One of the few relationships that our society still considers non-optional is that between a child and his or her parents. Regardless of how old we are or how abusive our parents are, we are expected to be the bigger person, and to absorb the pain of our parents with little more than an occasional complaint. About three years ago, I divorced my parents, or to be more precise I divorced my mother. I have no relationship to speak of with my step-father. I see him or don’t see him only as a side-effect of being in a relationship with her.
Naturally, I feel like a divorce from my parents wouldn’t be necessary if only I was a better person. But a recent conversation with a friend of mine has me wondering if maybe what I am doing is an act of bravery and kindness, not cowardice and cruelty.
My friend was recently granted an interview with the Dalai Lama. One question he asked his Holiness was, “If you were given an army large enough to drive all of the Chinese out of Tibet, would you use it?” According to my friend, the Dalai Lama first laughed, and then answered, “I hope I wouldn’t.”
Given that the Dalai Lama is committed to freeing Tibet by strictly peaceful means, his reply was unremarkable at face value. On another level, however, his reply was quite remarkable because his Holiness did not answer with an absolute “no,” nor did he launch into a lecture about why it would be wrong to use force. Instead, he said he hoped he would act virtuously should the situation arise.
In other words, even the Dalai Lama acknowledges that given the right confluence of circumstance, personal weakness, and overwhelming temptation, even a man as enlightened as he might violate his most sacred religious ideology.
This brings me to the first of two theories. I think that I may have discovered one of the key differences between your average human and those who have attained enlightenment, Christlikeness, or some other state of advanced spirituality. They do not in any way pass along the abuse, negativity, and pain which is hurled at them. They are like the Universe’s HEPA filters, taking in toxins but not blowing them out again.
All of the people that I know are like me, just normal humans. So it is not surprising that I have yet to meet anyone who, when abused, harassed, or subjected to cruelty, has not either passed that back to the abuser or passed it on to others in some way. We either sling crap back at those who dump on us, or it rolls downhill. I will admit that I have known people who were able to filter for limited times, but eventually they passed on the pain in some way.
One of the most important lessons of my life has been that allowing myself to be the object of harassment or abuse is the same as allowing the abuser or harasser to do that to the people I care about the most. At best, such treatment makes it infinitely harder to be as loving and kind as we would like to be.
Which brings me to my second pet theory. When it comes to relationships, what matters is not how much we love a person but how we feel about ourselves when we are around them. Some people bring out the best in us and others bring out the worst.
After considering the Dalai Lama’s words in the context of my own life, I have realized that there is a key difference between most people and those who have attained enlightenment, Christlikeness, or some other state of advanced spirituality:
Next, I thought about how this dynamic manifests itself when it comes to relationships, and I came to another realization:
What matters most is not how much we love a person, but how we feel about ourselves and how we behave when we are around them.
Some people bring out the best in us and others bring out the worst. I had a boyfriend who was an incredibly kind and decent person, but something about how we interacted brought out all of my incompetence. To this day, when I am around him I begin to feel dependent, needy, and inadequate. I do not like the person I become with him.
Like enlightened people who are HEPA filters, a person of unlimited virtue would be able to maintain her true sense of self regardless of who she was with. But I am just a human, and so I am influenced by the people around me.
How is this relevant to the discussion of divorcing my parents? I believe that separating ourselves from people who abuse us or who bring out the absolute worst in us is not at all selfish. Rather, it can be a kindness not only to those we care about who inevitably suffer the fall-out, but also to the people abusing us.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this would be to share the other half of the story that I started in my article on why it is sometimes necessary to divorce our parents..
The Thanksgiving after my mother-in-law died, my mother was especially unkind. The following day, our family was looking forward to putting up the Christmas tree and watching old movies. This is one of our very few family traditions, and it is something I have always loved, a sweet trip down memory lane as a family. That year, the celebration should have been even more treasured since it was my daughter’s first holiday home from college.
Instead, I spent the entire day obsessing over how I would manage my mother’s Christmas visit. I agonized about the tree, trying to make sure it would not offend her religious sensibilities or hurt her feelings because I had forgotten to hang ornaments she had given us. I ended up leaving in the middle of an important family event to ransack the storage area looking for ornaments that would please her.
When I came back from the angst-induced ornament hunt, my husband and children sat me down for a good old fashioned intervention. They went around the room, each person telling me how my how my relationship with my mother had negatively impacted them and how they saw it negatively impacting my work and my health. They asked me to take at least a three-month break from my relationship with her.
I imagine people who are not ready to get sober have much the same reaction to an intervention as I did. I did not believe that my relationship with my mother was a serious problem, and I imagined that I could control any negative impact if I truly set my mind to it. But just to set my family’s mind at ease, or perhaps to prove them wrong, I agreed to give up contact with my mother except for sending holiday and birthday gifts.
I cannot begin to explain how difficult and painful it was to make that separation. Frankly, divorcing my mother has been far more painful than ending my first marriage, which included a the five-year custody battle. I have been wracked by guilt. It isn’t just that I am causing my mother pain; I am not feeling what I believe I should feel.
For example, I worry about her all the time, but I don’t miss her. I feel sad for her and guilty about excluding her every time we celebrate a holiday or major event like my son’s graduation. But I am inevitably relieved that she is not there, and delighted by how much fun we have without her. I am saddened by her pleading letters, deeply hurt by the blaming letters she sends, and enraged by the things she tells other people about me. But none of those things make me want to open a conversation with her or try to reconcile with her. I now realize I have always been afraid of her and how much better my life is without her in it.
It isn’t just that my life is better without her in it. I am a better person without her in my life. With each passing month, I have come a little closer to being a person who respects herself. Two years after the break, I had a genuine moment of epiphany: If I never renewed my relationship with her, I would never again have to answer to her. The punishing mother/frightened daughter dynamic was gone. And just like that, I began writing prolifically. I realized that I didn’t hate writing. Rather, I had been paralyzed by my anxiety about how my mother would respond to what I wrote.
Recently, we had another family vote. As per usual, I wanted us to renew and restore our relationship with my mother. My family voted against it. Despite the family vote, I felt I had to give it one last try. So I had a brief online interaction with her.
I did not like who I became—at all. As a person who values kindness, it pains me to admit that I said something for no reason other than to cause her emotional pain. I stopped short of cruelty, but it was enough to help me see my limitations around the kind of person I am capable of being with my mother.
Like the Dalai Lama, I do not trust my virtue in certain situations, nor should I. I realized that in a moment of weakness or overwhelming temptation, I could do or say something cruel. And that is not the person I want to be.
Now, on those days when I want to hate myself for not forgiving and reconciling with my mother, I remind myself that there are some things that even spiritual masters know better than to trust themselves with. And I tell myself that even the Dalai Lama would have divorced my parents.