fists. She felt the impact on her back and she froze, looking in the rearview mirror. His face was twisted with anger and sadness. He pounded the seat again and shouted, “I’m going to kill myself if you all don’t shut up!”
He wasn’t done. Next he put his hands around his son’s neck and said, “I want to strangle you but I can’t!” The son tried to edge away, but his grandmother’s bulk blocked the way. The son was trapped next to his Dad, who was having a meltdown.
A friend of mine told me this story recently. She was on a trip to look at colleges with her brother, her grandmother, and her biological father. She hadn’t lived with her Dad since she was five years old, but she saw him occasionally. She knew he had bipolar disorder and took medication, but had never seen him lose his temper before. He chose to lose it as she was driving on an interstate highway for the first time. She was 17.
Her Dad was seriously depressed. He worked around the clock, rarely slept, and had no friends. He had been married twice but was alone now, far from children and family. Being around his children had activated long dormant feelings of regret, sadness and anger.
Her grandfather on her Dad’s side was also bipolar and estranged from his children. He had a long career as a doctor before his illness caused to him neglect patients. Once his license to practice medicine was taken away, he bought a series of expensive cars. Eventually, he ran out of money and the cars started to get re-possessed. He got into a physical fight with another son who had just suffered a heart attack. Despite having four children, he has no visitors on Father’s Day.
Hurt and shame and mental illness can run in families, just like freckles and red hair. They flow downhill from generation to generation, an unwelcome inheritance of pain.
I’ve seen this phenomenon in my family too. My grandfather on my Mom’s side suffered from depression. It was so severe he underwent ECT (“electro-shock therapy”) several times. Sometimes he was almost catatonic, sometimes full of rage. My grandmother was an energetic and outgoing woman, but not especially warm. Both were on their own, far from family support. Although they were good people and did the best they could, it wasn’t a happy family.
My Mom has three sisters and a brother. Between them, the sisters have been divorced five times and are all single now. The brother is detached from the sisters. None of the sisters have been close, and they’ve harbored grudges against each other their whole lives. However, they are trying to reconcile as they enter their seventies.
My Mom and her sisters raised seven children, myself and my cousins. Four of the seven are married, one is divorced, and two are unmarried going into their forties. My cousins and I have all had difficulty establishing and maintaining any kind of healthy, long-term relationships. I’m one of the married ones, but I’m separated from my wife and likely to remain that way.
I wonder sometimes if these outcomes are fated. Relationships are difficult, and when our role models are not able to love one another and be happy together, what chance do we have? Is inheritance, or biology, too much to overcome?
But then I remind myself that love, like pain, also flows downhill. I love my children, just like my parents loved me, and their parents loved them. Despite our profound limitations and pre-disposition to suffering, we can still love. Indeed, we must love in order to make any sense of life.
My friend gives me hope. Despite the absence of her father, and his terrifying meltdown, she is doing okay. She received a full scholarship to college and wants to see the world. She’s one of the most open, positive people I’ve ever met. If she can love, then any of us can.
Love can flow downhill too.

The Joy of Knowing Nothing

I like music, and the other day I found myself listening to a collection of Arabic pop on my phone.  I don’t know more than a couple of words of Arabic, and none of the musicians were familiar.  I really know zero about this genre – the history, who the trendsetters are, the differences between styles or countries.  But that’s okay – for me, knowing nothing is part of the allure.  It’s different, strange, a little exotic.  I’m curious about it.

I also listen to a lot of the music I grew up with, and I enjoy listening to songs I’ve heard a thousand times and still love.  If I’m in a certain mood, ACDC or Jimi Hendrix bring back a flood of memories of the fun part of high school, cruising around with good friends and laughing hysterically at our collection of inside jokes.

I think everyone feels this push and pull between the new and the familiar.  We want to feel safe, and think we know all there is to know, but we also want a bit of adventure.

