20 April 2017

A Stream Flowing in a Field

So different, this man
And this woman:
A stream flowing
In a field.

~Wm. Carlos Williams

Bailing on a long relationship seldom happens suddenly, severe mental instabilities notwithstanding. They die very slow deaths more often than not. I sometimes hear stories where people are shocked when the leaver finally leaves, but I've usually chalked that up to their stubborn unwillingness to be honest with themselves and their shared past with the other.

In seeming contradiction, there's this thing called "ghosting." Because ghosting is now a thing (but really it's nothing new; it just takes a unique form in our digital dating culture), research is being conducted on it. Psychologists and relationship coaches tell us that ultimately it stems from fear—fear of conflict, which leads to avoidance of confrontation, of difficult conversations, and of hurting someone's feelings.

I get that. I really do. Because I hate conflict, and I'll do almost anything to not hurt someone's feelings. (On second thought, maybe I'll do almost anything to not feel the way I feel after I've hurt someone's feelings.)

But it should come as no surprise that all that avoidance actually increases anxiety and conflict, sometimes from the one being ghosted, and often from the lingering guilt that comes with taking the wrong kind of exit from a relationship. Such anxiety can end up ruling you. I know this. I spent most of my early-to-mid 30s suffering from it, because my life was one big ball of avoidance—particularly with my now ex-wife. I had tried open communication early in our marriage, but I'm sure I wasn't doing it right: I was impatient and unkind. At times I was condescending and angry and overbearing. Because I didn't get anywhere with that communication (no surprise, looking back), I shut down ("ghosted") and became avoidant (incommensurate withdrawal or slamming the door on someone is the same thing as ghosting, only perhaps more painful because it occurs in the midst of an actual long-term relationship). So our communication occurred only out of mounting frustration. Never was there resolution. I avoided confrontation (and so did my ex), and my anxiety grew, and depression crept in. And then one day, I woke up, and my marriage was over, kicking off years of mere cohabitation. That's when the seething bitterness made its home in my heart. And I walked the earth with furrowed brow and heaving, heavy shoulders, dragging around black clouds wherever I went.

Then came the day when those clouds parted. My marriage was still over, this time legally. Sadness set in, but almost immediately so did growth and awareness and vitality and friendship. And, yes, even love. Whether reciprocal or rebounded or unrequited, I realized I could actually feel something in my guts, something better than what I had been feeling for so long. Integral to that growth has been not avoiding conflict, not avoiding doing the hard thing. Caring for the surplus of meaning inherent in the symbol of the holy, the other, the I-Thou.

If only symbols were empty, irrelevant things that aren't inextricably bound to each of us, bringing to world new relations, binding each of us anew to the discreet places they reveal. If only. Then we could dash them against the rocks without consequence. The idols would quietly go into the twilight, and the marketplace would open the next morning without any sense of loss, of meaninglessness. Take heed: symbols gather, symbols world nothing into something. It is for this reason they are to be revered—broken only as a last resort. And yet, a demolished symbol gathers another kind of world, sometimes in Elysian fields, sometimes in the abyss.

Walk, then, with fear and trembling. Guard the symbol with your life. Protect but whisper those unsaid things that cannot as yet survive in this world on their own (like little birds). Become the place—the field-stream—of peace and respite for the weary.

It's like she ceased being Thou, fully human,
With her own despair and desires.
Now she's become a symbol,
A signature of abandonment, a seal of longing.
Toward the Emerald Isle, dizzy in lofty flight.
Ghosted away: This is the dust we carry.

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