I was 21 years old when I was approached by a girl in a local pizza shop. I had known her in high school, I’d even go as far to say we were distant friends. She slid into the booth across from me after sending a casual invite for dinner to ‘catch up’.
But this story isn’t about her. It isn’t about the meeting that would ultimately change the course of my life. This isn’t even about how she ordered a bottle of wine, leaned in close to me, and began to tell me about her father’s affair…with my mother. With five years now between me and that defining night over greasy cheese slices, these are the lessons I’ve learned as I struggled (and still struggle) to accept my mother’s imperfections. That, in fact, my mother’s choice to walk out on our family was the bravest thing she’s ever done.
1. You need to be proactive about your own happiness. You will make poor decisions, it’s inevitable. Whether it’s pressure from your family or from something much greater (hello there, societal standards, looking at you), you will do something that you’ll regret. Maybe it’s majoring in business management when you wanted nothing more than a schedule full of art history classes. Or perhaps you take a safe, secure job at the marketing firm in your hometown because you’re too intimidated by the instability of moving away. Regardless of what you were told is the ‘right’ choice for you, it is never too late to turn around and take a step in a new direction, even (especially) if it’s against the current.
There is no designated age to have your shit together. Whether it’s 21, 32, or 48, you have the time. Really though, time is ALL you have to invest in your own well-being. Sacrificing your current state of mediocre is always worth going after a much greater happiness that lies right outside of your comfort zone. One baby step; sending your resume to the west coast, enrolling in that night creative writing class, is the push you need to take your leap of faith. Stop living in your head. Book that plane ticket and inform your employer of your two weeks notice. Deuces.
2. …but happiness will cost you. You will hurt people. Maybe even crush them. You are going to live in a dark place of imbalance where you can’t quite afford the rent and the job market has turned its back on you. This will, of course, occur as soon as you’ve decided to leave the comfort of your parents’ four bedroom home, free laundry included. But this is a temporary moment of unrest. It is impossible to move forward if you continue to hold on to what tied you down in the first place. Walking away from an unhappy, debilitating relationship will not simply give way to freedom and peace at a moment’s notice.
It takes time and energy to recover from the changes of your own doing. It may take weeks, months, or even years to truly feel the disconnect necessary for you to make a new life for yourself. Respect the time and energy you need for your decisions to fall into place. Trust in the process and know, especially in those late night moments of doubt and overwhelming pain, that the relationships you lose and the insecurities you feel are worth the happiness you will find for having the courage to abandon what you once accepted as okay.
3. Forgiveness is a party of one. We’ve been trained to see forgiveness as a two person exchange. A quickly murmured ‘I’m sorry’ is a truckload of insincerity. As you grow older, it becomes more evident that dishonesty, unfaithfulness, and the ill treatment you’ve experienced from others (or even anger targeted at yourself) fills a tiny black room inside your heart. The more you dwell and replay the moments someone has wronged you, the larger this room gets.
It is very likely that a genuine apology will never come. Yet, regardless, your black room will continue to grow, slowly killing your ability to love and trust others. To shed light into this dark room, you need to decide what is worth saving and what needs to be let go. It may be risky trusting someone who has wronged you, but it is no more risky than holding onto the grudge that’s slowly destroying your soul. Commit to your choices and believe that some relationships are worth the mistakes that are a part of them. Then move the fuck on.
4. A burning bridge will light the way for someone to cross it. There is a difference between cutting people out to bring about attention and cutting people out because they’ve done more harm than good. Surprisingly, it can be a quick and nearly painless process: blocking phone numbers, changing emails, avoiding common places. If you’re confident in your choices, cutting someone out, even for a short period, can bring about some vital time of reflection and freedom. But, regardless of the front you may hold up, there is a rare person who will persistently seek you out.
Like Noah sending Allie 365 letters, this someone will continually call and strive to reconnect. The bridge you’ve tried to burn may just be lighting the way for this person to come back to you. If it comes to this, step over your pride and realize the gravity of this one’s love for you. Don’t get this wrong, there are certainly people you are better left without. But someone who works so desperately for your presence should at least be reconsidered.
5. Don’t confuse vulnerability with weakness. The sharing of vulnerabilities is the foundation of all meaningful relationships. Just because you don’t talk about losing your job, failing your second semester of classes or breaking up with your high school sweetheart doesn’t mean it’s not a part of you. These secrets, and how we respond to them, are the essence of who we are. People strive to find these commonalities between each other. It is these connections that breed real, human bonds.
Can you form relationships over positive life experiences? Sure, why not, but this is only on the surface. It’s the hardships you’ve been through that prove you have the qualities to handle the ups and downs of any serious relationship. Besides, knowing someone else’s struggles makes it easier for you to accept your own. After all, relationships are easy when built on our successes. However, accepting one another as a whole unit, faults and all, proves lasting commitment.