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Protecting Ourselves From Our Stories

March 28, 2013
Morihei Ueshiba

Morihei Ueshiba, founder of the Japanese martial art form aikido, which aims to let practitioners defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.

On March 1st, exactly one year after R and I broke up, I drove to his house to pick up one last smattering of my belongings, left out on the porch for me in a Trader Joe’s brown paper bag. Anticipating that it might be difficult and I might get sad, I had asked a good friend to come with me. And though I did feel nervous and sad, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Right on top of the pile there was a favorite belt that I’d been missing for like two years! When R and I were still together I lightweight hounded him about that belt — was convinced I’d somehow left it at his parents’ house. Don’t know where he ended up finding it, but I was glad to have it back, and as my friend and I drove away from his street, I thought I felt okay.

Still, the bag sat at the door of my closet, untouched, for a long time.

Again, though, once I finally screwed up the courage to go through it, it wasn’t so horrible. A swirl of memories: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. A lot of the stuff wasn’t mine, but some of it was. Pillowcase. (Useful!) Books. (Beloved!) The scarf on the header image of this blog. (Nostalgic!) And oh, what’s this? I recognized a notecard, some stationery of mine.

It was the birthday card I had written to R last year.

Ooh, my heart. Like a nautilus descending the waters after a failed hunt.

I opened the card and read, trying to understand what had so displeased him about it. At this point, based on our conversations and his self-reported stage of the relationship mourning process, I knew it wasn’t a matter of purging painful mementos. Besides, he could just as easily have chucked it in the garbage.

Was it too cheesy? (It was pretty cheesy, but not insincere.) Inappropriately timed, too soon after the split? (Four months.) Excessively upbeat? (No matter the circumstances, I try to keep birthday cards positive. But I wasn’t in total fake-smile denial, either. Toward the end I had written something like, “It’s easy to wish you happiness, even though right now it’s hard to wish you happiness without me.”)

Well whatever it was I’d done, it must have been pretty unskillful to warrant a love note “returned to sender.” Opened and returned.

I had my cry, then went about my business. What can you do, right? In the past, my wholesome desire to know whether or how I’ve wronged someone has sometimes masked other, unwholesome desires: for validation, for “fixing,” or for closeness solely on my terms. The impulse toward self-criticism can be a nice tangy sauce disguising the slightly bad meat of dysfunctional intimacy. It’s taken me so long to adjust to the silence and distance between me and R; now, I knew, it was best not to grasp. Just let it rest, and accept the mystery shrouding his motivations.

This resolution lasted about a week, until, during a cozy midnight catch-up-on-our-lives session, I mentioned the incident to a close friend, who responded, “Wow, that’s kinda mean.”

You know, that part hadn’t even occurred to me. Yeah, it was kinda mean! And hearing that empathy from my friend made me feel more normal and justified in my pain. I was in pain for a reason. Whether or not my birthday card was somehow offensive, there was also this separate question of R’s decision to wordlessly slice me back with it.

Apart from wanting to stand up for myself, I also respect R enough that I want to make him aware when his actions have painful effects — if it feels like my place to do that.  So the next morning, I sent him a text.

Hey, did you mean to give me back the birthday card i wrote you last year? Just to let you know, that was hurtful to find, and i kinda wish you had just thrown it away if you didn’t want it. Were you returning it intentionally?

An hour or so later, he sent me one back.

Oh hey, sorry, no not at all. Can i have it back actually? I’m honestly not sure how it got in there.

Sometimes the best protection involves further investigation.  Which is related, I think, to caring for the offender: whether the offender is an ex, or the internal stories we concoct about them — and about ourselves.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. michelle bernadette button permalink
    March 28, 2013 7:40 pm

    this is really moving, Katie. sometimes the best we can do is find out what a relationship means to each person.

  2. March 28, 2013 8:01 pm

    thanks, michelle. yeah, i don’t know that i can ever fully know what a relationship means to somebody. do you find it’s helpful to ask people directly?

  3. March 28, 2013 8:29 pm

    I am glad he did not intend to return it. I felt relief when I read that. Take good care of yourself. You deserve it.

  4. March 29, 2013 9:15 am

    I love stories where people communicate their wants/needs/boundaries and get helpful communication back. Great reminder for all of us. :)

  5. March 29, 2013 9:42 am

    I like this. I have found that most people (myself included, of course) typically make decisions and come to conclusions based on our assumptions about thoughts, intentions, motivations, etc. of some other (significant or not). I make enormous efforts not to do that, but instead to ask simple (at times naive or even moronic) questions without preconceived notions of the answers. Your posting was a sweet and compelling reminder to continue those efforts. Thank you.

  6. March 29, 2013 10:15 am

    Thanks, fellas. Love that summary, jpjesusss. And yes, Stephen, the power of simple and moronic questions! Hehe, I’m with you.

    xoxo,

    k

  7. March 29, 2013 7:29 pm

    Moving, touching story, Katie… and I too was relieved to read the ending! Reminds me how easy it is for us to spin our assumptions, as Stephen notes, and spin ourselves out into some major dukkha that doesn’t necessarily have to be. Also reminds me of an old Buddhist tale (related by Thich Nhat Hanh) about someone walking along in the fading light of day and coming across what he thinks is a snake and freaking out…. only later, as the light returns, realizing that the snake was actually a rope. Perception is everything…

  8. March 30, 2013 2:18 pm

    Absolutely, Maia. A certain amount of reading between the lines seems important and necessary (otherwise we would always need information presented to us very literally and directly — which is neither possible nor preferable, right?). At the same time, it’s also easy to let our interpretations and perceptions really mess with us, and block us from further investigation or openness. Maybe especially where fears are involved! Snakes at dusk… :)

  9. April 1, 2013 9:05 pm

    i am floored by this katie. wow. powerful. so glad you investigated. way to take care of both of you. exhale! maximum respect. <3

  10. April 2, 2013 12:13 am

    <3 thanks, rich. means a lot coming from you: emotional intelligence and communication skills like woah. :) i was definitely like, yeah, this is a moment when the spiritual path is showing its strength. thanks for being someone in my life and community who affirms and embodies the importance of attention to spirit, wisdom, and love in action.

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