For the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting with being present. The deal is, when I catch myself rushing to dampen the intensity of some feeling with a mood-altering "fix"-- a glass of wine or game of solitaire or chapter of fiction--I wait. And I attempt to stand fully in the presence of the thing I wish to avoid, to put a name to the internal conflict for which I seek an external remedy.
What I've often noticed, in such intentional moments of quiet awareness, is that some deeply held belief left over from childhood bubbles to the surface as the chaos-making culprit.
That's what happened recently, when a dear person in my life abruptly ceased communicating. After a long period of being MIA, he sent a vague, cryptic message to let me know that he'd be returning some books I'd loaned him. I'd been stuffing my sadness for weeks, but when a large envelope appeared on the front porch labeled with his distinctive scrawl, the familiar story of abandonment (mine) washed over me, signaling the urge to pour a big glass of wine. Corkscrew in hand, I remembered the promise I’d made to myself and set the corkscrew aside in order to feel the full weight of my disappointment.
Truth is, the dance was familiar to me; he had disappeared before. So, I had enough awareness to let my friend (and my expectations) go, but not before speaking the truth that seized in my throat. I told him of the emotional pain I felt at his leaving and he replied that, by sharing my own pain, I had overwhelmed him and challenged his healing. Sometimes life events chart a course that cannot be corrected, he said. On the road less traveled, he said, that is to be expected. And he withdrew.
It's important to mention that the man I had romanticized him to be bore little resemblance to the actual object of my affection. My imaginary beloved, in a grand epiphany, would have shown up at my door offering genuine apologies for his emotional ineptitude. Of course, such delightful narratives bear no resemblance to real life. They are the projections of an unhealed self, destined to crumble beneath the harsh realities of human relationship... but my, what a lovely distraction from the real work.
Willing myself to stay present to the reality of the package in my hands, I invited the feelings to come. They tumbled out in a sort of jumbled mass that filled my belly with nausea and my throat with a choking sensation. I took a deep breath and named those feelings confusion and disappointment; I acknowledged their presence and invited them to speak. In my mind's eye, I saw a sobbing little girl who knew with dismal certainty that the contents of that envelope signaled the loss of something important. And I saw that it was her pain churning in my belly.
I finally tore the mailer open and started to unpack the books – there were more than I remembered having loaned, plus a short message scribbled on the back of a postcard bearing the image of a Mandala: "with deepest gratitude." How ironic that he had chosen a symbol of life never ending on which to write his brief parting message.
I had loaned him the books--simple stories with spiritual metaphors about trees and turtles and gardens, and one about a little girl with a very brave heart—as read-aloud material for his loved one, who had cherished children and books before her terminal illness, carefully selecting them with that in mind. So I was surprised to open the cover of one to find pages stuck together and stained with mildew. I checked the envelope for a note of explanation; none was given. Why hadn't he cared enough to wrap them carefully or deliver them personally? It doesn't matter, I thought--and then came to a deeper conclusion: I don't matter.
It was as if the tenderness, caring, and love I'd given so freely had been tossed in a heap on my doorstep, completely discarded. Emptying that envelope was like unpacking one childhood core belief after another: I'm not lovable, not worthy, not enough. I don't matter. They tumbled forth accompanied by the overwhelming emotion I've spent most of my life avoiding, distracting myself from, and reciting endless verses of "I'm okay" over: GRIEF.
Now, reaching down into a pool of tears, I grabbed the shaky hand of a tiny girl drowning in fear and imagined putting her firmly on my lap. “Of course you feel abandoned,” I said aloud to her. “You have a lot of source material for that belief! I'm so sorry for all those disappointments you suffered. Every little girl deserves to be loved and cherished." I assured her that I would always stay, that she would always have me; that she would never be abandoned again.
Determined to stay present, I allowed myself to feel the impact of all her losses. My heart ached for her never having felt like enough, grieved for those who left too soon or never really showed up, bled for her fruitless search for love in all the wrong places. I felt the desperate intensity of her desire to be held and protected, and her recklessness and self-destruction when the world felt entirely unsafe.
As I acknowledged her presence, affirmed her feelings, and offered myself as the healthy adult in whom she could trust, I began to recognize some deeper truths.
I think that grief over losing his loved one rendered my friend's heart incapable of fully opening to me or to anyone. But having carried the weight of my own grief for so long, and having let go of my expectations—often not reality-based--I could finally conjure some empathy for him and his little boy within.
And I promised to stay with my little girl self, even when I'm afraid. Especially then, I promised her, I'll stay.