Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ruth, Jonah, Paul and an Unfortunate Maritime/Marital Analogy

Something like 13 years ago, I realized that the ship of my marriage was in serious trouble.  We were taking on water - baggage with one another that we never bothered to bail out.  Over time the water made its way out, but never entirely.  And so we started to list off course.  We leaned away from each other.  The course corrections we made in previous years stopped taking us in the direction we wanted to go.  And, possibly the worst part of all, things were getting water logged. That's the permanent damage.

I did what I thought of- I tried to correct the course with the water in the hold, I tried to eject the ballast. And I bailed.  I bailed like hell.  

But ten years later it was clear that we were going to have to abandon ship. The captain of that ship was just going to let us go on forever, listing, sweeping, gradually sinking until we were all up to our necks in water. I as the navigator had completely failed to keep us on course. So, I took it upon myself to declare mutiny.  

Mutiny is a terrible thing, let me tell you. There is no going back.  In the 17th Century, when Britannia ruled the waves, mutiny was a hanging offence for all involved.  It makes sense really, you cant have that kind of insurgency in the ranks, then everyone would rebel when their food was weevily or their captain was leading them into danger.  

But in the eyes of the victims of ineptitude or cruelty, the mutineer was a hero.  And to the mutineer, the question seemed to come down to "die of inaction, at the hands of a mad man, or die as the result of your own action and risk the rope."  I took the risk.

As a result of the mutiny, all hands abandoned ship. This is the point in the story where the maritime analogy begins to be labored.  I apologize.  Because, in my mind, what I did when I determined to end my marriage was akin to I knowing I had to leave the sinking ship. Not jumping entirely into the water, though, but going calmly, quickly, into a lifeboat. We keep lifeboats as part of the compliment of a larger ship.  The larger ship could learn a lot from the lowly lifeboat. 

A lifeboat, as you may know, is designed to keep you afloat when other forces would pull you under.  A lifeboat, as you may know, is sturdy enough to keep the water out and stable enough to get you to safe harbor.  A lifeboat will carry more than one person, plus provisions. This was essential because, as part of the mutiny, the passengers were coming with me.

In the case of the end of my marriage, adrift on the sea of emotion, the lifeboat was the ethics I and my family had built up and preserved over the course of our lives together.  The lifeboat was the infrastructure of our lives, the "why" we do things, that kept us together and safe as we navigated the "what" we had to do. Why we were not in the ship any more, why we needed to be on the sea, why we were paddling in the direction we had chosen, why we set down the paddles some times and let the wind take us.  All of these decisions were made because of the nature of our lifeboat, a lifeboat we had constructed over decades, never thinking it would become essential.  All of the choices we made as we proceeded through the months of separation toward divorce, were guided by what we knew to be right, what we knew to be "our way."  Our ethics were our lifeboat.

This is not to say that our lifeboat didn't leak.  There were certainly times when the sea of emotion slipped in through cracks between the boards of our lifeboat.  Nothing tests your ethics like conflict.  And we learned where our weaknesses were and how serious and how to repair or mitigate them.  And the sea of emotion sometimes swept over the side in great tidal waves of anger and resentment and hurt.  In the darkest part of the night there were great swells that topped our gunwales and threatened to overturn us or sink us on one fell motion.  

In these times, emotion was so overwhelming that our judgement was almost completely lost to us.  We could not remember who we were or why we had made any decision.  In the darkness you cannot see where you are going or where you have been, and in a storm of emotion, there is no guiding starlight toward which to steer. 

And what we did in those moments was to turn our attention within.  We kept our minds on what was happening inside the boat, because that was all we could control.  We couldn't still the waves or make the boat big enough to overcome them.  But we could do our best to keep our boat, such as it was, afloat.  We picked up our buckets and bailed. We took gallons of destructive emotion and threw them over the side.  Anger, disappointment, recriminations and cruelty, greed and envy, all went over the side by the bucketful. In our lifeboat of ethics,  dark emotion is valid, it has a place. Its just outside the boat. (I should mention that one of the provisions in any good lifeboat, is a store of fresh drinking water - of love and support, of kindness and empathy and trust.  We had that aboard our boat from the beginning or we never would have survived.)

Now, I don't want to give the impression that we were entirely alone on these stormy seas.  There were plenty of folks out there. Folks called to us to help guide us toward safety. Friends and family who have weathered divorce and loss like this offered us kind words and encouraging prayer. Folks further away shined a light to keep us from harm. A very good friend of mine, an attorney, warned me about the twists and turns of the "jilted male psyche" and kept me from reefing more than once. And there were, and continue to be, naysayers who figured we were in this trouble because we chose to be. There were even those who, somewhat astonishingly, thought it would be wise to go back to the ship. But these were the voices of folks who live in the sea, it is their world view. We, in the boat, see things from another perspective.

So, while we were never alone, still it was our lifeboat and it is our job to get ourselves to safe harbor. Our journey of surviving divorce, in our little boat of ethics, is ours alone to experience. That is as it should be because of the retelling.  We are a people of stories and so when we tell the fish-tale that will be the anecdote of our experience, we may exaggerate parts, we may minimize others, we may all have a different impression of "the one that got away."  But our truth is the truth as we experience it.  Too many witnesses may bring veracity, but they diminish truth.

And let me say that there was another choice we could have made as the ship began to sink.  We could all have chosen to put on life vests and throw ourselves into the water as individuals.  That was what the captain chose to do. I cannot imagine what it was like to be alone in the sea of emotion, to be soaked to the skin with it and tossed about without moorings and without anyone to cling to.  I think it must have been very cold.  I think it must have been terrifying.  I think there were times when his head dropped under the water line and he swallowed the sea water into his belly.  It tested him and I know it showed his true colors.  Ultimately, he found other people who had chosen the life-preserver route.  He clung to them as long as he was able, one after another until he found one he could keep afloat with.  In the end, just as we will find safe harbor, he will emerge from the sea as well.  Who is to say what is right for any of us?  I am only glad I chose to stick to what I knew was right for me and for my children. 

Because, now that the shore is in sight, I can honestly say that I am proud of what we have done.  I am proud that we chose to leave in the boat and not to let ourselves be drowned.  I am proud of how we stayed in the boat when we wanted to jump out and end it, and when it seemed we would be spilled out or sunk.  I am proud of how well constructed our ethics were so that when really and genuinely challenged, we knew what to do because we knew why. We were tested, but we were never pulled under. 

It is a long and labored metaphor, I know.  I am as weary of it as you are, I promise.  But it has worked for me for 14 months and will always be the image I carry in my mind for my divorce. My ethics, my knowledge of what is right and my willingness to place the hopes of myself and my children inside that knowledge, that is the lesson of the divorce for me. 

Faithful readers of this column will wonder where God comes into all this?  You may be looking for a belly of the whale analogy or something about Paul and shipwreck.  And you're right to think I looked to scripture as a guide for my life.  It is, after all, a tale of ethics and my ethics stem from my faith.  But the book is not Jonah or Job or Acts or even Revelation, though there may at times have seemed to be a many-headed beast involved.  The book is Ruth. Ruth, a woman who chooses her path, not through convention, but because of what she feels to be right. A woman who does the hard work to keep her family together.  A woman whose choices have been the subject of speculation and criticism for millennia, but who never herself questioned their validity.   A woman whose story we all know and which appears in our lectionary every year.  This is the book that guides me here, this is the theology of my divorce. And yet in the story of Ruth, God is never mentioned and God never appears. I think that might be because God's work is evident in Ruth's work

So if you are looking for God in my weary maritime tale, God is in the fact that there was a lifeboat at all. 

1 comment:

Adrienne Sparrow said...

Thank you for sharing so much of your heart and life with us.