Sometimes I’m a know it all.  I know what I like, and it’s the best.  What you like probably sucks, or at least I wouldn’t like it.  My political opinions, indeed my opinions about everything, are valid, and anyone who disagrees is ignorant or stupid.  I assume the worst about people, so no one and everyone disappoints me.  I don’t really enjoy this way of being, but sometimes it’s just easy to slip into, like a pair of old leather shoes.

To realize how much I actually don’t know is humbling.  There’s really very little that I do know, and even that is suspect.  Often people whom I think I “know” surprise me by doing things I don’t expect.  And judgments that I’m sure about seem less certain when seen from another perspective, or after the passage of time.

Feeling like we know everything, and everyone, is a form of protection against the inherent uncertainty in life.  But really we don’t know, and can’t know, very much.  Everything and everyone can surprise us.  And that’s a wonderful thing.

The Worst Things I’ve Ever Done

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I’m in a bit of a dark mood this morning.  Online sales for my business are slumping, my credit cards reflect charges that don’t make sense, and my favorite soccer team is losing its third straight game.  In keeping with my mood, I’m going to reflect on bad things that I’ve done and which I’m ashamed of.  I know that forgiving oneself is key to forgiving others and being able to live an enlightened life, so perhaps a semi-public confession of my sins will help.

Let’s see – maybe I’ll start with what I haven’t done.  I haven’t killed anyone yet.  I haven’t even really caused anyone serious physical injury on purpose, so that’s good.  I haven’t defrauded anyone, or stolen anything bigger than a pair of sunglasses.  I guess those are the biggies – robbery and homicide – and so far I’m innocent of those crimes.

Many of my friends and family think I’m a “good” person because I have a bleeding heart.  I tend to care about people who are troubled, lonely, and unloved.  But I can also be a pretty lousy person – selfish, judgmental, angry, dishonest, jealous, controlling, hurtful, vain, egotistical and petty.  I’ve done bad things and hurt people who didn’t deserve it.

When I was in my early teens, I became enraged at my brother for not giving me something that I wanted.  I don’t even remember what it was, but I was enraged and I hit him over and over again.  A few years ago, I also hit my son Nicholas, who is autistic and non-verbal.  This one is very painful and shameful to admit, because people think I’m a good and loving father.  But one day we were swimming in the lake near our house and Nick took off his swimsuit in the water and it floated away.  I lost it and started hitting him.  I have no excuse, and there is no excuse for it.

I’ve told girlfriends I loved them, and then deserted them.  I was unfaithful to my wife and hurt her.  I was also cruel to her at times.  I lost my temper with my kids many times, especially when they were younger.

I’ve been a bad friend.  I tried to seduce two of my friend’s girlfriends, unsuccessfully.  I bullied another friend when we were younger.

Do these things make me a horrible person?  I don’t know.  I know I’m capable of cruelty as well as love, and now I try to consciously choose love, even when I want to punch someone in the face.  Even when I’m thinking nothing but unkind thoughts.  I’ve always admired people who seem to be naturally gentle and sweet, because it doesn’t always come naturally to me.  I wonder if it does for them?

I don’t know how my list of bad things stacks up against other people’s.  All I can do, the only thing I have control over, is to forgive myself and try to forgive other people who cause pain.  I do try to say I’m sorry, and mean it.  Most people can recognize a sincere apology when they hear it, and it can go a long way toward re-establishing a warm relationship.

As usual, MLK put it well: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.” Amen.


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My friend Jason is homeless, and I’m afraid he may no longer be alive.  I bought him a bus ticket to Austin, Texas a few months ago and haven’t heard from him since.

Like all homeless people, Jason wasn’t always homeless.  He grew up in a middle class neighborhood in Austin, in a house bigger than ours.  His Mom is a psychologist, and his Dad is a professor.  Jason is a year younger than me, so he was more my brother’s friend, but the three of us used to hang out all the time.  We did normal boy things together like playing sports and doing Mad Libs, roaming around the neighborhood on bikes like we owned the place.

