Over the past year and a half, I have gotten a crash course in non-dualistic thinking. What is non-dualistic thinking? It’s the ability to hold two things in your mind that seem contradictory, the ability to feel two things in your heart that feel antithetical to one another. Take the classic theological question: How could a good God allow suffering in the world? Dualistic thinking would say both facts can’t be true, so you have to choose one. And since suffering in the world is a fact that feels indisputable, the goodness of God (or the existence of God, or the power of God) must be called into question. The non-dualistic thinker would say: God is good AND there is suffering. No need to reconcile two irreconcilable truths, just hold them both in tension. Life is a mystery.
The relevant question for me was, how can someone experience the depths of grief and the heights of joy at the same time? Many people don’t allow for this possibility. Either someone is grieving, or they are rejoicing. One state of being precludes the other. To be happy when you “should” be sad is to be in denial. To wallow in sadness when you “should” have moved on is a sign of weakness or dysfunction. Everyone has a different idea of how long grief should last in different circumstances, but the overwhelming assumption is: first grief, then happiness.
Of course anyone who has experienced grief knows that this is rarely how it happens. Many people experience relief initially. And then nothing at all. There are moments of delight, when everything feels normal and good, interspersed with moments of a depth of emotion that can’t be described as any one thing – a throbbing awareness of the significance and fragility of life, a longing for something just out of reach, a sense of mystery and miracle and luminescence shot through with shadow and fog.
Two things can be true at once. We accept this in other areas of life. A man can be a good husband AND a good father, he doesn’t have to choose one role. A mother can love multiple children deeply, fiercely, equally. She may love them differently, to be sure, and certainly some parents don’t love their children equally, but many do.
I said before that the relevant question was about grief and joy, but that was only the beginning. As I listened to the voices inside my head, this is what I heard: Will Joel ever be able to love me as much as he loved Laura? Who is the higher priority, me or Grace? Will I always come second, whether to Laura or to Grace? Is it ok for me to be thankful for my relationship with Joel, when I know that it wouldn’t be possible without Laura’s death?
If these questions make you uncomfortable, it’s because you’re human. Even as I write them, I feel a squirming in my stomach. These aren’t the kind of questions you say out loud, says my internal dialogue. Ignore them, or think about them when you’re alone, if you must, but don’t under any circumstances speak them out! But the great irony of living in denial is that the things we hope will die from lack of attention actually have much greater power over us when they are confined to our subconscious. If I ignore these questions, they will rule me. If I look them in the eye, I can learn from them and release them.
If I ignore these questions, they will rule me. If I look them in the eye, I can learn from them and release them.
Something I’ve learned: discomfort is an excellent teacher. A very natural, human response to discomfort is to look away from it. But these triggering moments reveal so much, if only we will stop to listen! My fear of being “second” is not a new thing, but something I’ve carried with me my whole life. Since I was a child, I have felt like there wasn’t enough space for me to be myself, and that I had to make myself smaller and change my shape to fit into the space provided. No wonder I get stirred up at the thought of being a second wife, and a stepmother! What if there isn’t space for me in Joel’s heart? What if there isn’t space for me in Grace’s life?
Discomfort is an excellent teacher.
A strange thing happened when I stopped ignoring the haunting questions that lurked at the base of my neck, whispering in my ear. As I held them up to the light, turning them over in my mind, looking at them from every angle, I realized that these questions didn’t need an answer. That, in fact, some of them were unanswerable. What they needed, if they were ever going to release their grip on me, was to be held. So I took them in my hand, looked them in the eye and said, I see you, I acknowledge the paradoxes you present, and I accept the mystery of this reality.
I am incredibly grateful for my relationship with Joel. AND I am deeply grieved that he lost Laura, that Grace lost her mother. It might seem impossible, but I feel the truth of both realities in the marrow of my bones.
Joel loved (and continues to love) Laura with a deep, abiding, eternal love. AND Joel’s love for me is deep, and abiding, and eternal, and growing day by day. AND as his love for me grows, his love for Laura doesn’t lessen, because these two loves are not in competition with each other, for they are the same love, emanating from the same source – Joel’s heart, and ultimately, the heart of God.
My questions and fears sprung from a mindset of scarcity (“Is there enough of Joel to go around?”), but love is not a zero-sum game. To love one person or thing does not require removing love from another source, like so many dollars that must be divvied up between accounts. Love springs from an eternal and infinite source, and to the one who has, more is given, so that the more we love, the more we are able to love.
Love springs from an eternal and infinite source, and to the one who has, more is given, so that the more we love, the more we are able to love.
It causes me some amount of sadness when I tell people about Joel and Grace and I can see them wishing something different for me, something “better”. You are getting a used husband, they think. Second-hand. His love has been spent, you will get only the leftovers. But this couldn’t be further from the truth! I am marrying a man who has spent his life loving, and loving well. His love for Laura (even as that love continues) doesn’t deplete him of love, it strengthens him in love. I am getting a husband who is practiced in love, who has experienced its heights and its depths, who is intimately acquainted with the full spectrum of its offerings. I am stepping into a family where love already abounds, a love that has been blossoming and gaining strength for years – and I get to share in this bounty! What a gift this is!
On April 21st, Joel asked me to marry him. This is probably the biggest decision of my life, but it is also the easiest. In Joel and Grace (and Laura too, because she is a part of them), I am getting something beyond what I ever could have hoped or imagined for myself. I’m not living under the illusion that there aren’t challenges to being a second wife and a stepmother. But there are challenges to being a first wife and a biological mother. (Can I get an “amen”???) Are there some differences? Yes, of course. The point is, the very things that some people might see as drawbacks and disadvantages to my situation, I see as gifts and opportunities. This isn’t wishful thinking, it isn’t naivete, it isn’t blissful ignorance. My confidence flows from the deep peace and gratitude that I have found on the other side of wrestling with the hard questions and, finally, surrendering to the mystery of God’s infinite love, which makes the impossible possible.
- What does my story stir up in you? What thoughts came to mind, or what emotions surfaced, as you read?
- What is your default response to difficult questions? Do you wrestle with them? Worry or obsess over them? Try to distract yourself and ignore them? What is the impact of this response?
- What resonance or resistance do you feel toward the following statement: “Love springs from an eternal and infinite source, and to the one who has, more is given, so that the more we love, the more we are able to love.” What difference would it make if this were true? How does this way of thinking compare with the way you think and operate when it comes to extending and receiving love?