Recently a friend and I were discussing our strong need to mend hurts and resolve conflicts. Most people, my friend commented, just prefer to let things slide. I recalled some episodes where my attempts to reconcile have been met with glib reassurances that everything is fine, leaving me feeling crazy. If things were fine, where could I go with my guilt and regret?
This unfinished business we all carry is, of course, part of life. Yet when I contrast its bland fruit, a sense of emptiness and lingering wistfulness, with the miracles of reconciliation that spring up now and then, I wonder how much we are all missing by our philosophical attitude. Surely it’s a smoke-screen for our terror of confrontation.
So many of my friendships have been saved and even deepened because someone (not necessarily I) has had the courage to confront hard truths. So miserable at the time, but yielding such richness, even decades later…
Our next door neighbors call a meeting. Oh,oh: I know why! Our three-year-old Janie has scratched their daughter Lydia viciously on the forehead (the scar will never disappear.) I feel the heat of shame rising in me as this other couple, sitting tensely forward in our living room armchairs, struggles to understand our parenting style. There is something remarkably soulful about their passion, their anguished honesty. “It seems as if you’re stricter with our daughter than you are with your own.” “Your kids may grow up fine, but they’ll put you through hell first!” I mull over their incisive comments for years. Our encounters still brim, though, with a warm spirit.
A few months ago, I was startled to have an old friend reach out to me on Facebook after nine years of silence. I had let our friendship go midst much regret, feeling powerless because loyalty to a third party was involved, a hopelessly complex dynamic.
When we sat down for a cup of tea, my friend began by chatting cheerfully, as if there was no elephant in the room. I immediately felt my insides welling up, engulfing me in a familiar panic. I’ve come to understand this panic, how old it is, how it takes over when no one is talking about anything real. And the more “real” there is to talk about, the stronger the panic. When I was a child it was death that never got talked about. Then as time went on, it was life itself, emotions, desires, secrets.
My friend no doubt thought she should work up gradually to the heart of the matter. But what if we never got there? I took an epic breath and plunged in abruptly, re-opening the painful story and all our feelings.
For the next hour I couldn’t stop crying! All the shock and sorrow of what had happened between us had hung out silently in all of the cells of my body, it seemed, all these years. And I had had no clue. I, like so many other people, had chosen to stuff my feelings and coldly resign myself to watching a friendship die. And now, such a rush of relief!
I have always relished community, in all shapes and sizes. As a result, though, I have often found myself embroiled in politics, and own my part in some painful divisions. Rifts within communities are so much harder to reconcile than rifts within individual relationships. Where does one start? Remembering words that wounded, the egging on of separate camps, the demonizing, the power-struggles, the contradictory longings, the conflicting loyalties, the diverse perspectives…how can any of it ever be resolved? Do we just accept that life is complex and sad, that communities inevitably fail eventually, and move on?
Perhaps so. But what about the signs that we really haven’t moved on at all, that we still are carrying the wounds? The tell-tale sign, in my experience, is not our emotions, which have receded into the background, but uneasiness in one another’s presence, and the pallid conversations that taper off at such a predictable point…
We meet in the grocery store. It would be rude to ignore each other, and besides, all that stuff was in the past. So we greet each other with false friendliness, covering up the pain, the remnants of anger, negating all the years when we struggled to share life with open hearts. And the conversation always begins, and ends, with “How are the kids? What are they up to?”
The questions that never get asked are these:”How are you? How are you really? What kinds of joys and challenges are you encountering?…Have you ever made any sense out of what happened between us? Do you ever regret that it all ended the way it did?”
I have always figured there has to be a heaven, so we can say what never got said in this life. I am one who holds out, though, for miracles on this side of the grave. Grieving together the blindness of the past, mourning what might have been, honoring what we have learned. Through all this, not just restoring the richness that has been lost, but creating something new.
This template for the “peaceable kingdom” is always within me, spurring me on. Probably it’s buried deep in all of us. When the deepest hurts are brought around into the light of grace, they are transformed. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”
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