Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reflecting Light

Leaving a sales training class at my company’s corporate offices I passed the open doorway to a friend’s office and decided to duck in and check on her. I wound my way through a maze of cubicles and found her on the phone. Radiant sunshine from a brilliant blue December sky washed through a window and into her workspace. She turned and smiled at me. Light reflected all around, sparkling off her necklace and earrings.

Heather hung up the phone.

When we speak we are usually comparing notes, so when I asked, “How’s it going?” she immediately described how things were going now that she moved back in with her husband. I was happy for her. She’s been seeking resolution in her marriage for a long time, and this felt like a step closer. No uncertainty reflected from her face. Only peace.

This comparing of notes began a year and a half ago on a summer evening. Both working late, we found ourselves on computers side by side in the office workroom. When the chitchat started we were acquaintances, but by conversation’s end we’d both shed a few tears at relating that we were separated from our spouses. Both of us were the ones who pulled the trigger, the ones who took action to confront marital unhappiness.

During two years of separation and impending divorce, I kept an ear open for others in this situation and learned so much comparing notes with them. Our experiences are so similar.

The first in a troubled marriage to reach the end of their rope suffers a unique kind of pain, a pain so black it radiates no colors, and so no one can seem to see it. They are often treated by in-laws as if they died, friends seldom call to offer support, their children seldom author loving, encouraging notes and texts, friends who don’t understand are quick with biting comments. Some are trying to punish them for upsetting their ordered world, but most often, it’s simply because it appears the one who left went to get something else, and so now must be happy.

From comparing notes, I know that’s almost never true. The pain it took to get to the end of that rope was kept hidden amid private hopes it would all work out. And when they reveal their own pain, transmitting pain to a spouse and often children, they get isolated, ignored and shunned when they need support the most. And that accumulated pain remains invisible to those around them. Only the pain caused to others by falling from the end of the rope is sympathized with.

Heather and I began having an occasional lunch and from time to time sent each other encouraging text messages. Without people like her who understood what I was going through, I wonder where my mental health would be right now.

At a big, drunken karaoke party this past summer Heather and I sang a duet together; “You’re The One That I Want,” from Grease. As we skipped off the stage I caught a glimpse of her estranged husband in the crowd, standing alone, jealous and hurting. In the months after, I sought him out wherever I found him – grocery store, local theater, downtown bar, and spoke to him so he could see I wasn’t a threat.

I have compared notes with so many people in the past two years.

At a bar a year ago, a friend approached me and nodded toward the corner, “See my friend Jenna over there? She’s leaving her husband and going through a tough time. I left that bar stool next to her empty for you. You’re in the thick of the same thing and you’re a Realtor. Maybe you can help her find a place to live and offer some words of comfort in the process.”

I did, and Jenna and I became good friends. The painful road I watched her walk took my breath away time and time again. She remains one of the most amazingly resilient people I know.

As a child, I saw a dog get hit by a car. It ran across our lawn violently thrashing about in agony. I often thought of that as I watched Jenna's husband appear at the bar that spring, fresh from the concussion of loss, causing one ugly scene after another, willfully thrashing about, reflecting misery off the fractured shards of his broken heart onto her . . . and me.

Back at Heather’s cubicle, she nodded gratefully toward an email open on the glowing screen. The brilliant sunlight reflected off tears welling-up in her eyes as she smiled. She sighs and takes a deep, ragged breath. “When we separated, my mother-in-law just stopped talking to me.” She quiets to a whisper, so overcome by emotion it’s all she can muster. “She had been one of my best friends ever. It was so hard to be shunned that way. But my husband recently asked her to communicate with me and she has, emailing me to ask about my new job.”

How typical Heather’s separation story is. Family members quickly circle the wagons around their child or sibling. And in doing so, without realizing, they’re withdrawing support from the very relationship they want to survive. This plants new resentments, adding to the conflict. When the relationship has fewer supporters, it’s less likely to survive.

But we’re the “perpetrators.” You’re not supposed to be on our side. You’re supposed to side with the “victim.” A life’s consumption of storybook, TV and film plot lines hardwires us to reflexively identify the perpetrators and victims, the antagonists and protagonists. That way we know who to side with. Maybe that’s why we perpetrators seek each other and find common threads of comforting light, emitted through shared circumstances.

“Misery loves company?” Maybe. It also heals in the iridescent sparkle of empathy.

In my years teaching photography, I always began by explaining to students that we don’t really see the objects around us. Instead our eyes perceive light reflecting off of them. If an object reflects all colors, we perceive white. If it absorbs all colors, we perceive black. And objects that reflect varying amounts of light we can perceive with all the colors of the rainbow.

We are all like that in life, reflecting peace, love, sadness, anger, loss. And like light, some of what we emit is absorbed by those around us and some bounces off others and reflects back to us. Sometimes we’re saddened by what doesn’t bounce back - what we loose in the blackness of others or what people can’t see in the blackness in us. And sometimes we don’t’ recognize the wavelengths we’re putting out and the colors that reflect back to us are painful to acknowledge.

Pragmatists call it, “just deserts.” Buddhists call it “karma.” Calvinists call it, “God’s will.”  Whatever you call it, it can’t be denied. We are all reflecting light. This reality screams at you when you reach the end of your marital rope.

My divorce was final on December 14th, but over Christmas I scanned through Facebook status updates and see several posts from Heather about the happy, healing Christmas she’s having back in her home with her husband and children. I can’t help but smile for her.

For a musical take on the subject, give Sam Phillips a listen:

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