Jason’s parents were divorced and he lived with his Mom and stepdad.  His Dad lived in town, but was remarried and had nothing to do with either Jason or his brother.  I always thought that was awful.  I mean, maybe he did have another family that occupied his time and attention, but to never see your kids who live in the same city?  Not even for a visit?  What kind of cold-hearted bastard could do that?

Still, Jason didn’t show any signs of mental illness when we were young.  He was very smart, made straight A’s, and dressed preppy style.  His grades were good enough that he could have gone away to college, but he didn’t.

His Mom got a job out of state, and she moved away when he entered college.  John and I also moved away to go to college.  Jason started hanging out more with our friend Doug, and drinking and “partying” went from being a weekend thing to an everyday thing.

He graduated, but without direction he did a series of dead end, tele-marketing type jobs.  His behavior became erratic.  He borrowed money from my Mom to buy a car and didn’t pay her back, and when she told his parents he threatened her.  That was the last we had contact with Jason for many years.

Doug died of an overdose of painkillers twelve years ago, and sometime after that Jason moved to L.A. where my brother was living.  He lived with a girlfriend and worked as a security guard, until she threw him out and he lost his job.  With no money and no place to stay, he found himself on the streets.

I reached out to Jason after he posted something on Facebook about killing himself.  We stayed in touch after that initial contact, and for a while we were talking and texting often.  I was depressed and had a lot of time on my hands.  I felt like I was helping Jason, but I was also lonely and just wanted some company.

It seemed like Jason had no friends left, and no one who cared about him.  He was delusional, convinced that Scientologists were ruining his life, and that there were all kinds of dark conspiracies against him.  I tried to get him to get help, but he had already been through “the system”.  He had been kicked out of halfway houses and didn’t want to stay in shelters because he said they were dangerous.  He said he slept in 24 hour gyms and diners, indoors if he could, but that often he would get thrown out.  Sometimes he would stay with his girlfriend, but he said she tried to kill him.  He was attacked,  had his arm broken in a car accident, and spent a lot of time in the hospital.  His life seemed unimaginably miserable, and I didn’t know how he could tolerate it.

But sometimes I would get a sense of the Jason I knew as a kid.  He still had a sense of humor, and his anger seemed less threatening now that it was directed at imaginary enemies.  He was clear eyed about his situation.  I asked him once what should be done about homelessness, and he said, “give us places to live.”

I bought him bus tickets.  He would say he had to get out of L.A., so I’d buy him a bus ticket to San Francisco.  Then he’d call me a few weeks later and say San Francisco was too cold, so could I help him with a ticket back to L.A.?

He sent me crazy, long-winded, nonsensical text messages that were creative and sometimes funny.  He treated my brother to similar messages, and sometimes my brother would give him clothes or lend him some storage space.  I never saw Jason, but my brother did and said he looked really rough.

A few months ago, I bought Jason a bus ticket to Austin.  He was desperate to get out of L.A., even though he told me that benefits were much harder to come by in Texas.  I haven’t heard from him since the day he caught the bus, and my text messages get no answer.  Jason is nothing if not verbose, so he must not be getting them.  I asked his brother if he’d heard from Jason, and he told me he was scared of Jason and didn’t want to see him.

New York supposedly has over 50,000 homeless people, and L.A. has even more because the weather is better.  I understand better now how “normal” people can become homeless, and how hard it can be to get a normal life back.  How the problems can multiply until all your hope is gone, and when no one cares about you what is there to hope for anyway?  Jason created a lot of his own problems, but we all do.  The problems he created were just different, and more costly.  I can’t gloss over the pain and tragedy of his life by telling myself he somehow “deserved” to suffer.  I’m not even interested in discussing the issue of responsibility.  I just miss my friend, who used to be a boy like me.



