Exorcising The Ghosts Of The Past

What I used to record portions of the Live Aid concert in 1985

In the days before the Internet and FaceTime and Zoom and texting, people wrote letters. A stamp, a pen, and a piece of paper were all you needed to share the contents of your mind and heart with someone who was worth the effort of your time and questionable penmanship. As is the habit for many people, I saved quite a few of the letters I received over the years from friends and boyfriends. I kept them in a box that once held my cassette player (back in the days when cassettes were a thing). Over time, that box got rather stuffed with random correspondence. I didn’t open it very often to read its contents, but I dragged it with me each time I moved. It would relocate from the top of one closet shelf to another, from apartment to apartment. There was something about knowing those letters were there if I ever wanted to trot down memory lane or perhaps clarify a memory that had become distorted or foggy.

When my husband and I got engaged and decided to move in together, he was helping me move boxes into my car when he came across that one. He asked me why I was bringing it. After all, if these letters represented relationships that had long since gone defunct, why was I clinging to them? I honestly could not give him a suitable answer. If I’d said I was keeping them for sentimental reasons, that would only make the box more of an issue in our relationship at the time. I didn’t know how to respond. In the absence of a viable response, he asked me if I could add them to the dumpster along with the wooden case holding 100 cassette tapes I no longer needed since he had a CD player he was willing to share. I acquiesced because he had never asked for anything from me, we were getting married and he was my future, and it seemed like a small sacrifice I should be willing to make for someone who had never been anything but kind, loving, supportive, and patient with me. With a pang of disappointment, I lobbed them over the wall of the dumpster, turned around, and tried not to look back. I was twenty-six then, he twenty-four.

In the years since, we both have felt deep regret over that event. He has felt horrible for asking me to toss a box of papers because he felt a little jealous about its existence. I have felt anger at myself for not defending my right to keep them because they were harmless mementos from my youth. But there is no unringing that bell. They are long gone. So now we just carry around the shame regarding that missing box instead of carrying around the box itself, which we have both agreed is so much more emotionally cumbersome than that damn box ever was.

This decision, made in our youth when we were not emotionally mature and had no real experience to gift us with greater perspective, has laden us with invisible baggage that we have hauled for decades. It’s something he doesn’t like me to mention because he feels just that bad about it, but I don’t blame him because the box is gone. I blame myself for not being self-aware enough to tell him it was part of my life I wasn’t ready to jettison. But it’s time for us to unload our disappointment in ourselves and the choices we made when we were younger and not able to see so far into the future. Seriously. Who can see twenty-seven years into the future when they aren’t even twenty-seven yet? The guilt and shame we feel needs to go. That box has long since been replaced by countless wonderful memories and experiences as our life together has been filled with love and fun and two absolutely-perfect-in-nearly-every-way adult sons, not to mention dozens upon dozens of cards and notes we have written to each other and saved. Therefore, I am declaring it time to move on. I may not be able to read those missives again, but I have something much more important. I would never trade my current life, our family, our shared experiences for those pieces of paper and neither would he. It’s way past time for us to toss the shame and self-flaggelation in the dumpster and move forward.

Sometimes It Really Is A YOU Problem

Fifty (or fifty-one if we’re being specific) is a marvelous thing. With five decades behind me, I now understand my place in this world much better than I have before. I’ve learned that I am not as important or influential as I thought. I am not responsible for everyone else’s feelings. After fifty years, I am free of the burdens and expectations of others. Mostly.

IMG_0525

I was raised to believe I was the direct cause of other people’s suffering. You know the phrase, “That sounds like a you problem?” Well, everything negative that happened in my interactions with others was a me problem. It all rested squarely on my shoulders. If someone was unhappy with me, it was because I was selfish or lazy or thoughtless. There was no onus on the other person. I was to blame. Always.

The natural consequence of believing that my every mistake, misstep, or misspoken word made me less likable was a conditioned level of fearfulness around other people. I didn’t dare express what I liked because someone else might not agree and that would be awkward. I didn’t feel comfortable asking for what I wanted because that might put someone else out. I was terrified others would see how naive and foolish I was if I spoke up, so I kept to myself. I played along. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t impose. I didn’t want to rock anyone else’s boat. It wasn’t until I hit fifty that I realized my concern for not rocking anyone else’s boat meant I never learned to sail my own.

For most of my life, the you problem comment bothered me. I found it haughty and mean-spirited. Eventually with therapy, I began to understand that diagnosing a you problem had less to do with being dismissive of someone else’s feelings than it had to do with being responsible for my own. A you problem is a problem you are responsible for. Nothing more. Nothing less. As long as I own my part, it’s okay to wish, hope, or expect another will own theirs. Believing someone else is responsible for their own feelings is not dismissive of my responsibility to them. It acknowledges that I am responsible for only my part in the transactional nature of our human relationship. It allows another the opportunity and responsibility to accept their fair share. It’s equality.

I still live my life trying to be decent and fair to others. I still try to consider other’s feelings and cause no harm. I still strive not to be a burden. I just no longer accept that I am 100% responsible for someone else’s reaction to what I say or do. I can only be responsible for myself. If you’re reacting negatively to what I say or what I need, you should examine why it bothers you because that is a you problem. It feels good to let you shoulder your own feelings and expectations. It feels good to let that go.