Has Your Commitment Led You Astray?
Feeling lost? Need to find your way? It may help to stop and look back.
Posted Mar 29, 2020
We all lose our way at times. We wander in the desert, thrash about in the darkness, cry out in the night. I am certainly no exception.
Getting lost can be embarrassing. There are stories we sometimes avoid telling because they expose our vulnerabilities. But they also demonstrate how we persevere and make sense of our own foibles. At the heart of all psychotherapy is this telling, examining, and retelling the stories of how we came to be lost, to remain lost, and how we found our way.
Here are two true stories of my getting lost: once on a trail and once in a relationship.
The first story is about a hike on a five-mile section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in New York.
My hiking buddy, John, and I managed to traverse those five miles by walking more than twice the distance. We achieved this unenviable, but impressive feat by making a series of misjudgments and bad decisions.
Following a trail is simple. There are blazes, white vertical rectangles, painted on trees all along the AT. Having passed through the “Lemon Squeezer”—a narrow stone passage in Harriman State Park—we could not see a regular AT blaze but did pick up a trail with a red and white blaze that we interpreted to be the AT and another trail running together for a stretch. We believed our interpretation was confirmed when, just a little further on, the trail split in two: red and white. Of course, we followed the white trail, even though the blazes, rather than being vertical, were horizontal rectangles.
By the time we realized that the trail was way longer than the five miles we’d expected, we were unable to find our location on a map. Yet we opted to push on. This impulse to make things worse was quite remarkable in action, and utterly embarrassing in hindsight.
Looking back now, several factors prevented us from turning around earlier. The first was the reasonableness of the narrative we had developed. Our interpretation of the red and white blaze made sense, and when we emerged from the Lemon Squeezer and didn’t find any other white blazes, the trail we chose must have been the right one. We also feared that by going back, we’d be adding unnecessary mileage when around the bend, or the next bend, or the one after that, we would surely find that we’d been on the correct path.
Of course, ego was a factor. We didn’t want to be the naive dolts who got lost on a clearly marked trail. We marched further afield and didn’t reverse direction and retrace our steps until we were three miles off-course—adding a total of six miles to our hike.
The second story is about my first marriage.
In its 15th year, I rarely looked back. I stared at the warmth and kindness of my loving partner. I closely examined my own twitches, discomforts, and misleading enthusiasms, all of which laid bare my fraught psyche and indicated all the ways that I needed to correct, redirect, discipline, heal, and better myself. What else could explain my increasingly regular fits of wracked unhappiness?
Why was I trembling as I prepared to lay down alongside this longtime friend and faithful wife? Separate? What for? Just to meet some shallow longing, some vague desire for more or different or new? No. I had made a commitment. The trail seemed clearly marked and would, I still believed, prove itself the correct path: faithfulness, fidelity, continuity, and integrity. I focused on these values.
Now I look back. When it is too late to make meaningful corrections, when the opportunity for honesty has passed, I examine the history of my relationship, and it tells the story of my desires, needs, and drives that provided the misleading internal narrative that led to marriage and ultimately to divorce. When confronted with things that made me unhappy, I saw them not as indications that I was on the wrong trail, but as evidence that greater commitment was required. I needed to change in this way, and my partner had to grow in that way.
I was convinced that these struggles were not signs of a fundamental problem; they were a calling to a greater commitment to love. I attempted to change both my wife and myself. A relationship is, after all, work: not something we are gifted with. It is constructed and modified and reconstructed.
Love seems to demand we stay-the-course.
For so many years, I, tragically, lacked the humility to accept that I was not capable within that relationship of embodying my virtuous notions. I was too proud to admit that my happiness was not something I was willing or able to live without. My efforts to do so exacted a heavy price.
So, I marched on. Miles and years off-course, until, exhausted and making increasingly poor choices, I called it quits. This was a quitting that broke hearts and fractured relationships.
When John and I retraced our steps back to the Lemon Squeezer, we eventually found the actual trail. We discovered that, despite the markings being somewhat obscure, they were discoverable. The fact was that we simply didn’t see the blaze. The stories we told ourselves (in our attempt to avoid the embarrassment of being lost) were what led us astray. The actual fact—painted boldly and horizontally on the trunk of a tree—liberated us from our silly flight.
It is far easier to reverse course on a trail than to abandon a relationship. The desire to quit cannot safely be assumed to be in our best interest. Quitting might be a strategy to avoid painful or challenging work, and more often than not, when we push past that desire, we find that this work affords us some degree of satisfaction, learning, or growth. How then are we to know if we should stay-the-course or turn around?
Looking back and examining not only from-whence-we-came but also how-we-came-hither allows us an opportunity to reorient ourselves. Sometimes we march forth confident in our sense of direction, and it is not until we revisit the past—in a therapeutic dialogue or in personal reflection—that we discover our confidence has been based on misguided or obsolete interpretations that have led us off-course. The values and beliefs we once held may no longer have the same meaning or importance they once had. Ideas we have carried around since childhood may have at one time been promoted by a parent, teacher, or religious figure, but now have been replaced by a different set of beliefs. Some of us come to recognize that there is a valued part of us that has been displaced.
The ability to re-examine our stories about the past, re-discovering their wisdom and uncovering their limitations, is a measure of both the health and balance of our egos, as well as the trustworthiness of our ever-evolving sense of direction.
John and I continue to hike sections of the AT. My ex-wife and I maintain a friendship and share some holidays together. Each one of us has managed over the years to look back at the decisions and actions that led us to where we are now. We strive to remain clear-eyed about the frail humanity that informs every choice, without blaming the other for our own missteps. In so doing, I trust we may have fewer stories of getting lost and far less hesitation in telling them.
White, M. & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Freedman, J. & Combs, G. (1996) Narrative Therapy: The social construction of preferred realities. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.