Wives of My Father

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My Dad has been married and divorced three times.  His poor record at marriage belies an extremely successful career.  He’s an extremely smart guy – he’s written several books and taught Classics at a major university for fifty years.  I used to think, how can he be so smart at his job and yet so inept when it comes to relationships? As I’ve gotten older, though, I now think we are we all kind of dumb when it comes to love,

My Dad gets involved with women because they reflect back to him an image of himself that he likes.  This works for a while, but eventually they see him for who he is, warts and all. And then once the bloom is off the rose, maybe there’s not a lot else to build a relationship on.  Like many men of his generation, he’s not into talking about his feelings. He prefers to talk about sports and politics, which is fine. He’s also very cultured and well-traveled, so he can carry on interesting conversations, at least until you’ve all of the stories multiple times.  Then you wonder what else is there, what’s behind it all?

My Mom was his first wife.  He was a young professor in his mid-twenties, and my Mom was his student, and just 20 years old when they met.  I was born when she was 22. They divorced when I was eight and my brother was six. My Dad was seeing another woman, who became his second wife.  

His second marriage only lasted about a year, and for me is still shrouded in mystery.  I wasn’t invited to the wedding, which I now interpret as shame on his part. His wife Susan, about whom I remember very little, lived with us for about a year.  One day I came home and all of her stuff was gone. “Did you and Susan get a divorce?” I asked. My Dad said “yes,” and that was the extent of our conversation.

He dated several women for the next six or seven years.  By that time I was a sensitive teenager, and I couldn’t understand what women saw in my Dad.  I thought he was insensitive and a blowhard, and like many children do with their parents, I identified myself as his opposite.  I told this to my friend Joe, who had considerably more luck with girls than I did, and he said, “Your Dad is a man of the world.  Chicks dig that shit.”

It sounds funny now, but Joe was spot on.  My Mom said the same thing to me recently. “Your father’s M.O. has never changed,” she told me over a dinner where we discussed family history. “He’s the all-knowing professor and she’s the the adoring, impressed student.”

I think many of us are like that.  We want to project a certain image of ourselves and when someone reflects that image back to us, we fall in love with them.  But that image isn’t really us – at best it’s only a part of us. We are much more complex and complicated than that. But we want to maintain this idea of ourselves and we want to be loved, so we keep looking for that elusive person who is going to love us all the time.  We try to keep the other person at a distance so they won’t discover how ugly and dark we can be, sure that they won’t accept us.

My Dad did marry a third time when I was sixteen and he was 42.  That marriage lasted for over twenty years but, as with his first marriage, he navigated a way out via infidelity.    He’s been single for nearly twenty years now, and he currently has a platonic “friend” (former student) who is in her mid-twenties.  It sounds kind of crazy, but they seem to get along well and if it makes him happy, I’m happy for him.

Relationships aren’t easy.  I was determined to not be like my Dad and break up my family and while my wife and I did stay together for a long time, our marriage was lacking in intimacy.  Now that I’m single again, I look at marriages (including those of my father) with less judgment than I used to. We’re all stumbling around blind, trying to make sense of life.  We can try to know ourselves a little better, accept and love the yucky parts as well as the nice parts, and if we’re lucky maybe someone else will too.

Confidence Man

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For a long time, I thought confidence was the most important ingredient in life.  My life, at least.  It seemed to me that when I felt confident, I was happy and unworried.  Things seemed to go well, I got along with people, and I was optimistic about the future.

When my confidence waned, however, I felt like I couldn’t do anything.  I was a failure and would always be one.  I didn’t like anyone and had no real interest in being with my friends, much less making new ones.  In short, I became depressed.

I didn’t think very much about what made me feel confident.  It seemed like a chicken and egg question.  If something good happened, it helped me feel confident.  Or did the good thing happen because I was already confident?  Or did it just seem like a good thing because I was in a positive frame of mind?

As I’ve become (ahem) more seasoned by time, I’ve decided that confidence is really inadequate as a guiding force.  If my confidence is based on success, there are too many things about succeeding that I can’t control.  And confidence in my own abilities also feels more and more like a very narrow, self-centered way to think about life.

My girlfriend has told me that many of my critiques of American society are rooted in self-hatred, and she’s right.  I hate it when I’ve focused so much on my own success (especially career success), because at the end of the day it does seem meaningless and kind of boring.  The fact that so many Americans are obsessed with their careers has always bothered me, because it bothers me about myself.  Where is the interest in arts, history, reading, beauty, and other cultures?  Isn’t the focus on money and career status so small and demeaning that large numbers of us seek escape through drugs, alcohol, gambling, or passionless sex?  Just replacing one addiction for another?

