Stay Open To Life

I wrote this some years ago, after the Longest Night, Dec. 21, and just before celebrating the Light that shines in darkness. It was also in the early years after d-day for me, and my divorce. I have used this story for other purposes a few times before, and someone reminded me of it this week and suggested I post it here. The people in the story are real, but their names are changed (except for me!). May you find Light to shine in your darkness as we move toward longer days and shorter nights.

Congratulations. We made it through the darkest day of the year. From now on, there is a little more light each day.

I count on that truth literally and metaphorically. But I’m not much of a pollyanna. In fact, lots of people find my perspective on men called sex addicts and saving marriages more negative than they wanted. It is true that I have a low tolerance level for nurturing false hope, for religious power used to keep women in abusive situations, and for therapists who use theories to do the same. Yes, I have a very low tolerance for that.

But I have loads of positive energy for the potential of our lives to be free and happy, for love to come again, for us to heal and be wise, and for us to be good mothers. That’s why I write this blog and make it available every week. It’s about my commitment to your life and my belief in your life. I proclaim the potential of every woman who comes here in pain, traumatized, a little desperate but still willing to learn and work away at life. That’s my story, too. Our potential for a better life is very real.

Some years ago while I was still in congregational ministry, I was sitting in hospital with an older woman who was one of my parishioners. She was fine, but the man I thought was her husband was not. He was dying a slow and ugly death from mouth cancer. He was sedated most of the time. As our visit moved into the night, I asked her to tell me their love story. She began by telling me about her marriage to another man, and as she described its destructive path, I recognized the trail of the sex addict. I didn’t say anything but just listened to her talk about what he did and how it affected her. Lies and betrayals every day that were finally discovered one day without any warning. She had been married 15 years when she kicked him out. It took her 5 more years to set things up carefully so that she could divorce him safely and keep the house. Meanwhile he thought she would never do it. She was weak and didn’t know anything about money. That was true, but then it wasn’t true when she decided to change it. She got her divorce and she got her house.

Then one evening at a community dance she met Paul. She remembered how clean he smelled when they danced. As she told me about him, her face lit up with joy and wonder. They talked until 3 in the morning and she knew she loved him. But she was afraid. He knew he loved her but also knew she was afraid. This was back in the 70s. Finally they couldn’t bear to be apart any longer, but because of her trauma from her first marriage, she would not marry Paul. So they lived together all those years without being married. No one knew this at the church. They were very conservative in every way, but when it came to their love they did what they had to do in order to keep it alive. As she came to the end of her story about how they met and fell in love, she took my hand and told me she knew my heart was broken, but she also knew that if I would just stay open to life, love could come again. And that if love came, I needed to be open to living differently with it. By this time I was quite teary. Here I had come to support her, and she had given me a far greater gift—the hope of love and the call to stay open to life.

As Paul reached the end of his life, they let him come out of the drug stupor long enough to say good bye. The pain was excruciating, but she and Paul pledged their love again. He looked at me, pleading his love, and I promised him we would look after her, with God’s help. He passed from this life and was free from his suffering.

We prepared for Paul’s service. She took me in to view him in the casket with her. She touched the buttons on his jacket, commented on him being the most handsome man she ever met. I stood beside her, looking at his half-gone face through the eyes of her love, and saw what she saw. She took my hand, and again told me to “stay open”.

That’s the one thing I’ve tried to do since that day years ago. Stay open to life. I’m not open to death—to the lies, the dead ends, the abuse, the patterns that kill us slowly, the betrayal, the blaming, the harsh scolding of family, the oppression of religion, the hopelessness of the role the therapeutic models cast me in, the lie I was living without knowing it, or the cruel destiny it wanted for me. I stay open to life.

That has made the difference for me. Months after Paul died, when I told this same parishioner about a new love who had come into my life, she cried and squeezed my hand. “Stay open”, she said again.

In the years since, that new love grew slowly but steadily into a new life partnership. I have tried to “stay open” about what love can mean and how to live in it with trust, mutual respect, passion and laughter in the way that it works best for us. I never expected love to come again. But it did. And it has been a healing part of my recovery on the PTSD journey. It is as if I knew nothing about love and had never been loved before. It’s not like anything I knew as a wife of a man called a sex addict. It’s so, so, so much better than that. Not always easy, but infinitely better. As wives we thought we were in marriages that mattered for good, but we were not. What I am in now is what matters for good.

Life holds many kinds of energy. Some comes into our lives bidden or unbidden, bringing pain and demanding we accept it. Its power is diminished, however, if we choose differently for our lives. We can choose to stay open to the streams of beauty and truth and wisdom and generosity and courage and laughter and healing and new beginnings, and yes, even love. That’s how I found hope within me and why I tell you it’s within you. But please don’t think I mean you have to find another man for your life. My parishioner’s new life didn’t started there. It started by recognizing her first husband was not who he appeared to be, leaving him, and letting him underestimate her for five years while she figured out how she would finally divorce him and keep the house! That long hard road is what gave her the courage to believe she could live differently with love when it came to her later. She took responsibility for the stewardship of her life, and believed in herself in a way she never had before. And she rescued herself. That’s what allowed her to stay open to life and trust love when it came. And that’s what she encouraged me to do. Stay open.

It is in the Christian story that I find what I need to follow this path. You go find the sacred story that gives you what you need. Trust it. Don’t worry about whether it’s “right”. The proof will be in your life.

So a little more light today than yesterday, and less than tomorrow. Stay open.

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 With you


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Diane Strickland