7. Letting go and laying hold
Letting go is harder than you think. For some it is about letting go of the business that for whatever reason didn’t succeed. For others, it may be the letting go of that one person you thought you could never live without. For me, it was both of those things, as well as letting go of the crushing devastation at the things that had happened to my children.
Some nights, I would have incredibly vivid dreams, occasionally with me waking up absolutely convinced I had heard my ex-wife’s voice very nearby. This kind of involuntary activity made it very hard for me to truly let go.
As for the business, there were a couple of invitations to submit a tender for a global contract that would have suddenly resolved all my financial woes and resurrected what had been a genuinely lovely small business (award-winning chocolate brownies believe it or not!) But alas, despite a lot of hard work, it was not to be and I eventually laid it all down, choosing to stop wondering, “If only I had…”
Letting go is of course, almost invariably a prerequisite to ‘laying hold’. In my situation, there was a great deal of letting go to be done and before I could do that properly, I had to do some forgiving. I had forgiven my wife for her choices. In truth, I think I probably ended up forgiving her several times over. We can be sincere in our forgiveness but when the pain runs very deep, I do believe we often have to revisit it and forgive again. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to forgive “seventy times seven.”
I honestly didn’t know if I would have done anything differently if I had been in her position. The fact that she had embraced a Christian, heterosexual marriage from the age of twenty but had now come to the place where she finally could no longer resist what she felt had always been her true self and come out as gay was gut-wrenching in the very extreme for all involved.
Letting go of all that had gone before and everything we had been through together was a huge mountain for me in every respect. All the good times, as well as the hard times, all the blessings we had seen and even been to many people – everything had to be laid down and quietly commemorated. And somehow trust that none of it had been wasted.
I attended a Divorce, Separation, Recovery Course and resented the mere fact that I was included in this group of people that no one chose to be a part of. I couldn’t even bring myself to address my ex-wife as “My ex” like everyone else did. This, despite making a bit of an entrance when I arrived on the first evening, and discovering that I was the only man in the group of a dozen or so women, I instinctively blurted out, “Oh, I think I must be at the wrong meeting…” which rather encouragingly, was met by raucous laughter by everyone in the room and immediate breaking of any ice.
Laying hold also comes in waves and sometimes, very specific opportunities. It may be that you get an opportunity to go away with some old friends, or new friends, or a combination of both. A good friend of mine who I had asked to act as a mentor for me – especially during this difficult, early dark days period – invited me to attend a men’s retreat he was leading. I immediately accepted and instinctively knew that it would be a healthy experience.
Sure enough on the first night, my friend led us through a ‘check-in’ where everyone gets to share how they’re feeling at the beginning of the retreat, what they’re looking forward to etc. No one spoke for a few seconds once the invitation had been made to anyone who felt like they wanted to kick things off. So I jumped in and told them the headlines of what had been going on in my life and instantly made a deep connection with all of the men in the room. It didn’t matter that it had been me to go first as since that first night, I have attended several retreats and many evenings at their regular location and it is nearly always the same. Someone will share their situation with brutal honesty and vulnerability and this encourages all the others to do the same. You don’t have to be vulnerable but I have found in my experience in this setting and many others of a similar dynamic, that the more vulnerable you make yourself, the more healing that follows and not merely for you but the others who follow your example.
It may be that you get invited to a party or a night out somewhere. You may well feel very vulnerable going alone to something like this perhaps for the first time in many years. Being vulnerable however, doesn’t have to mean being invisible. You will be amazed how much fun you can have being single in situations like this. Apart from anything else, you will appreciate how life can be for other single people – some of whom, could well turn out to be great friends as you share each other’s stories.
Is it better to look forwards and not backwards? Clearly, looking forwards is the sensible, more profitable thing to do, almost every time. There are however, occasions when it serves us very well indeed, to at least cast a glance over our shoulder and be encouraged by how far we have come.
As a late teenager, I spent seven glorious months in Israel, living and working on a kibbutz in the north of the country, right on the border with Lebanon, buttressed against the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. I worked in the banana fields and loved every single second of my time there. One day, I was asked to accompany Gilad, one of the leaders of the ‘banana crew’. He told me to grab a chair and a shovel and put them in the trailer. We jumped on the tractor and drove to a new field that needed some irrigation pipes laid down.
