In this season of anticipatory and happy holidays among a number of cultural and faith traditions, I want to focus on the subject of personal loss in relationships for a moment. I am grateful that there are some houses of worship that will offer “blue” worship services to address the spiritual needs of, and to comfort, those who have endured gut-wrenching losses recently.
Loss is a subject that weighs heavily on all who encounter it, especially when the loss is unanticipated and comes as an undesired surprise. Sometimes the loss is a death, irreversible and permanent, at least in this lifetime. Sometimes the loss is of a relationship, whether with a job or with a person.
I remember the loss of a prior marriage decades ago. I do not claim to have been better behaved or to have been more honest than my ex-spouse. I also do not claim to have gained an appreciation for how I might have been a better wife and person. I do know that my then-husband wasn’t ready for the commitment to forsake all others when he married me.
My then-husband’s perfidy reached its height when I was in the hospital giving birth to our child. I forgave him as I had done the previous instances. I would forgive him many more instances until I had to choose between losing my mind or reclaiming my sanity. I would not effectuate the outward signs of my departure from that marriage, thereby acknowledging its final ending, until I had hit the rock bottom of self-destructiveness that led to suicide attempts.
For me the loss was much more than the loss of my first and promised “forever marriage.” It was also the loss of trust in men that has pervaded my subsequent relationships with men, in both romantic and other types of relationships for many decades. The pain of what I and many others would characterize as “betrayal” gnawed at my feelings of being lovable and ultimately at my self-confidence for a long, long time. In my moments of greatest stresses in all types of relationships, the lack of self-confidence shows up to undermine my ability to function fully as my best self.
Loss is peculiar in how it begets further loss even while we do our best to try to hold onto those things that are important to us. The problem with loss is that it is more of a vapor that envelops all the parts of us than it is a discrete event that happens and is over. While we may not know the boundaries and edges, the frontiers of our losses, our losses are pervasively eating at our cores, at the things about ourselves that make us know who we are, the things that we used to be sure about. It is these further, unspoken and often unacknowledged, losses that make the triggering event of loss so unbearable. It is these further losses that make us unable to respond when we try “to get over it” or “to put it behind us.”
In many cases, it is possible for one’s losses to be redeemed. When you receive redemption, it is a gift, unexpected and usually undeserved. When my priest spoke of how her marriage was redemptive, I didn’t understand what she meant. I couldn’t see it, much less experience it. The awareness of the power of redemption was to come years later. Redemption has been an experience of so much more than its elements that include forgiving and being forgiven, and starting over and getting a second chance. Redemption is an experience of new life as compared to a do-over. In Christianity we talk about being baptized and following Jesus Christ as our redemption from sin and the beginning of our new life as a member of the Body of Christ.
Most importantly, my husband has been a true partner who has given me the space to learn how to live with disagreements and not default to feeling judged and abandoned. I learned how to fight fairly within our relationship and not fear that arguing fiercely would lead to an inevitable separation followed by divorce. We also, perhaps most wisely of all, committed not only to each other but also to our marriage, which had not been an obvious necessity to either of us in our previous marriages. (In other words, the marriage itself became an entity within our relationship that we both sought to cherish and protect. I realize that some theologians will argue that marriage within a religious tradition requires precisely that level of commitment and support; yet, for many people, including myself who had been grounded in scripture and religious tradition, that had not entered into my thought process.)
Part of my redemption has been grounded in an innate optimism that I didn’t realize I had inside me for the longest time. That innate optimism is about a belief in the goodness of God’s creation, including humankind. That optimism has been expressed as a willingness to try again and to put myself in harm’s way again. That has been lived out by other instances of giving myself into relationships where the ones I trusted turned out to be untrustworthy because of their own issues and character flaws.
There was always a part of me that recognized the value of relationships even when I myself had not yet experienced healthy ones graced by mutual respect and mutual cherishing. This is where my intellect overcame my emotions so that I was not the victim of my past unsatisfactory experiences. I believed the great love stories of the ages, and instead of believing such a love story was impossible for me to have, I asked myself the question, “why not?”
Asking “why not?” led to a decision, a choice, to trust in the goodness of God to provide and to let go of my need to control and plan my life’s outcomes. I ceased being a 20-something woman desperate for and focused on achieving a love relationship, and I turned to a new goal of being a “good person,” of becoming a woman of compassion and service for their own sakes. It wasn’t that I had been a bad person before, but I was definitely self-focused and not other-focused. For me, redemption was about a new life as a “good person,” where the losses of the prior years no longer ruled my consciousness or my emotions.
My holiday prayer for all who are in relationship ambiguity is to choose hope and optimism, and in the meanwhile, to focus on serving those whom God has put in your path to lift up and bless.