Next month, (in 19 days to be exact), I will turn 45. In my mid-40’s, my identity is as malleable as it is fixed, and transformation is not only a process, but also a goal. My identity is also complex and for the first time in my adult life I am beginning to truly appreciate that complexity, because that complexity is what makes me uniquely me. 2017 is still in its infancy, but a lot has happened since the beginning of the year. Not only in the world, but in my personal life as well. As I ease into this new year – still walking this path by myself – I’ve taken some time for self-reflection rather than burdening myself with resolutions I may not be able to keep. I mean, seriously, why create additional heartache for yourself when there are plenty of opportunities for it to find you out in the world?
Pain is a symptom of transformation, and pain is a fact of life if you’re actively living it. Like it or not, pain teaches us how to become better people if we are willing to learn its lessons. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve lived through my fair share of pain. And, because I am a sensitive person, a loving person, and willing to accept others into my life, sometimes things get messy. I’ve had lots of different kinds of relationships and this variety of relationships has taught me a lot about humanity and more importantly, myself.
I am a divorced, middle-aged, three-time college-educated, feminist, left-wing oriented with a heavy dose of secular humanism, single woman of color writer raising a young boy alone. These identifiers are only a small cross section of the other aspects of my life that make me who I am. People are always telling me how strong, interesting, and amazing I am, but despite all of my wonderful and complex attributes, I am still single. I continue to walk my life path alone. Am I happy about that? No. But, I’m beginning to understand that this is my life and if I don’t accept it, embrace the reality that I will most likely be walking this path alone for quite some time, I will never be happy with myself. So, in the nearly 45 years of my life, I have learned some things that I’d like to share with you, if like me, you find yourself walking your path alone.
Be kind to yourself. Self-care is important because it allows us to be healthy enough to deal with whatever is coming our way. Taking steps to maintain your best level of health enables us to not only do the daily things that are expected of us and take care of the people we love in our lives, but it also helps us build a reserve of strength in order to manage our lives better in times of crisis and loss.
Be kind to others. Everyone experiences pain. Their pain might not be the same as your pain, but they are still learning how to navigate the unexpected disappointments and hurts that life throws our way. It isn’t necessarily your responsibility to help people get through their pain, but a kind word, a smile, or a thoughtful gesture may be all they need to get through the rest of the day, or in some cases, through the next moment. You can’t solve everyone’s problems or rescue them from whatever it is that is hurting them or blocking their progress, but you can treat them the way you wish to be treated. Kindness is free (unless you allow people to abuse it). And here’s the really confusing part that has taken me my whole life to appreciate – and I’m still working through learning this lesson – even the people who hurt you deserve kindness on some level. That’s sometimes a hard pill to swallow, and it may require a lot of bourbon to choke it down. It will definitely take time for some of us, depending on the level of hurt we’ve experienced, to even be willing to pick up that pill before putting it in our mouth.
Do not settle for less than you deserve. When you go through a break up, lose a job, or experience any kind of significant loss, your closest friends will usually tell you that you deserve better. Guess what? They’re right. Your friends, if they are true friends, should know you pretty well and have an appreciation for all that you have to offer. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves. They are the people who, even on your worst days, will always be there to tell you that things are going to be okay. They will hold your hand, give you a hug, pour liquor down your throat, find voodoo spells for you, and talk smack about the person or situation that hurt you. You should probably reciprocate whenever possible. Knowing what you want in life is important, but knowing your own value will help you gain a better understanding of why settling for less isn’t good enough. At least, it shouldn’t be.
Crying is not a sign of weakness. Crying is a natural reaction to the physical and emotional pain in our lives. Healthy humans cry when they experience loss or what feels like unmanageable stress. Crying allows us to heal and is actually a sign of strength, not weakness. Regardless of what The Cure says, boys do and should cry, because crying as a reaction to pain is never gender specific.