I don’t think confidence is a bad thing.  It’s good to feel confident, to believe that people are going to like you and that you can do things in the world.  It’s hard to accomplish anything without confidence.  But now I feel like my confidence can’t depend on whether I’m successful.  It has to be because I’m comfortable with myself.  Some people seem to have more of this inner confidence – for me, it has been elusive.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to people who are not overly confident, and indeed sometimes under-confident.  I can identify with that feeling of uncertainty that is the opposite of what we call confidence.  Many people seem confident because they seem sure about everything they say and do.  However, true confidence is realizing you’re not sure about anything, and being okay with that.


Love and Pressure

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My friend Brent is a bit of a Lothario.  A Don Juan, if you will.  Or if you won’t, you could just call him a womanizer.

I’ve known Brent since he was twelve or thirteen, so I have a bit more nuanced view of him than others who might want to judge or condemn him based on his behavior with women.  I know his weaknesses and insecurities, and I know how a broken heart in his twenties caused him to become more ruthless in the game of love, in order not to be hurt again.

I’ve also seen him get extremely excited about certain women, telling me this one is “the one”, and that if he could have her he would never want another woman.  Then for one reason or the other, he’s on to the next one.  It’s funny the amnesia we suffer regarding love.  Whenever I remind him that a certain woman was last year’s “this one”, and that there seems to be a “this one” every year, he’ll inevitably tell me “but this one’s different.”  And so they are, but they’re also the same.

Brent texted me a couple of weeks ago because the woman he’s been seeing for about a year (this year’s “the one”) was lying to him, and it was driving him crazy.  He was totally obsessed with catching her, and through his suspicion was predictably driving her away.  After he repeatedly questioned her, she admitted that she had been sleeping with someone else, and Brent asked me what to do.

I told him that she was still young (34 to his 50), and maybe she didn’t want what he wanted yet.  I advised him to stop putting pressure on her and let her decide if she cared about him enough to stop hurting him.  I quoted Sting and said, “If you love somebody, set them free.”

Brent thanked me profusely for the advice, told me I was very wise, and didn’t follow it at all.  Instead, he found another woman online, seduced her, and promised her he was going to fly out to see her.  Then he told his girlfriend that if she didn’t stop seeing other people, he was going to see the woman he had met online.  His girlfriend caved to the pressure, and I stopped receiving a daily flood of text messages from Brent.  I assume they’re back together, and I hope they’re happy.

The whole thing left kind of a bad taste in my mouth, though.  I was appalled at the lengths to which Brent would go (using another woman, threatening to be unfaithful) to get what he wanted.  But if I’m honest with myself, I also put pressure on people to do what I want them to do.

I’m in a long distance relationship, and it’s difficult for me when we’re apart.  I like to hear my girlfriend’s voice and have her say nice things, to remind and reassure me of what we have.  She doesn’t feel the same way I do – she would rather just text message, and doesn’t want to feel too close because it would make her sad. She also is afraid that if we talk and one of us is in a bad mood, then we might fight and she won’t be able to go to work the next day.  Overall, she tends to feel any relationship – even good ones – create obligations that can lead to stress.

This disconnect has probably been the biggest “sticking point” in our relationship.  I have had trouble understanding why you wouldn’t want to talk to someone you love, and she has wanted me to back off and give her more space.  Well, at least that’s how the discussions went, and we’ve had a lot of them.

About a month ago, I became tired of having the same conversation.  I was upset, but I just didn’t say anything.  She asked me what was wrong, and I said it was just frustrating because nothing was changing, and I didn’t want to talk about it.  She insisted that I talk about it – she’s a therapist, after all – so I said that I felt sometimes like we didn’t even have a relationship when we were apart, and I was sad that it felt like that because it’s so good when we’re together.

The difference between this conversation and all the previous ones was that I wasn’t making any overt demands, and I wasn’t angry at her.  I was sad.  Initially she was defensive and said maybe I should find someone else  And I did say that maybe I would have to find someone else, but that I wanted her.  I just wanted more of her.

So then after the Brent situation, I asked myself, is what I did really any different from what he did?  Wasn’t I implicitly threatening to see someone else, the same way he did, in order to get what I wanted?  Maybe I was, but maybe everyone does this?  Maybe it’s a matter of degree, and of approach.  Brent’s approach was demanding, aggressive, and overtly manipulative.  My approach was more passive, more resigned than demanding.

Strangely enough, just before writing this post I read a passage from a book my girlfriend gave me:

It often takes some work for two partners to acknowledge and reveal their deep wish to be loved. But when either of them can do this, without blame or demand, there is an instant sense of relief – on both sides.  It’s a tremendous relief to get down to the simple truth and express it openly: “I really want to feel your love.”

That’s probably the best approach of all.

Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships

Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 9.11.23 PMMost of us are searching for something we’ll never find.  At least where we’re looking for it.  And our inability to find it causes us to find fault with others and feeds a sense of grievance and anger. Those are the main ideas of Perfect Love: Imperfect Relationships by John Welwood, a book that I just finished and highly recommend.

According to Welwood, who is a therapist, most of us are seeking in relationships a kind of “perfect love” which will heal the wounds of our childhood and make us happy forever after.  This is understandable but, although another person may make us very happy some of the time, to expect they will be able to always be attuned to our needs and to meet them all the time is unrealistic.  When they don’t meet our needs, which is inevitable at some point, it triggers our childhood wounds and we become disenchanted, frustrated and angry.

He calls this disenchantment “grievance”, because we bear grievance against those who hurt us.  We blame them for not caring about us, not realizing the hurt often stems from our own old wounds.  This idea resonates very powerfully with me, since I’ve spent much of my life harboring grievances at people who’ve hurt me – my parents, lovers, and bosses come to mind – and often I’ve felt a sense of grievance at just about everyone.  I used to think I was uniquely screwed up, but now I know that many people go through life feeling this way.

My sense of grievance stems from my feelings of being neglected as a child.  My parents divorced when I was seven, and for the ensuing years they were dealing with their own issues, careers and relationships.  Even though they were loving and well-meaning, my brother and I went from being the center of their world to trying to fit into two very separate and confusing worlds.  I developed an eating disorder and suffered from severe depression as an adolescent.  I’ve forgiven my parents, but the emotions and emotional responses from that time period remain.

I won’t go into all the ways that my sense of feeling neglected, and the resulting grievance, has had negative consequences. Suffice it to say that anger stemming from hurt has gotten me fired from a few jobs, cost me promotions, and played a role in the unraveling of my marriage.  My anger has caused me to hurt those closest to me in ways that I regret, as I viewed the world through a lens developed in childhood.

It’s not difficult to generalize from my experience to see how grievance permeates so much of our world.  Many human relationships are marred by irrational anger.  And of course our politics are infected with grievance, which has led to deep divisions and dysfunctional government.

The way to deal with grievance, according to Welwood, is to realize that the perfect love we’re seeking can never be fulfilled by human relationships.  Perfect love can only be experienced through spiritual practice and the realization that love is everywhere and omnipresent.  Whether you want to call this love “God” or another name, most of us have had this experience at some point.  By cultivating this perfect love, through prayer or meditation or via nature, we can experience a joy and a vastness that fills our hearts.

This may sound kind of New Age-y to some people, and if so you can think of it in a practical way.  Feeling loved is a deep human need, and we spend much of our lives seeking this feeling, whether consciously or not.  Some of us try to be loved by accomplishing things, but most of us look to other people for love.  However, other people are looking for the same thing, and even if they are loving and compassionate, it’s not possible for them to provide us with all the love we want, all the time.  Rather than seeking to control others and “make” them love us, why not look to the one we can control – ourselves – to find love and fulfillment?  There are spiritual techniques and traditions going back thousands of years that show us how to do this – most of us just don’t get taught at a young age.

