It happens to me all the time.
A knowing look between virtual strangers. Words left unsaid yet with full meaning comprehended. A nod to the side, understood to reference “all that”in the midst of casual conversation.
It says, “I see you. And I see that you have suffered. And even though I don’t know your story, I know that we are kin.”
People that have a past, that have been through stuff, have a way of finding each other. It’s a club none of signed up for, yet we now all know the secret handshakes and code words used to identify other members.
If I inventoried the people most important to me, their combined tragedies would fill a country music album. There are motherless children, those who have been abused and abandoned, people who are enduring long and painful and scary medical ordeals and others who have suffered great losses.
But suffering isn’t the only thing they have in common.
They also have the overcoming (or at least the first steps) of it.
One of the reasons I was attracted to my first husband was that he had a maturity and perspective that comes from going through difficult experiences. It made him stand out from the largely affluent and untouched kids at my high school. As my own life experiences – a sense of abandonment by my dad, a health crisis and the unexpected deaths of several friends – compounded, I no longer felt as though I had anything in common with the average 16 year old.
Then I met him.
And we had that unspoken conversation. That handshake of pain. A meeting of eyes that had seen more than they should.
We didn’t feel as though we belonged in the worlds we inhabited. But we felt as though we belonged together.
It was an hysterical bonding of sorts. A grasping. A union born from suffering.
Of course, I didn’t see any of that at the time. I just knew that I felt understood. That he could relate to facing challenges greater than deciding what to wear the next day or what to do when you hadn’t studies for a test.
Little did I know that he would later become the source of my greatest life lesson to date.
It’s completely natural for people that have difficult pasts to gravitate towards one another. After all, we often bond over shared experiences and beliefs. And we look for people that can relate to and empathize with our own situations.
That attraction isn’t always healthy; however, sometimes bonds formed from suffering become mired in suffering. The pain simply is transferred from one to another, keeping it nurtured and alive. Sometimes one person takes on a victim role and the other, needing to be needed, plays the savior. The past can become the seed that holds the relationship together and a reticence to release it (and possibly the bond) develops.
I see these unhealthy relationships like two weak swimmers trying to save the other from drowning. The combined efforts only seek to weight them both down.
When I started dating again after divorce, I intentionally looked for men that didn’t have pasts. They were surprisingly common, those guys that had made through 30, 35 even 40 years of life relative unscathed.
They intrigued me.
But they didn’t attract me.
Sure, they weren’t as superficial and two-dimensional as a gaggle of sheltered teenagers.
They were perfectly nice and nothing was glaringly wrong.
But they also didn’t get it.
They had never had to face a loss that made every breath feel as though oxygen had been replaced with concrete. They had never been forced to dig so deep within themselves that they feared they would get lost before they got out. They had an easy assurance that everything was going to be okay. Because for them, it always had been.
I felt separate from them. Different.
And I also felt a strange need to protect them. To let them be in their unaffected worldview for as long as fate allowed.
They seemed fragile to me. Untoughened. Untested.
I was equally uninterested in men who still lived in their pasts and showed no signs of wanting to move on or those who tried to pretend that it wasn’t a big deal. I knew what happened when suffering was damped down and pushed aside – my ex taught me that one. And I had no desire to live someone else’s past.
I found myself attracted to men who had been through the lows of life and had climbed out, one difficult step at a time. Someone who also knew how bad it could be and yet hadn’t given up. Someone who developed strength with every step and wisdom from every glance back. Someone who wouldn’t pull me down or carry me along, but who would walk with me.
We’re often dismissive of difficult pasts as being unwanted baggage.
Yet often the people with the most to carry have the greatest spirits.
When I look around at the amazing people I choose to have in my life, I’m blown away by their resilience and attitudes. I surround myself with them because they understand and also because they inspire.