For some reason, divorce stories fascinate me. Maybe I’m hoping to reassure myself that, as I read, I won’t recognize anything at all about my own marriage. (I’m not actually afraid that my husband would ever leave me. Over the years we’ve worked out an understanding: whoever leaves gets custody of the 15-passenger van. That keeps us both pretty close to home.)
Anyway, this author, writing for the Huffington Post, stands out for her astonishing lack of self awareness. Jennifer Nagy considers herself an unusual and fascinating specimen: newly divorced, she wonders why there is not more help out there for people who aren’t victims of divorce, but perpetrators. Why doesn’t she get more sympathy, she wonders, just because she’s the one who decided to leave?
Nagy describes how she willingly ended her marriage, putting it down like a perfectly healthy dog that no one wants to care for. She says:
Unlike many divorcing couples, I had the perfect life and the perfect relationship. I lived in a condo on the beach, had a great career and a kind and patient husband. I had friends, money to spend and security.
But, she says:
The only thing that I didn’t have was happiness. I didn’t feel fulfilled by my life, not because my relationship was lacking, but because I didn’t know myself. I didn’t feel that I had been an active participant in creating my life, so I wasn’t able to feel satisfaction in what I had achieved.
I had to abandon my husband in order to find myself.
I hate to break it to her, but the minute she made that decision to leave him to find herself, the search was over: this elusive self had been found. In fact, I can sum up her self for her in one short sentence: She is the kind of person who is willing to abandon her husband in order to find herself. That’s who she is. A virtuous man acts virtuously, and a monstrously selfish woman spends her life trying to find her monstrous self.
And she is an active participant in creating her own life: according to her own narrative, she spent her entire married life actively pursuing her own happiness. That is the life she created. The only unfinished business here is clearing up the mystery of why she thought such a life would make her happy.
Her article reminds me of something my husband tells me. As a crime reporter, he regularly hears parents of lifelong criminals protest, “He’s not a bad person. He just does bad things.” Like Nagy, they imagine that the true self of the person in question is still somewhere out there, undeveloped and untainted, just waiting to be discovered and appreciated. What you do is one thing—but what you are . . . ah, this is yet to be determined.
Except in the case of persons suffering from severe psychosis, this is sheer, tragic nonsense. We are what we do. This is who we are. How could it be otherwise? When we respond to circumstnces in a particular way, then that defines what sort of person we are. Sure, we can change, we can do better, we can become more sincere, and maybe we take one step forward and three steps back. But who are we? We are the kind of person who behaves the way we behave. When Nagy says she left to “find heself,” I think she meant that she accidentally stumbled across herself, and didn’t like what she saw—and so she assumed that she should keep looking.
Well, it’s easy for me to sit here and diagnose a stranger who talks about her private life online. What’s harder is to look at myself and ask how often I play this stupid game when examining my own conscience. How often do I think of myself as one sort of person, while dismissing every single bit of evidence to the contrary?
For instance, I will tell myself, “Well, I’m crabby because I’m tired. Because I haven’t had enough protein. Because I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. Because I have a headache. Because that person did that one particular thing that I have a special, slightly charming weakness for.” After a certain point, I have to say, “No, I’m crabby because I’m the kind of person who allows myself to be crabby. I’m the kind of person who will stay up late watching Futurama, even though I know I’ll be tired tomorrow and will yell at the kids during Bible stories. I’m the kind of person who is more interested in finding excuses, than in changing my behavior. Praise God, I have found myself! I am a crab.”
If we don’t know who we are, if we can’t see ourselves, maybe it’s because we spend too much time leaning forward into a mirror, and have fogged it up entirely with our own heavy breathing. For most of us, by the time we’re adults, it’s no mystery who we are. There is no need to get the divorce courts involved, no need to devastate the lives of people we vowed to love.
Looking to find yourself? Here’s a suggestion: instead of running away, try the confessional. So much easier and cheaper than going back to your childhood home, and so much more effective: confession makes us look at ourselves, recognize what we did and who we are . . . and it lets us start all over again. The best place to find yourself, this Lent, is in the confessional.