A Valentine from Me to You: You’re Not Alone

Think about it, there must be higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, I’ll look inside mine…

—Steve Winwood and Will Jennings

When I was a child, then a teenager… even into the decades of my twenties and thirties…I never questioned that my life would be like most everyone else’s. I would meet someone, fall in love, get married, have a family. As I got older and it wasn’t happening, I told everyone that was a-okay with me. I didn’t want it. So what if it was a lie? I shrugged it off and didn’t dwell on it.

By my early forties, I’d told the lie enough times that I was comfortable with it. Besides, at that point I’d gained enough weight that mostly people didn’t ask me about it anymore – whether I was seeing anyone, or wished I was, became a moot point. We all knew no one wanted someone like me. We didn’t talk about it. Ever.

Later in that decade, when I decided to change my life, to come out of my lie-induced trance, amid all of the incredibly beautiful, powerful and positive experiences came this realization: my supposed “okay-ness” with being alone was the biggest crock I’d ever sold myself.

Around that time, at a wedding, one of the bible readings opened up a pit of anger so vast I almost couldn’t contain my ire and join in the celebration. The reading didn’t beat around the bush – I thought they were the most cruel verses I’d ever heard. From Ecclesiastes 4:9:

Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?

I stayed in that pit of anger for a long time, unable to claw my way out. At or to whom could I direct my wrath? I was just learning not to despise myself and that felt good enough that I didn’t want to turn my rage inward. So I directed it at the only other entity I could think of: God. And let me tell you, I am certain it was no coincidence that, during this time period, everywhere I turned people in my life were vociferously thanking God for the amazing partners He gifted them with. How that pissed me off, and fueled the fire I was burning up in!

At some indefinable moment, my angry defiance gave way to angry tears. I cried until the pit I was in filled with my own salty water. Suddenly, instead of being trapped in a pit I found myself swimming in an ocean of grief. After literal decades of choosing not to feel anything deeply, I felt every second of my mourning over what had never come to be. It wasn’t merely that I had no significant other at that moment, lots of people share that predicament. It was the fact that I have never had that. Never been cherished, wanted in a mature romantic relationship. Its a bit harder to find people who share that life experience – in part because who wants to admit that out loud? It feels defective. Deficient. I astonished myself with the number of tears I was capable of crying. I surprised (and frightened) my friends; seriously, we would look at one another in astonishment when yet another crying jag would take me in the middle of a seemingly innocuous moment. I was SAD. SAD. SAD.

One day, my feet touched bottom. On an emotional level, I was still doing that sniffly, hiccupy thing you do after a long hard cry, but I had come to the shore of that particular ocean. I wasn’t laughing it off, by any means, but I wasn’t in danger of flooding the midwest any longer.

Here’s the thing: even in the middle of my deepest anger and my soggiest grief, I was happy in a way I had never been before as an adult. Some days were downright joyful. Let me say that again so we all can feel the magnitude of what I’m saying here: some days, when I was angry beyond my ability to articulate it, or when I was so sorrowful I sat through dull work meetings trying not to cry, I was AT THE SAME MOMENT happy and sure of my own well-being.

How was that possible?

How is the reason I am rehashing all of this in a post on Valentine’s Day. In the three+ years I’ve been posting to this blog, I’ve discovered that the more honestly I share my true experiences, the more likely it is that someone – reading what I’ve written – will recognize him- or her- self in my story. So I feel confident that you’re out there. You know who you are – the person feeling so desperately alone. Unworthy. Defective. I want you, whoever you are, to know you don’t have to feel that way. Or at least, that isn’t the whole picture of who you are, or what your life can be.

First, it was possible to be both enraged and joyful because the more I opened myself to others, sharing my triumphs, failures, angers, and even my grief…the more others were willing to offer me love, friendship, and support. Incredible, amazing people in my life were able to understand that I was experiencing something profound. They couldn’t experience it themselves, not being me, but they could walk through it with me – and they did.

