When I lead backpacking trips, part of the risk management curriculum is teaching about lightening safety. The first part of the lesson, in the backcountry, is this: when you are out in the mountains in a storm, there is no such thing as safe, there is only safer. Relative safety.
You teach students that when the dark sky rolls in they shouldn’t keep climbing up to the exposed peak. But the truth is, the side of the mountain isn’t safe either, it’s just safer than the peak. The only truly safe place during a lightning storm is inside a modern building or car. And spending a life hiding inside a building or a car is a death of sorts that makes the perils of a lightning strike in the mountains seem tame.
“Security is mostly a superstition,” writes Helen Keller, “It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”
We have so many safe guards for our physical well-being in place in the world now. Phones to dial 911 when things go awry, AEDs hanging in public places to shock our hearts back into a normal rhythm when necessary, airbags, and alarms, and shin guards, and superfood smoothies. Each passing day we have a greater and greater capacity to bubble wrap our physical existence.
And while each of these things in isolation may save a life, I worry that they contribute to a growing expectation that true safety is attainable. Part of the lexicon of today is the concept of a “safe space,” which implies both physical and emotional safety. And if physical safety is an unattainable goal, then emotional safety seems truly beyond the pale.
I’ve been to many weddings in the last few years. And I’ve watched as some of the people I love best make vows to the people they love best. Promises. So many heartbreakingly beautiful promises made between two people who love each other fiercely. But in the afterglow of wedding ceremonies my mind can wander to David Whyte’s poem, “All the True Vows” where in a few brief lines he captures a dissonance that exists at the intersection of hope and reality:
All the true vows
are secret vows
the ones we speak out loud
are the ones we break.
There is merit to the pageantry of weddings. Merit to starting out a relationship on the foundation of hope. Perhaps the hedging thoughts and ideas that are hope’s bedfellows are actually best left unsaid. But said or not, they are a silent presence next to our spoken vows.
I had my first brush with duplicitousness in partnership earlier this summer. If there were a grand scale of infidelity what happened to me was perhaps the lightest form of infidelity. And still, it sent me reeling. But as the spinning has started to slow, I’m realizing that it’s not so much the experience of being hurt that I'm circling around.
There is no relationship, no matter how loving or good that escapes hurt. We are in fact, uniquely capable of causing the most hurt to the people we love best. It’s the what happens next—after the hurt—that feels more important to me. Do you stay? Do you sit with the pain? Do you rebuild? Do you try to trust again? And maybe most importantly, are both people in the relationship invested in exploring those questions together? The hopeful aspirations or vows that begin a relationship are becoming less interesting to me than the question of what we do when we inevitably fall short of our aspirations or when the person we love falls short of theirs.
As I get older and become more aware of the ways in which I have hurt other people and other people have hurt me, I'm questioning more what the vow “to love always” really looks like. Part of reimagining for me is considering that it is an incredible act of love to just stay and try to ride out the wave, when you are full of rage or hurt. And that perhaps another paradoxical part of of loving always is knowing when and how to let go if repair isn’t possible.
Years ago when I was inching my way towards self-forgiveness after hurting a person I loved, I found my mooring in this quote by the poet Rumi:
I wrote what follows in my journal that summer: “I will always feel sad when I think about the profound hurt I caused a man I loved—a man I will always feel love for. But somewhere along the way I came to know that there is room for profound joy and love alongside that sadness. Somewhere along the way, I started to realize that I am worthy of love—messy, full spectrum, wide-open, deep love. Somewhere along the way, I came to trust that someday I will meet a man out in Rumi’s field—'out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing'—and we will say to each other: 'I thought I’d find you here.' And that we won’t live happily ever after, because those fairytales are for the birds, but that we will live happily, sadly, madly, crazily, joyfully, profoundly, wildly ever after, and that faith has been the greatest learning of my life.”
Rumi’s field is an elusive place. Somedays, quite by surprise, I find that I’ve woken up there, and then it can vanish just as quickly as it came. So I’m still searching. And it seems that the only way to the field is to forgive. Forgive ourselves, forgive others. And for me, learning to forgive, is far more hopeful and important than aspiring to never err.