We arrived at the spot and I said to him, “What’s the chair for?” He grinned and answered, “For me to sit on while you dig the shallow trench for the irrigation pipes!” He soon revealed that he was of course, joking and that we would take turns to dig while the other rested. At one point, I said to him, “How far have we got to keep digging?” “Don’t worry about that my friend, just take a look behind you and see how much you’ve already dug.”
That image has never left me and I believe there is a beautiful truth wrapped up in it. We often don’t know how much further we have to keep digging, or how long it is going to take. But if we do take a moment to look behind and see how far we have come, that is usually encouragement enough to keep persevering.
BONUS SECRET (AND THIS IS THE REAL SECRET)
8.Embracing humiliation leads to true humility
Divorce is always messy and never easy and without pain. So for me, when I realised that my wife’s decision to come out was almost certainly going to result in us getting divorced, I was devastated. Devastated because we loved each other and neither of us wanted this but it was what it was. Devastated also because my pride was going to take a massive hit and my membership of the unspoken but oh so obviously and rightly esteemed elite of people who have been married for twenty years or more would also be over.
Then I thought about my fledgling coaching business. What would I tell my clients? Maybe they would leave me also? I was terrified of all these things. I had prided myself (literally it turns out) on having been married for such a respectably long time, was passionate in my commitment to marriage and the fact that my wife and I were heavily involved in church leadership.
Ironically, the primary ministry activity we were engaged in was all things marriage related. We led The Marriage Course and got involved in marriage counselling occasionally. We had loved ministering to two cohorts of about five or six couples that we called the ‘newly marrieds’ and entertained them at our home with food as well as lashings of our own stories of near vertical learning experiences in our first few years of married life. We facilitated discussions with them about everything from sex to money, children and in-laws. It was if you like, our own take on The Marriage Course but tailored very specifically to what those guys wanted to discuss. We loved every minute of it but that was all in the past and we would never do that again – at least not together.
Humiliation then, can be a paralysing factor. Who chooses to be exposed as a failure – even if no one blames you or thinks it is your fault? The fact was, I would no longer be able to say that I have been successfully married for twenty-five, thirty, or even fifty years.
I was embarrassed. Acutely. Remember, it was not merely my marriage that was evaporating before my very eyes. The business we had worked so hard to establish was also sliding away from under our feet. And then our two eldest children were not behaving the way we would have preferred, let’s put it that way.
What to do? Part of the deep pain is realising that pride has to go completely, which is of course, a very good thing. Rather perversely I guess, it is a lot easier for your pride to be dealt with in this manner – where you have little choice – than to spend your whole life facing decisions and often getting them wrong, leaving pride very firmly and comfortably in place.
At one point along this journey, I remember speaking to my Mum about the subject of humility. We were in the car on the way home from a joint shopping trip. I was in a season of having no car (major humiliation!) and she would very kindly take me to the supermarket. I loved her for it at the same time as despising the sheer humiliation of needing a lift from my Mum to get to the supermarket and back. I was having nightmarish visions of being a sad, lonely, middle aged man spending increasing amounts of time with his Mum and I hated that idea.
I was telling her about my latest thoughts on humility and it went something like this: “I’ve realised I think, that whilst it is almost impossible to remain humble by mere virtue of the fact that if you think you are humble, then you have immediately fallen back into pride! But that said, I now find myself feeling pretty neutral whenever someone says to me, ‘Wow, your story really inspired and moved me Paul!’ It is nice of course, to get that kind of feedback but I don’t feed off it like I may have done in the past. Equally, when I find out that I’ve been rejected for a job I was really hoping to secure, I simply shrug it off and move on.”
It was as if I was finally free from both the disappointments as well as the successes that life could still throw at me. No longer would I be a slave to either fear of rejection or an insatiable appetite for success and the accolades that fuel that hunger.
This, along with many other incidents – blessings and setbacks – helped me to rebuild my life and truly feel like I was no longer surviving but actually thriving.