Be honest… Did you wake up to Valentines Day, and wish there was some way you could close your eyes and wish it were already tomorrow. But alas, there is no escape, and all you are left with is your Facebook feed, and with it the inevitable introspection, projection, and self-flagellation that comes with having to measure up to that ever elusive standard of love, forever ingrained on our psyche by the inescapable romantic culture we are immersed in. The writer Alain de Botton has a beautiful, and what some might say—catastrophic, description of marriage to which he contends often “ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.”
My wife and I will be celebrating 30 years of marriage later this summer, and as you can expect, over the years we’ve seen far too many relationships crumble around us. And somewhere along the way, we have become that ‘old married couple’ that many of our friends aspire to be. People often ask me what’s the secret to staying together for such a long time, and more particularly, how can you still be so crazy in love with your wife after all these years?
To be honest, I really struggle with how to answer that question because neither one of us has ever thought of our marriage being predicated on happiness. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “If you’re not happy, why would you stay together?” But here’s the thing, if you’re looking to find your happiness in another person, you’re setting yourself up for constant turmoil, disappointment, and disillusionment. I’ve always seen our marriage as something that transcends the waxing and waning of happiness, and instead, it has more to do with the ephemeral landscape of faith. Even the phrase, ‘falling in love’ denotes a chaotic and unscripted tumble into the abyss. It’s only when we try to script that journey that we interrupt the natural flow that brought us into joyous communion to begin with.
So, I return to my previous statement—Am I happy all the time? No, but I am loved all the time, and therein lies what I believe to be the beautiful mystery of any successful long-term relationship. Even though I’ve been married to the same person for almost three decades now, I would say that we’ve had numerous marriages throughout that time, each delicately demarcated by the undulations of bending and growing as our partner relaxes into, and at times, challenges that space of being loved.
But overall, what I’m most proud of is not that we have remained together for so many years, but that we continually made the decision to love our partner in the darkest and most vulnerable moments. It was in these times of aching uncertainty that we had the greatest faith to fall towards love again, and again. As I close my eyes on yet another Valentines Day, I push against the weight of the current, and once again remind myself that love is not a revolution… It’s an evolution… And so, I will continue to tumble forward with you, my dear.
We live in uncertain times, but this much I know to be true—live long enough, and sooner or later your life will go off script, leaving you with an aching feeling of dissonance precipitated by an incapacitating trauma, adversity, or loss. And when you eventually emerge from that mourning, it will have everything to do with your beckoning the courage to somehow claw your way out of the suffocating darkness. Arising into a tumultuous sea of uncertainty, you might find yourself desperately clinging to that one person who will be your lifeboat… your safe harbor. And more than likely, you’ll begin to amass a menagerie of talisman to which you summon your nescient, and oh so fragile strength. Self help books and spiritual texts will increasingly find their way into your life; and perhaps, you will even choose to be so bold as to mark this journey with a tattoo—a forever reminder of how far you traveled only to get back to yourself.
As you step back from the chasm of darkness, you desperately try to make some semblance of the fractured pieces of your former life, now lying threadbare and scattered at your feet. ‘Just move on’ people will tell you. ‘Put it behind you’… ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’ But what if that’s not true? What if some scars and losses in our life simply run too deep for us to untether and ignore.
People often tell me that I’m resilient—a quality that I find as elusive to define as I do to recognize it in myself. It’s likely that what others see as my moving forward in life coincided with my decision to stop trying to slip the noose of the trauma and loss I experienced, and instead, to compassionately begin to make space for all that pain and absence. It was as though without even being aware of it, I began to entertain the notion of ‘healing with’ something rather than continually trying to ‘heal from’ something.
Those who live with the insidious scars of trauma see themselves as forever changed, altered, or re-calibrated in some way. And for me, at times, it can feel like I have four garbage cans, and only three lids. It’s an intricate and exhausting stealth-like dance to muffle the less socially acceptable symptoms of my mental illness. It’s constantly living in a ‘grey zone’ in a world that only sees things as either black or white. It’s figuring out how to deny those vestiges of trauma the oxygen they need to breathe to life, while at the same time, searching in vain for the vocabulary to articulate their uneasy presence in my life.
The Christian pastor and poet, Eugene Peterson once said: “Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around, and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself… Poetry grabs us by the jugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.” And to me, that is the essence of resilience—a conscious choice to transgress the fragile boundary we erect around our pain, and a faith to move beyond that, which is ‘cosmetic’ towards that, which is ‘intestinal’.
Resilience has very little to do with surviving, and everything to do with awakening into where you are at this very moment. When we distance ourselves from, or anaesthetize ourselves against trauma and loss, we inadvertently diminish the potential breadth and beauty of our life. Trauma has such resonance in our lives for the very fact that its arrival casts a shadow over parts of our mind that were once open to us. I was listening to a BBC interview with the Scottish poet Jackie Kay, in which she said, “We write to understand the things that are missing in our lives… I think we are also often shadowed in our life by losses… that kind of strange loss becomes actually a presence… and so, an absence becomes a presence in our life… Writers often write to grapple with the presence that absence makes.”
So, maybe that’s where truth lies—having the faith to wholeheartedly “grapple with that presence that absence makes.” Resilience is not that which keeps us safe and allows us to survive; but rather, resilience is unearthed in each of us as we wrestle our way towards the pieces of us that terrify us most. In the words of embedded war correspondent David Morris, someone who has written candidly about his own battles with PTSD: "The goal of every survivor is to try to resolve this failed homecoming, to try to be less apart.”