Life Lessons

Life Lessons

L’oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal

A long time ago I wandered down a path, not knowing or even caring where it would lead. One step after another, one day after another, each much like the one before.

I had no real cares and I suppose that means I was happy. I never had a plan, you know? Never could picture any future except as a continuation of today. So I’m left to wonder at how I somehow got from there to here.

A tenuous thread of fallible memory is all that connects the grown woman sitting here writing these words to that child: how do I begin to explain the path I took? So much time was spent simply drifting along on favourable currents.

Parents and school didn’t prepare me for my life. Nobody handed me a map with my route helpfully pencilled in, or planted signposts to guide my steps.

Nobody taught me what it means to love somebody so deeply that you feel your heart torn asunder every time they hurt, or that you wouldn’t trade that pain for anything because the joy that comes with it lifts you to such heights.

Nobody taught me that there is an emptiness inside that you carry every day following the death of a loved one. That all the things you wish you could have said and done would continue to haunt you down the years. That missing someone so much kicks the breath out of you and leaves you gasping for air through your sobs of anguish.

I know now, as a parent, the strength of the drive to shield your child from the pain and hurt. To protect them from all the things that have hurt you. But I also recognise the futility of that. Indeed, I understand how such experiences are a normal part of life and open us up to much greater empathy for others.

Not the trauma though, never that.

That’s one life lesson I’d have happily played truant for. While joy and love and sadness and, yes, even grief all form part of the richness of life, trauma has no compensations.

So much wasted time, spent in fear and being made to feel that I was to blame. Spent in insecurity because I was more afraid of the unknown I’d face if I left, afraid that I couldn’t cope on my own. Spent believing that I was alone because that’s what abusers do to you through gaslighting and insidiously isolating you from potential support.

It’s so incredibly hard to come back from trauma. The effects–the scars–run deep and heal slowly if at all. My mind was reshaped by it, leaving me much more susceptible to anxiety and depression, and less able to cope with some everyday situations. In a very real sense, I’m not the same person I was before.

Recently I found myself in a church. It wasn’t planned: my particular friend and I were doing the tourist thing in Montréal, took the Métro to Côte-des-Neiges and walked up to St. Joseph’s Oratory. In the crypt church there we sat in contemplation, and as I reflected on my life I found my tears were flowing.

Not a religious moment, but certainly a spiritual one: I felt a release as if a weight had been lifted from me. When we moved on to the adjoining crypt with its ranks of votive candles I found myself in front of a board on which I noticed a single word: forgiveness.

Feeling a resonance within that moment, I decided to light a candle as a way of marking it. When talking it over later with my friend, they said something that seemed to fit: forgiveness is something we do for ourselves, not for the other person. I wasn’t forgiving the person who subjected me to emotional abuse; I was forgiving myself, absolving myself of blame for what was done to me.

I have other things I carry with me: the burden of bad choices. Times when I acted out of anger, frustration or selfishness. Times when I didn’t live up to my own moral and ethical values. Hopefully in time I will be able to forgive myself for these too.

The lessons of life hopefully teach us the knowledge and skills we need to survive and grow. I have learned no hidden secrets, no mystical arcana. What I have learned is that making the world a better place most often comes down to small kindnesses rather than grand gestures, and an important part of that is being kind to yourself.