The contrast necessary in genuine appreciation
Is it possible to ever truly appreciate something without being exposed to the stark harshness of its contrasting and opposing experience? At the conclusion of all of my serious relationships, of which I’ve been in three, I have wished heartbreak on my ex. Yep, that’s right. I wished that someone would break my ex’s heart. I wanted them to feel the tormented feelings that I was presently experiencing. I wanted them to know what it was like to have your heart destroyed, trampled on, and completely neglected. I suppressed these feelings and thoughts though because that’s not what love is. Love isn’t wishing harm on your ex, no matter what they did to you. Love is supposed to be about wanting them to be happy, even at the expense of your own happiness. At least that’s the message we’re conditioned to believe. And so I thought of myself to be a monster. A horrible human. A sadistic, spoilt brat who couldn’t handle not getting what she wanted. So any time someone would try to convince me that I was a great, kind-hearted individual, I resisted these compliments because I knew them not to be true. How could they be? I was intentionally wishing harm on those I claimed to love.
Some might understand these thoughts and feelings as being associated with the anger stage of grief; anger which is completely warranted. Others might understand it as projecting one’s own feelings onto another human, and what better human to project it onto than the one who inflicted this heart shattering misery. But what I’m coming to realise is there’s a deeper element associated with these thoughts and feelings. Although the former statements might very well be true, the wish is rooted in something more complex. And it’s this belief that we can’t truly appreciate something, or someone, until we’ve been exposed to its polar opposite. Until we’ve known complete darkness, how can we ever truly appreciate, or notice, a faint candle light in the distance? My understanding is that we can’t. And so with regards to heartache, unless someone has had their heart broken or been treated poorly, how would they ever be able to truly appreciate their partner? Small gestures are likely to go unnoticed because they’ve always been known. It’s not until something isn’t known or that something is lost that its true value can be experienced and appreciated.
So me wishing heartache and pain on my exes might not be as sadistic as it sounds. Instead, it’s a wish for them to learn to appreciate something good when they have it, but also to understand what the converse feels like; what it feels like to have one’s heart broken. What it feels like to be cheated on. To be lied to. To have all of your fears confirmed. To be abandoned. Neglected. Underappreciated. To be alone: emotionally, not just physically. And I know what that feels like. And it’s one of the scariest, darkest, and loneliest feelings I have ever endured.
Two years ago when I was going through my incredibly difficult patch, I felt alone. Isolated. Abandoned. Everyone I reached out to turned their back on me. But particularly those that were in my inner circle. Those that promised not just me, but my family, they would take care of me. I’m referring specifically to my mentor at the time. This individual was a role model to me. She challenged me to be the best version of myself. She held me accountable. She listened. Understood. And she supported me. I idolised her. So much so that I wanted to be her. Heck, I almost was her. It was scary how similar we were; seemingly the same person, just 15 years apart. But when I needed her, when I really needed her, she was nowhere to be found. She had told my parents they didn’t need to worry because she was going to look after me. But she didn’t. She never came to visit me after surgery. She didn’t respond to messages. And she didn’t make time for me. I was desperate. I was in an extremely dark place. I needed her. And she knew it. Instead of walking beside me in the darkness, she ran. As fast as she could in the opposite direction. She freaked out. She felt responsible for me. As a sports psychology consultant, she knew that she wasn’t qualified to be my therapist. She wasn’t a clinical psychologist and nor could she be. To her, what I was going through required professional help, of which she couldn’t provide. And she was right, I did need professional help. But I was getting it. What she didn’t realise is that I didn’t need her to be my therapist. I just needed her to be my friend. To do nothing but be there. But riddled with fear, she chose to abandon me.
I was recently presented with a very similar situation, but this time I was the mentor. After conversing with this ridiculously intelligent and emotionally mature individual about what was going on, I freaked out. I felt responsible for her wellbeing. I started telling myself that it was okay for me to run because I’m “not qualified to deal with this” and she wasn’t my responsibility. I wasn’t a therapist, nor could I be one to her. She needed help and I couldn’t help her. Fortunately though, I met with some fantastic parents over dinner who helped me process these feelings. After vaguely expressing the situation to them, they proceeded to ask me, “How can you be a crisis text line counsellor, but then run away from this situation - what’s the difference?” I thought about this question a lot. Was it because I knew this individual, so the intimacy and weight of the relationship was naturally heavier? Or was it because I felt responsible for her? The answer I concluded was nothing other than fear. I was afraid. And in the midst of my fear, I ran. But then I remembered what it felt like to be abandoned. To have someone you revere so deeply and sincerely literally turn their back on you in your most desperate time of need. That kind of pain is damaging. Heartbreaking. Traumatising. Here I was, being presented with an opportunity. An opportunity not to fix or heal this individual, but to be the friend I had wished my mentor had been to me.
Too often we think that when our friends are in need, we’re responsible for fixing them and that responsibility can be overwhelming and overbearing, especially if an individual is suicidal. We end up internalising their pain as though their mere existence is a burden in our lives. We then proceed to pressure ourselves into feeling solely responsible for their wellbeing. But we aren’t. And that’s not what they need. People don’t need to be fixed, nor can they be by anyone but themselves. What people need is validation. They need empathy. They need a friend. And a friend is someone who knows when to lead, when to be led, and when it’s necessary to do nothing other than just walk alongside someone. But without being numbed by disappointment and tortured by abandonment because of my mentor’s actions two years ago, I’m not sure I would have accepted the opportunity that I was being presented. An opportunity not to fix or heal, but to be the friend this kid needs. Am I scared? Absolutely. What I know though, and I know this from my own personal experience, is that inaction and absence is far more detrimental and debilitating than incorrect action and presence. Fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing is overwhelmingly potent, but it is mild compared to the fear that this individual will experience the intense and heartbreaking abandonment of having those she respects and reveres turn her back on her.
So my opening question still remains, is it possible to ever truly appreciate a situation, a person, or a thing, if you have never been without it or exposed to it? Because I’m not sure you can. And so I believe that maybe, just maybe, there is a purpose to all of this pain after all. And maybe that purpose is to provide a level of understanding, compassion, appreciation and empathy that is foreign to those who have never really endured the darkening isolation of being abandoned in one’s most desperate time of need. Perhaps one’s suffering is never in vain. Perhaps your suffering might be used to help yourself, perhaps to help someone else, or perhaps it might just save someone’s life. “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross