Giving Our Life to Dead Things

Waiting is the hardest part, sang the late, and pretty stinking great, Tom Petty. I’m feeling that lyric lately. I’m going through some major changes involving some brontosaurus-sized decisions. And, as you know, scientists have proven through complex formulations that change sucks. Even good change can stink up the bathroom. Most of my friends also happen to be going through some major life changes right now. So I’ve been thinking a lot about change from a lot of different angles lately, and I think I have some decent advice.

Years ago, I went through a divorce after an almost decade-long marriage. I tried to make it work for years. I talked to her about my concerns, I gave her time, I worked on myself, but nothing worked for very long. I remember the moment I knew it wasn’t going to work out. That moment was soon followed by an ungraceful crab-crawl by me into denial, where I nostalgically gathered up all the good memories I could and convinced myself there was enough there to give it a shot. There wasn’t. Just another six months of denial and pain before I realized it wasn’t her I’d miss as much as the comfort of familiarity.

And that’s not necessarily to my shame. Change is hard. Especially huge changes involving huge emotions and huge investments of time. If you’re going through something similar, you should know that’s pretty normal. I should be clear at this point that I’m not saying every bad situation should be fled or is hopeless. That’s crazy-pants. I’m talking about living the in-between–the time that comes after you know what needs to happen and making the hard decision–when you’re fighting that decision like it’s trying to take your mom’s purse until you either defeat it or lay down your arms.

I get it, sometimes it’s hard to pull that trigger even when that big burly slobbery bear’s running straight at you. Way too many of us have to be mauled before we get back around to our original right realization that things need to change. But that’s sometimes the way it goes. I’ve been mauled a time or eighteen myself. Fear of letting go does some crazy stuff to your head, and, at times, the only way out is through the proverbial bear’s bowels. But, here’s the thing: you may have to spend a little time in the winding world of that sort of do I?/don’t I? hell, just to grieve and get your head on straight, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay there.

After various and sundry bad and slow decisions, I’ve started to see a pattern that let’s me know if I’m wrestling with my decision because it’s flawed or because I’m scared (or just plain out of my mind at the loss). My hope is that if I describe this pattern, maybe your stay in the in-between of knowing/not-knowing what to do will be significantly shorter than mine has been on occasion. I think it all comes down to who you serve.

you can serve the past

The past can feel like gravity. It’s all we’ve known, it feels safe, and so, without it, we wonder if we’d simply float away. I was at a low point around five years ago. Maybe that’s why I had the guts to do it. I tossed everything I could into my car and moved from Arkansas to Florida. I didn’t know what was going to happen when I got there. I was as scared as I’ve ever been. But I knew I needed to leave; I needed to start over, and I was just crazy enough right then to do it. I knew my parents would rather me be closer, and that I was leaving behind all the friends I had. I also knew Arkansas. I’d had some great times there. It would’ve been easy to get high on nostalgia and pretend I wasn’t really done with that state for various reasons. I know, because I’d been doing that for several years before.

I mean, I don’t recommend the way I did things in that situation. I wasn’t in the best state of mind due to factors outside my control, and didn’t plan things out as well as I should have before leaving. I also left some relational black eyes, and that first year was stressful as all get out, but—that aside—it was one of the best decisions I ever made. A decision I would’ve made years before, in a better state of mind, if I hadn’t been serving the past.

There’s something about us that, when faced with the unknown, clamps down onto what we know—even if we’re supremely unhappy with what we know. For too long, I let the comfort of the past be an excuse to stay in an unfulfilling present. I let nostalgia, fear, and a longing for things to be like they once were muffle what my heart and logic were trying to tell me. Holding onto a past that’s no longer useful is like keeping a dead puppy. They once may have brought you joy, but now you’re just giving precious space to dead things.

you can serve the future

A friend of mine once told me he didn’t fear much except the unknown. I really identify with that bit of teenage bravado. I like solid answers. I’m learning to better live in the tension of not knowing, but—as I’ve been saying—it takes real effort to change. None of us like the idea of stepping out onto what we fear could end up being thin air. Serving the future is driving yourself crazy trying to figure out every possible scenario so you don’t get hurt. I don’t mean planning wisely, I mean you’re literally trying to divine the future using an organ that isn’t designed to do such a thing. We worry to death the details of an issue we have zero control over and accomplish nothing but stressing ourselves out and creating boogey-men out of thin air.

What if this great new relationship doesn’t work out? What if this spectacular new career turns out not to be what I thought? What if I grow a second head and it won’t eat delicious, delicious tacos? 

Living in that vicious cycle isn’t helpful or wise, it’s just us trying to fool ourselves into thinking we can avoid future mistakes if we think of all the ways the future might suck. (What we’re really trying to do, I think, is talk ourselves out of the hard choice.) So, we end up never taking any real chances. We miss opportunities for actual happiness, adventure, and, yes, change because we want control more than we want health and to move forward. Ruminating on all the ways the future can go wrong in an effort to protect ourselves from the unknown only serves to keep us firmly in the lap of our present dissatisfaction. It’s like the twist ending of the most depressing movie ever.

you can live in the now

Living in the now can be a tricky thing. There’s a healthy place for the lessons of the past in the now. There’s also a place for consideration of things we can control in the future. But living in the now means not allowing our love of what was, but no longer is, to blind us. It’s not allowing our fear of what might go wrong to keep us from pursuing the good. It’s allowing ourselves to feel our pain without trying to control it, because that’s how it ends up controlling us. It’s walking with those who love us, those we trust, and letting them speak into our lives—not to make our decisions for us, but to give us perspectives we might not have considered. Then, when we’re in our right minds, (hopefully sooner rather than later, but as long as it takes) we can boldly take a chance. The decision still won’t be easy, but it will be clearer.

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