As a young boy living in upstate New York, I loved roaming through the nearby woods and fields by myself on summer days. One sunny afternoon I came upon a tall, thick-trunked tree that had a deep scar on it's lower portion. It looked like it had been struck by lightning some years before and was permanently damaged there. Yet it had continued to grow.
That memory came to mind recently, as I explain below. I'd been reflecting on the consequences of loss in our relationships and lives -- how they affect us over time; what endures from them, for better or for worse. I recalled an essay by the novelist Walter Mosley, for example. He wrote about an awakening he experienced as a small child - his first "mystery." It was a memory of his three-year-old self, playing in the backyard of his parents' house. He suddenly realized, "These must be my parents" and he called out to them. He observed that "My mother nodded. My father said my name. Neither touched me, but I had learned by then not to expect that."
Mosley described "an emptiness in my childhood that I filled up with fantasies," and added, "the primitive heart that remembers is, in a way, eternal." Interestingly, Mosley grew into the acclaimed mystery novelist he is, today.
Such early experiences can leave a scar, emotionally. It can impel growth, or it could become an emotional abyss. It can go either way. And the same can occur in adulthood. For example, an unexpected event might trigger your memory of a once-meaningful, significant love relationship in your life, whose loss had impact. The relationship may have faded over time, but it remains etched onto your soul, and is part of you. The question is, what meaning has it had upon your life as it unfolded beyond that experience.
For example, the writer Lee Montgomery described a drop-in visit by the son of her first lover. She had many romantic and adventurous experiences with him in her young adulthood. Recalling the relationship, she writes, "...I think of endless days hanging out in the woods and fields around our New England prep schools, sucking dope out of a metal chamber pipe. (He) showed me the world and taught me to live in it. New York City. The Great West. And Europe, where we lived for several months during his first college year abroad."
Eventually, their relationship ended. Montgomery went on with her life, married, began a career. She reports that her young lover inherited money, married, had a child, "...had no career that I knew of and shot himself when he was in his 30s."
The son, quite young at the time of his father's suicide, was now about the age Montgomery was when she and his father were lovers. He had dropped by her office hoping to hear some stories of what his father was like. Montgomery describes how fresh and alive the memories felt to her, as she drew upon them: "Sitting across a booth studying this young man, I was overwhelmed. So many years later, I was stunned to find the feeling of first love still there."
I think experiences like these - from childhood or adulthood -- reveal the enduring nature of loss of love and connection. They affect us eternally, and always remain part of our lives. What's crucial is how we "evolve" from them, because such experiences are necessary for our continued growth, including the pain of loss.
That is, it doesn't matter if they arise from a child's loss of loving parental connection; from an adult love relationship that dies or fades; or from an unexpected death. Nor does it matter if that loss resulted from something we did that harmed or damaged a relationship that was important to us. What matters is that the consequences have a permanent shelf life; they can't be undone. But what we do with them is key to our growth or stagnation.
That's what brought to mind the image of old tree trunk. The tree was damaged where the lightning had struck, but over the years the trunk had continued to grow around it. Gradually, the growth encompassed the damaged part - the "scars" within it. And that's what's hopeful about ourselves: Our experiences of love and the losses from them become woven into the larger tapestry of our lives, if we can accept them, learn from them, and continue to grow beyond them. Like the tree, we can encompass the "damage," incorporate and learn from them; and become stronger by embracing them as an enduring part of who we are and who we can continue to become.
Photo Credit: Jim Palmer
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.