Sitting with a mentee and friend this morning (via zoom), we discussed the prescribed life. We talked about it as if there is a normal life trajectory. And there is. The ideal is something only the very lucky few attain. (If that’s what you want, anyway)
Go to college and get your education
Get a job
Buy a house
Work and raise kids together, saving for retirement
Retire and enjoy time with spouse and grandkids
Die, leaving a legacy of love, stability and maybe some money.
The woman I was meeting with is a rockstar. She accomplished 1–4 pretty well. She survived cancer, childhood trauma, and divorce. Number 5 looks like co-parenting a teenager now. And the trajectory of retirement and enjoying the ease of that part of life is far, far away. It is for me as well. So, the discussion hit home in many ways. It’s not that we were having a pity party. We are both very happy with where we are, despite the hardship.
What happens when we don’t do things like “everyone” else?
For starters, we are plagued with doubts as to our validity. If we don’t get through college, let’s say, we have little confidence we can make a living. If we don’t get married, we have little confidence we will grow into a happy adult. If we don’t have the credit score to get a house, we bounce from one rental to another for a lifetime. If we don’t or cannot have children, how do we measure our worth?
Yes, every single one of us feels we have missed the boat at times. But some of us, know we have. I am one of those. I quit college after 3.5 years, not knowing I would not get to return for over 2 decades. I got a chance to move abroad as an au pair and took it. I never looked back. My siblings all went to school, got married, had kids, bought houses (yes, a little out of order), have great jobs, etc… Out of 9 kids, I was the only one with the non-traditional life; a husband in school for 20 years, living on very little to nothing with 4 kids, working odd jobs, homeschooling, managing a barn full of animals to support us, and now finally finished with school and divorced, totally disqualified me. There is a sense of loneliness around doing it “wrong”. There is a sense that you missed out on something vital and life-giving; that you are working too hard for something that just came naturally for others. And that is not untrue. Whether it was because of my own choices or because of my situation, I was lonely. I was lonely for a supportive community. I had always dreamed of living right outside a little town where I could ride my bike everywhere and the kids could play at the park. We could meet with other families and enjoy each other’s company. But I ended up homeschooling, which negated all possibilities of playdates. My choice. But was it really? As I look back, when things don’t go as planned, I saw that we learn to punt and do the best with what we have in front of us. I think there was something in me that knew I did not want to be the mom whose husband was never present who had to go to all of the PTA meetings alone. Or work with teachers, do homework after-school and manage all of life alone. Homeschooling kept everything tidy. I didn’t have to report back to anyone else about my children’s educations. I was smart enough to help them with everything up to late high school science and math. We figured it out. But, things always come at a price. And I guess that is what this article is about. -it is about the price we pay when we do things differently. The world understand a couple who go to school, get jobs, get married, have kids, etc. There is little to understanding for a girl who doesn’t finish school, does manual labor until kids come, then settles in to teach music after school and raise kids on a farm…alone. People admired me for all of my hard work, but no one “got” me. The discussion I had this morning was revelatory because I “got” me better by the end. Why we make the choices we make can be a fun puzzle to sort out. Sometimes, doing things “our” way is hard work. It is not necessarily a matter of choice, but a matter of making the best of a situation we might not have chosen. It is lonely work. It is not supported by our culture. Unless we live in a commune where an off-center way of life is condoned and valid, we live alone. We try to make sense of why the struggle seems so much more difficult for us. We sometimes begin to grasp at anything that will relieve the confusion. We busy ourselves as if that is the answer. But it isn’t, of course. But it does prevent us from feeling all of the pain we might have felt otherwise. My drug of choice was busy-ness (and chocolate). But it was an adequate numb-er of the pain, until my body began to break in a serious way from the trauma. Choosing to do things differently inherently alienates others, causing us to doubt ourselves in foundational ways. We wonder why our siblings, our parents and friends don’t identify with us. We wonder why we don’t hear our version of the story in church or even on the media. We wonder where we fit in. With a perfect-looking family (heterosexual with 4 gorgeous kids), life looked like a picture from the outside. But it was a lie. It wasn’t until I went through therapy at age 38 that I began to speak out-much to my mother’s disapproval. I remember the day I stood in church to bear testimony of God’s love for me. I talked about how exhaustion and trauma had ravaged my body and soul and how intensive therapy had saved me. I talked about how God was so good to lead me to a place I would accept help and could get the help I needed. I was vulnerable and sincere; honest in every way possible. My tears were a physical display of the liberation of my soul; an un-burdening of my grief. My mother, bless her heart, was not pleased with the words I spoke. I felt bad about that. But the feeling waned as I was approached repeatedly by other women at church. They each had the very same words to say to me. They said, “I never imagined that you were suffering. You always smiled, your family looks perfect, your children are well-behaved, and you are the most generous, kind woman.” They weren’t wrong. I am an empath. I am kind because I have to be. I cannot live with the consequences of living another way. My children are well-behaved, yes. I say “yes” and smile a lot. My husband and I looked perfect together. All of that…yes. Looks can be deceiving. Each of these women and many women and men since have felt that I am a safe place for them to express their feelings of loneliness; of being misunderstood; of being an outlier. They feel like I can understand them. In most cases, they are not wrong. And because I am an empath, I cannot help but-at least-feel them. I was lucky. My vulnerability opened the world up to me. Honesty about my pain allowed others to get closer. The results of choosing a different path, whether circumstantial or willful, can be beautiful. But it can only be that if we are ready to support each other, in a non-judgmental way. We have to acknowledge the paths of others as just as valid as our own. I paid the price and continue each day. But, because I know better than to believe that I am special, I expect many of you have felt the same loneliness. I only hope you have felt the joy of it as well.