A newly single friend who lives in the south of the country decided to try her luck on JDate and showed me the profile she had written for posting on the dating site. “Maybe you can make some improvements in the way I’ve described myself?” she asked, knowing about my work as an editor.
I offered a suggestion or two, after which she reflected that of course, “by my time in life, everyone has emotional baggage” – painful memories, hurt and mistrust from past rejections and other bad experiences carried around in the present.
Now this friend, who is beyond middle age, is youthful and admirably forward-looking in the way she lives her life, even though it hasn’t been an easy one. Regrettably not so the men she has met, who have tended to reveal themselves as emotionally manacled to some condition or other of their past lives – often a former spouse, either living or already passed on.
This adhesion to the past – employed as a shield against future emotional risk? – renders such individuals free in name only and has meant, for my friend, the inevitable collapse of one fledgling relationship after another.
As we settled in for a good talk, I remarked that we might all be better off if instead of using the trendy but heavily laden and negative term “emotional baggage,” we substituted a neutral word like “history,” something everyone possesses merely by dint of living and getting older in the world.
I wondered whether a simple thing like changing the terminology of talking about our pasts could help loosen that accretion of hurt and mistrust that doesn’t so much poison new relationships as erect an impenetrable wall that prevents people from moving on.
WHAT IS it that keeps many people bogged down in the past or mired in an unfulfilling present, unable to go forward in their lives, emotionally and otherwise? Someone suggested that the word “fear” is an abbreviation of False Expectation Appearing Real, which is a neat way of describing dread of the unknown.
Our past is a largely known quantity; so is our present, while the future is shrouded in uncertainty and therefore scary. That can make staying with the familiar an irresistible temptation, even when the reality is far from satisfactory. The need for certainty can become addictive.
NOWHERE WAS this more poignantly illustrated for me than by a television drama screened on British television. Though I saw it many years ago, it has stayed in my mind, together with my dismay at how the story ended.
It began with a woman who was no longer young but had clearly been delicately beautiful, seated on a park bench. Above her, she notices that a bird has become caught in the branches of a tree. However much it flaps its wings, it cannot break free.
A man sits down on the same bench, and a conversation springs up between the two, in the course of which he reaches up and gently disentangles the bird, which flies away.
It becomes clear that the man and woman are compatible, and a relationship develops during subsequent meetings in the park. He learns that she lives in an appalling reality: Her husband is not only repeatedly unfaithful to her but a cruel tormentor, bringing home a variety of men with whom he carries on noisily in the room adjacent to hers.
The man declares his desire to take her away to a very different reality where he will love and care for her. Although she reciprocates his feelings and longs to go with him, she cannot do it. Unlike the trapped bird at the beginning of the story, she is truly captive, and returns to her husband. Her present circumstances, dreadful as they are, are the certainty she knows, exerting in the end a stronger pull than the prospect of an unknown future.
WORTH READING as a parable about embracing change (or not) is the 1998 best-selling Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. It’s a fable about two mice and two “little people” who live in a maze and find their formerly dependable supply of cheese gone, and how each one deals with the new reality.
Even if you don’t read the book, these quotes from it stand alone and provoke reflection: “The fear you let build up in your mind is worse than the situation that actually exists”; “Life moves on, and so should we,” and the challenging, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” A former colleague, faced with the possibility of striking out in a new but risky creative direction – giving up the relative financial security of editing and translating other people’s work in favor of becoming a freelance writer – asked herself the above question.
“I realized that it was my fear holding me back, and that if I thought about my decision in that way, I would have the courage to go with my gut feeling and do what I really wanted – which was to write my own stuff.”
Fear is life’s only true opponent, writes Yann Martel in his prize-winning Life of Pi (2001).
“It is a clever, treacherous adversary... It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always... so you must fight hard... to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid... you open yourself to further attacks of fear....”
I ONCE wrote about a young woman who took a backpacking trip to India, and in the northern part of the country, near the border with Tibet and Kashmir, cycled down the 18,380 feet (5,359 meters) of the Khardung La pass in Ladakh province, touted as “the highest motorable road in the world.”
It was a scary prospect, she later admitted. She knew how to handle a bike, but didn’t own one and didn’t often ride.
“We started at 8 a.m. The weather at the top was freezing, even though it was August. Our guide said we had to get going because the air was very thin, and there was a danger of altitude sickness if we hung around.
“I didn’t want to do the bike ride at first,” she confessed, “but then I decided that I would take it slowly and see how it went.
“Riding down took about three hours. At the beginning, the road was stony and really bad; if you went too quickly, you could fall off. Then it got better, so you went quicker – but then, of course, you could go too fast.
“Traffic passed us, and Indians are reckless drivers; but worse was seeing car wrecks at the side of the road, like a warning.
“Slowly it got warmer, and the scenery was fantastic: desert and snow in the same place. It was unique, majestic and beautiful; incredible.
“At the end, my whole body was aching,” she said. “But I had a feeling of achievement. I had done it in spite of being scared. It gave me a good feeling about myself – that I was stronger than I had thought. I felt more confident about what I could do.”
In other words, she had faced her fear, and conquered it. She had taken a risk, and it had helped her grow.
She is my daughter, and I’m proud of her. I’m just glad I didn’t know about the ride in advance.