I have to be honest. I’ve been a little sad lately—and not just lately, actually, but for a while. It’s not a feeling of despondency or despair or even depression (whatever that means), so much as a sort of ache that is by now almost familiar. Nothing is really broken, but something is clearly missing.
I’m not sure how to explain it, but this comes close: things as they are now are not as they once were, and things that once were will never be so again. I am not pining for the past or despairing of the present so much as I am quietly aware of the coming of a very different future. Life moves on, and it sheds its skin in places as it goes. There is an inescapable sadness to that. I can see it. I can feel it. I just haven’t quite been able to put my finger on it—until now.
In my case, I am swirling in the wake of two failed marriages and all the emotional turbulence that goes with such calamities. But what I am feeling is not really what most people would recognize as grief, nor is it something I expect ever to “get over.” It is rather more subtle—an indescribable strangeness that surrounds the people, places, and rituals in my life where once there was an ease so familiar to me that I scarcely knew it was there, like the beating of my heart or the motion of my leg. Have you thought deeply about your leg, today? I would guess not, but I bet you would if it were no longer attached to your body. This, oddly enough, came to me as something of an epiphany.
If you have been suffering through any sort of loss for more than thirty minutes in our therapeutic Internet culture, someone, somewhere has given you well-intentioned encouragement about moving on, coming to terms, opening a window, finding yourself, rediscovering what really matters, embracing change—pick your metaphor. It all comes down to the dogma that a healthy state of mind sooner or later requires us to “get over” the thing we are grieving. I’m not so sure. Consider, once again, the leg.
Legs are wondrous things. They are an essential part of our bodies. They bear us up and carry us to every adventure and accomplishment in life. Yet for some of us, there may come a time when a leg is no longer a help but a hindrance. The gangrenous or cancerous leg is not just a burden; unless it is removed it may threaten the survival of the entire body.
So it is with divorce (to state the obvious). A marriage that was integral to the lives of two people—something that once was vital and strong and useful—grows weaker, becomes useless, and dies. Dead or dying tissue must be excised. The leg must go. I get it. If you’ve been divorced, you get it.
But what I didn’t get until recently is that, after the thing that was once a part of us is gone, however necessary its removal, we never really “get over” the fact that it’s gone. We don’t say “good riddance” to the leg. After it’s gone, we don’t kid ourselves that it was never, after all, a very good leg. No matter how long it has been gone, we don’t forget that we once had a leg, as if by forgetting we could achieve some triumph of healing. We don’t say things like, “I wish I had never met my leg.”
It’s not a perfect metaphor, I realize. Unlike legs, people have the capacity to hurt us deliberately. Some marriages never learn to walk, much less run, because the people in them are dragging more baggage than Marley’s ghost. But speaking for myself and, I believe, for most, relationships don’t start out as awful. They are rarely bad to the bone. They aren’t intrinsically pathological. They know periods of sickness and health. For some the sickness passes, for others it becomes insufferable. Such is life.
And so I’ve decided to make peace with my sadness. It’s not such a bad thing. It’s a healed wound that reminds me I am human and still alive. I smile to look back and remember what was. Why? Because two people once shared such hopes, and when was hopefulness ever unlovely? There was excitement and anticipation and enthusiasm for the future—all good things. Life didn’t turn out quite as anyone expected, but whose life ever does?
As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” My own history refuses to leave me. I have now been married and divorced twice. Whenever I hear someone disparage a politician or celebrity as the “twice-divorced” so-and-so, as if that statistic alone said something important about a person’s character, I cringe. That’s me, I think, and I wonder how that could even be possible.
It’s uncomfortable, yes, but it’s also clarifying. Failure never feels great, but it keeps us humble. Trial and error is the soul of wisdom. No one aspires to be a man of sorrows, but I’d rather be a wistful sage than a happy idiot. Sitting quietly with the unalterable sadness of the past isn’t wonderful, but it is honest. I can live with that. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can’t really live without it.