A little while ago, I was at a Eucharist where the priest read the story of Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana (the water-into-wine one, yes), as a description of God’s kingdom – it’s a party, a celebration. And she talked about a lot of us sometimes “taking ourselves out of the party because we feel we are not wanted” – and that with God, this is never true. The taking-myself-out-of-the-party bit described me rather well at the time, and it has since stayed on my mind. Today, I was reminded of it again because of two people who I currently watch “taking themselves out of the party”, for very different reasons, and in very different ways.
One of them is full of rage, full of overwhelming hurt in a world that, he thinks, has failed him in the past and still fails him and betrays him constantly in the present. He’s fearful too of the ways in which he has betrayed himself and others, but that’s too hard to face. So he focuses outside of himself, blames and rages and hates, and then he expects the same people and places he was raging at to support him when he wants support again. All this has an effect on his surroundings, of course. But others have no right to expect being talked to respectfully because it is him who is being failed here and they have a duty to put it right. His emotional state is like that of a four-year old at times – it’s all ego and need. He is a betrayed child insisting the world fulfill its duty towards him. And by hating this constantly under-performing world so intensely, he ultimately takes himself out of the party… He is so hard to relate to, so hard to be around, so hard to have a normal conversation with or to work with, that it becomes more and more likely that all the negatives he expects of the world around him will seem to be true. When he sees kindness, he calls it a lie and a performance. When people set boundaries, he goes into fits of rage. And there are no parents now to sit this out with him, there is no-one who is (theoretically) duty-bound to stick this out with him, to help him learn how to be in healthy relationships.
And I do feel compassion for him in this, and yet, what I need to learn is that other people’s unhappiness is theirs. They carry it, they live with it, and there are limits to what I can do for them. I tried to “fix” my parents’/family’s unhappiness, and I’m still learning the boundaries I need in that relationship. I cannot take responsibility for anybody else’s happiness but my own.
The best I can do for him is to set boundaries. To respond, and not react, when he rages at me or near me. To stand up to him. It’s not what he wants but it’s needed. He is not a child, he is an adult, and he needs to take responsibility for the way he interacts with the world. I’m not in any way able or willing to try and fix the world for him. But I do feel compassion for him. And I need to learn to not let compassion translate into letting him and his ego and his needs walk all over me. I need to know what the parameters of our relationship are, and I need to keep them. And that’s hard. And that’s necessary.
The other person who is taking herself out of the party does so in less extreme ways, and still in a general way for similar reasons maybe, I’m not sure. But there’s more fear than anger, more pain than rage. She can’t stand people around her being content because she is not. It is hard for her to be among happy people because she feels unhappy. There’s a lot of loneliness in that, but even when she could be in the company of others, she chooses to “leave the party”, in her mind, emotionally, and today literally. She does not feel wanted, or not wanted enough. If there is something in her surroundings that does not meet her expectations/standards/needs/wishes, then it must be true that this is the case because people didn’t put enough effort into welcoming her, didn’t value her opinion or experience enough to listen and act on it, didn’t care, or even tried to exclude her on purpose. Her worldview is coloured in this perception, this assumption, and she takes herself out of the party again and again, and often in ways that put a damper on the party for others as well, often by finding fault with details when others put a special effort into organising a celebration or a trip or something nice for someone else.
And I get it. And I feel compassion. And I wish I could help her see the world differently. But I cannot fix this for her. It’s her unhappiness, her sadness, her pain, and her way of reacting to it.
I can invite her. I can encourage her. I can make an effort to welcome her. But I cannot open her eyes to what she cannot see – that if I overlook a detail, or understand something differently than she meant it, or do something she thinks I shouldn’t, or don’t do something she thinks I should, it has nothing to do with me not caring. But it’s easy to not see people’s best intentions when their mistakes seem to confirm the worst beliefs you carry about yourself. She needs to learn to give people the benefit of the doubt again. “It’s possible that this person had a reason to do this or say that”. “It’s possible that her tone wasn’t annoyance with me but the echo of a bad day before we met”. She needs to value the good in people at least as much as the stuff she finds difficult to handle. But how do you do that when you feel alone and afraid and fearful of the future?
I have a hard time separating myself from this kind of experience in other people around me, as you might have noticed. And I try to learn it, and I don’t really know how. Not yet anyway. When the unhappiness of others stops you from feeling the blessings in your own life, there’s a problem. That’s not okay. It’s okay to feel with a friend, of course it is. But why would that mean that I can’t be happy about something good happening for me? This compassion for others, friends and foes alike, overwhelms me, becomes too dominant in me.
I want the people around me to be well, happy, satisfied, and if not, at least aware of the reasons for their unhappiness and of their available resources. I get frustrated when I see others unhappy and having little or no awareness of what they could do to help themselves, when there are basic things they could do to improve the situation. Like eat when they are hungry. Like not going out to party all weekend when they are too tired to think on a Friday afternoon. Maybe it’s time for a walk. For silence. For a relaxed evening with friends that does not include a hangover the next day. And I get especially annoyed when people say things like, “I know I should eat/sleep/take a day off/…” and then act as if they didn’t know or as if it was of no consequence that they treat themselves with so little care.
I have a responsibility for myself. There’s no point in expecting others to teach me how to take care of me – my parents didn’t do that very well – or to expect others to take care of me for me – I’m an adult, that’s my job. I had to learn it, and do it. And yes, absolutely, there are days when I sleep 3 hours and drink too much coffee and skip lunch. There are days when I let someone take their frustration with life out on me without comment. But that cannot become the status quo, it cannot be the way I live.
I have trouble being “gentle with myself”, like most people I know. And sometimes I tell myself rather sternly that enough is enough, and that I have to change what I do because nobody else will change it for me.
And yes, of course, I would love to have a family that is encouraging of my dreams and supportive of my work, respectful of my decisions and a fount of wisdom and good advice, a model of healthy relationships, love, growth…. Who has that family? Congratulations to those few.
Whatever my family is, whatever my relationship status, whatever I don’t know about my future, I want the fullness of my life, I want happiness, I want satisfaction, creation, and I am determined to do whatever I can to get that. I’m not just trying to make things better for others, I also want that for myself. And in many ways, I can work towards that. In many ways, it’s not within my control. I need to learn both.
There are times when I rage at the world, when I despair at the mess I’ve inherited in my family, when I am crying because I’m so lonely it physically hurts, but when it comes down to it, I will fight for the good that is still possible. I love people as well as I can, I love myself as well as I can, and I try to figure out the balance between the two. And I sometimes assume that we all live that, and on occasion I realise it’s not quite so straightforward.
Sometimes, I need to learn to stop trying so hard as well, to stop fighting. You can make happiness a very serious project… I can, I know that… And then it’s time to learn how to relax again, time to relax into the company of friends, into dance and play and fun. In regular intervals, I re-learn that… And dance and art and music and laughter are all my favourite things. But like the rest of us, I’m striving towards something, and I’m not sure I know what it is.
And I feel the unhappy people I thought about today feel like they’ve failed at arriving at that “something”, they didn’t know what it was going to be either, and they don’t know how to face not having found it or arrived at it. And I wonder what this something is.
It might well be that from beginning to end all we want to know is that we are, fully and without condition, loved and wanted and welcome. And that all we need to do is love and welcome others without condition as well. And we end up making this a very serious project…
If you can, love the mess it all is.