Second, it was possible to be both deeply sad and happy at the same time because the sadness was residual – left over from the past. Oprah (and therapists everywhere) always says that if you don’t let yourself feel it now, you’ll feel it later. With interest. So whatever you’re feeling, let it be felt. I ate to cover up my feelings, and while it seemed comforting at the time, it made things infinitely worse. I’ll take angry, crying, healthy and happy Jenion over my old dangerously overweight and sleepwalking self any day.

I came, eventually, to the shore of my ocean of grief with this realization: when you focus on what you don’t have, you will always feel deprived – even if you are surrounded by riches. And I am surrounded by blessings. When you focus on what you don’t have, you devalue not only the gifts you do have, but the givers of those gifts: the people who do care, who are there. And that includes my nemesis, God. This realization has recently allowed me to make my first, tentative, overtures of friendship toward God again. Don’t get me wrong. I still blame God. I am just learning to grudgingly accept that I don’t know everything God knows (including the big picture of my life).

In all of this I see the workings of a higher love, and it fills me with gratitude. That it would be possible to change my life never occurred to me until it started happening. That I could discover it possible to be happy with myself – even though I might wish some parts of my life were different – was a revelation to me. I know that since it was possible for me, it is possible for others, too. Possible for you.

There must be higher love, as the song says. Without it, life is wasted time. Look inside your heart and…stop wasting time. You may have to do work with yourself that is truly hard. And you may have to deal with feelings you buried in the past. But while romantic love, married love, is a beautiful thing – it isn’t the only thing. You are more than your relationship status, so much more! And you are not alone, no matter how utterly single you are this Valentine’s Day. In fact, you are loved.

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The Quality of Mercy

Friends, I feel so happy and strong. My life is blessed in ways too numerous to count. I say this, not to brag, but to be clear that this is where I stand: in peace and gratitude.

It is true, though, that life can be hard, full of challenges that we aren’t certain we have the strength or inner resources to weather. Illness, poverty, loneliness (among other things) may show up in our lives in big ways or small, and they also show up in the lives of those all around us. Sometimes we know what challenges another faces, sometimes we are unaware until we visit a friend and find her crying, or a note goes up on the bulletin board at the gym about a member’s family in need of our generosity.

Sometimes, I am closed to the suffering of others. Caught up in the details of my own life, focused on my own hurts or struggles. It happens to most of us. Other times, I am open and feel overwhelmed by concern and a desire to help. Often, it feels like there is so little of substance I can do.

A few years ago, I participated in a book discussion group at work, sponsored by our Campus Ministry department. I can’t remember the name of the book, but the theme was mercy. The author(s) used a working definition of mercy that went something like this: “to enter fully into the chaos of another’s life”. I clearly remember saying, in the ensuing discussion, that I didn’t know whether I wanted to do that – entering fully into someone else’s chaos sounds not the least appealing, especially if you have your own chaos.

And yet.

We are all so good at allowing ourselves to intellectually grasp what another person might be going through. We donate canned goods, drop money in the red bucket, participate on boards and go to fundraisers. These are all good things to do, but we can so often do them without actually engaging with someone in pain. Entering into someone else’s chaos demands the engagement of our hearts, not just our minds. That is so much more difficult, and it can really be scary.

A while ago, I participated in a one-day service project to deliver Meals On Wheels. My experience was different from that of the others who participated that day – it just so happened that my route included some particularly grim experiences. I haven’t been able to go back, though I was happy to donate the proceeds of my hunger challenge that year to that program. So maybe that was too much chaos, way too fast.

But when the people that I know and interact with daily are suffering, entering into their chaos means, first, walking beside them so they know I am there. I’m pretty sure I can do that.

What I don’t want to do is stand in this place of peace and gratitude, happiness and strength, and just watch the suffering flow by. Nor do I want to blunder in and try to fix everything. Neither of these approaches serve in the long run. My old friend (and by friend, I mean author I deeply admire), Parker Palmer, espouses a form of community which holds each person sacred. This is how I hope to express the quality of mercy in my life, and I think it’s a fitting end to this reflection. He says:

“The key to this form of community involves holding a paradox – the paradox of having relationships in which we protect each other’s aloneness. We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life without dishonoring its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.”