Friends are more important than lovers. As I mentioned, I have a widely-diverse and rich network of friends who have either known me for a long time (more than 30 years) or who are still getting to know me, and vice versa. Having a lover or lovers can be wonderful, and if you’re lucky enough to find one (or more) who wants to stay in your life long term, even better. When our physical needs along with our emotional are being met, that can be a really sweet time. For most of us, those sweet times don’t last forever. When someone we have been emotionally and physically intimate with decides to end that relationship, it can sometimes feel like the world is ending. Or maybe, in some cases, we might wish that the world would end in order to avoid the pain we’re feeling. When we become not only emotionally and mentally, but also physically attached to certain people it might feel like part of us is dying when they choose a path that no longer connects to ours. If we’re really lucky and choose lovers who are emotionally stable and genuinely caring people, we may be able to maintain a different kind of relationship with them given enough time to heal and process our hurt emotions. In my experience, friendships have always lasted longer than love affairs or long-term romantic relationships. I mean, duh, I’m still single, right? But, many of my friendships have stood the test of time, some lasting through childhood into adulthood. I am a healthier person because of those relationships. And knowing my friends as well as I think I do, many of them would tell you that being a close friend of mine is a good thing. They love me, flaws and all. And, I feel the same way about them. Lovers come and go, but my close friends are usually around long enough to be considered family.
People who are meant to be in your life will stay. I’m not just talking about lovers and significant others here. Lots of people will come and go in your life. Family, friends, lovers, acquaintances, and a whole host of other major and minor personal interactions that make up the map of relationships in your life. I am fortunate enough to be blessed with many friends. I am proud to say that I have been able to maintain and nurture some of my friendships, regardless of distance and life situations, for more than 30 years. My marriage didn’t last 30 years. It barely lasted 4. My husband was not my friend. I never should have married him. Fear and unmet desires forced me into that situation, and it took me a long time to dig my way out. Sometimes though, no matter how much we care about a person, the best thing they can do for us is to walk away.
Maintaining friendships with past lovers or boyfriends is rare for me. It happens sometimes, but typically it has taken me years to regain the trust that was lost when those relationships ended. The few people who fit into that category who are still choosing to be in my life, even at a distance through social media, are probably going to stick around for the long haul. Relationships, like everything else in our lives, go through periods of transformation. Having faith in the fact that someone you care about deeply, even though they have hurt you in some way, can still be welcomed into your life not only says something about your willingness to forgive, but also that they are worth the effort. Sometimes that transformation will take time and effort on behalf of both parties to make it work. But, if you both care enough, value, and respect each other, it should work out. Patience and understanding are key ingredients, as well as the ability to give people the space they need to shift from one role to another in your life.
You are a whole person without a life partner or significant other. I’m not going to lie; this is something I still struggle with on an almost daily basis. As a single parent who receives zero support from my ex-husband to raise our child, all responsibility to raise my child rests on my shoulders. For those of you who are in the same situation and do not have the benefit of co-parenting/shared custody, you know how hard this can be some days. It can get seriously fucking lonely. Raising a child with two adults in the house is difficult enough, especially if the responsibility isn’t shared equally. Many women and men find themselves in a situation where they may be the only responsible adult in the house. Sometimes, it is better to take on the responsibility of child-rearing alone than be stuck in a relationship with someone who prevents your growth, or worse, your child’s. Yes, it is hard. Miserable even. But, with the right amount of support (sometimes support is simply kind words from friends and strangers) you can do it. Having a partner doesn’t make you a better person. Surviving and thriving without one makes you stronger, albeit a little crazier in the process.
Time does not heal all wounds. There’s an old saying about time healing all wounds. Bullshit. The wounds that cause emotional and psychological damage usually stay with us forever. The pain will lessen with time, but the wounds never quite heal. Recent research into psychological trauma has shown that in some cases, the trauma experienced by our relatives is passed to us genetically. Studies of Holocaust survivors and their offspring, as well as the ancestors of slaves in America have shown that extreme trauma can be passed down through DNA. Some physiological and psychological scars go as deep as the molecular level, and these painful experiences get coded into our DNA. So, if it feels like it’s taking you a long time to get over something painful in your life, take the time you need, because sometimes pain lasts through multiple lifetimes.
Believe in your ability to heal. Even though we now know that we not only carry the wounds we incur within our own lives, but also carry the pain of our ancestors in our blood, we still have the power to heal. Given time and the right tools, we can still go through painful experiences and come out on the other side with a new sense of who we are and what we can do. Friends, family, therapists, hippie herbalists, voodoo priestesses, and bartenders can help you through the rough times, but ultimately you must be the one to heal yourself. And, if you’re willing to face the pain head on and do the work to heal yourself, you will be stronger for it.
Be willing to admit that the path you are walking may not be the right one. Change, while scary and often painful, can be good for us. Change allows us to grow and evolve into the people we are meant to be. I truly believe that. In fact, in my opinion, when our lives remain on the same path for too long without change, we become stagnant. Change is not always a negative thing. Change opens new doorways to opportunity and experience. Don’t be afraid to take risks and go on a few adventures. And, be willing to leave behind the things that are preventing your growth.