Finding love in our own hearts, and recognizing it as a force that is always present in the world, can be profoundly liberating.  We free ourselves from frustration, and free our partners/children/friends from our attempts to control them.  We can love them as they are, and see them as they truly are, separate from our agenda.  We can enjoy our relationships more if we’re not seeking love and approval from every interaction.

This is just my summary of what I got out of the book.  There’s a lot in it, including examples from the author’s therapy practice and meditation techniques.  I don’t think the ideas here are a “solution” as much as a helpful reminder of things we know are true at some level.  And having love and compassion for ourselves isn’t an easy task, especially if we’ve spent decades beating up on ourselves.  It requires work every day, but that’s okay isn’t it?  I’ve found it’s also a lot of work to be angry, and it feels much better to let go of grievance and (in the words of Lenny Kravitz) let love rule.



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Outwardly, I probably seem like someone who likes change.  I’ve lived in Virginia, France, Washington, D.C., Canada, Arkansas, Texas, and Wisconsin.  I’ve worked developing toys and games, consulting in the field of international development, and selling paper towels.  I’ve worked for the largest company in the world, for myself, and for companies of varying sizes in between.

Sometimes these changes have been exciting, but a lot of the job-hopping and moving around has been motivated by unhappiness.  I wasn’t happy somewhere, so I moved to a new job or a new city.  Often this change felt better for a while, but eventually the novelty wore off and I moved to the next place.

Here is a random fact about Wisconsin, which is where I’ve lived for the last fifteen years; of all fifty states, Wisconsin has the highest proportion of native-born inhabitants.  Most of the people who are born here don’t leave. It’s pretty common for people to marry their high school (or college) sweethearts and have the same job, or at least the same employer, their entire lives.  Parents, grandparents, children, cousins – everyone is nearby.

I often look at these family trees, with their extended branches and deep roots, with envy.  I tend to be sentimental about big families and imagine that it must feel wonderful to be so enveloped in love and caring.  My kids have grown up without any relatives nearby.  The only family reunion they went to was when my grandmother died, and they barely knew anyone there.

My parents divorced when I was eight, and the amount of change that followed was pretty overwhelming.  During the first eighteen years of my life, we moved nine times.  I watched my parents learn to date, saw boyfriends and girlfriends (and second wives and second husbands) come and go, and shuttled from my Mom’s house to my Dad’s house and back again as part of a shared custody arrangement.  I developed an eating disorder when I was eleven, and had a major depressive episode at fifteen.

I was accustomed to change, disruption, and insecurity.  It’s no wonder that the longest relationship I had with a woman prior to my marriage only lasted three months.  As a young adult, I moved from woman to woman as easily as moving into a new apartment, always feeling unsettled and unfulfilled.

At the same time, I craved stability and constancy.  So when I reached my late twenties,  I got married, had children, moved to the Midwest and lived in the same house for fifteen years.  My wife and I were dedicated to providing our three kids a secure and loving environment.  But as any parents will tell you, time with kids passes quickly.  Suddenly, they were grown up, and last year my wife and I agreed to separate.  After many years of the same, more change.

There’s always this tension between the desire for security and stability, and wanting something new and different.  I knew exactly what to expect from being married, and didn’t want that for the rest of my life.  Now I’m not really sure what to want or expect, but I get to figure it out, and every day brings new possibilities.

I think of my life as a never-ending exercise in trial and error, where I go with something and try to make it work, making tweaks along the way, and then when it ceases to work anymore, changing course.  This used to bother me a lot, but now I think maybe it’s not so unusual.  Maybe everyone does this, and just pretends to know what they’re doing?

I guess we all balance the desire for change with the need for things to be the same.  Whether it’s a conscious decision or not, we are always measuring how much novelty and freedom we are willing to sacrifice to preserve what we have, as well as how much security – real or imagined –  we’re willing to leave behind as we search for something new.