Note: This letter arrived Dec. 2, 2005, the same day as the referenced column. I did not know what to do with it for some time. I had no answer for it.
So I put it aside.
Finally I got an idea. -- C.T.
Your advice to Lost in L.A. was excruciatingly correct. I hope he listens to you. If he doesn't, he can count on a horrible, slow-motion shipwreck that never stops groaning and cracking and coming apart in new and agonizingly surprising ways.
When I look back, what I see is myself in some sort of trance, making insane and rapturous decisions, rationalizing in tongues and somehow pretending to myself that what I was doing made perfect sense and that my own giddy "escape" would somehow provide a happy ending for everyone. Or that there was some cosmic safety net that would gather everyone up and protect my children, my good husband and myself from anything remotely resembling dire trauma and ruin.
There is no cosmic safety net that blocks inevitable consequence.
Consequence is immune to even the most desperate remorse. It's as cold and inexorable as a moving glacier. Fantasies of undoing are not efficacious. Frantic efforts to somehow mend the thing, to fix the pain one has caused, finally seem both selfish and masochistic.
Consequence is a cold, hard thing and if you can bear it for yourself, good; try bearing it in your children's faces. For the rest of your life. So, Cary, what advice do you have for this fellow in L.A. some six years later, if he ignores your good advice, comes to you and says, "I'll never again feel whole and untroubled. No one who placed their trust in me and whom I love feels whole and untroubled. I did not protect my spouse or my children from imbecilic folly and it was my fault. I'm unable to simply disappear from the face of the earth; my kids still walk it. My ex-spouse still walks it, and lives seem to be irrevocably spoiled. I failed to protect them from myself, and the affair and the divorce has indeed become the pivotal trauma of all of our lives. It's not a single event that recedes into the past -- the fallout just doesn't quit, for any of us. I'm tottering on the edge of a smarmy self-loathing that's even more self-absorbed and ignominious than the stupid, blissed-out hedonism that got me here. I want to be clearly and straightforwardly remorseful, confess my error (I have, of course), endure my own situation with some sort of grace and compassion, and just do no more harm to anyone else ever again. Just, you know, buck up. Especially for the kids. But I feel terminally broken, myself.
I was married for 30 years! Cary, what IS a ruined life? If you wake one morning, and then every morning, for YEARS, and all you can see is ruin, remorse and the requirement to get up and put a good face on it, and pick your way as carefully as possible through the rubble, which you do, though you can't see any way to redeem anything, and your beloved children are floating somewhat helplessly away toward some other horizon, and you are genuinely helpless yourself to prevent loss after loss, all in the wake of your own stupid decision: What do you do then? The Zen Master, when asked the meaning of life, laughs and says, "Mistake after mistake."
OK. Self-laceration is a pointless self-indulgence. Regretful ruminations are a sloppy waste of time. "I deserve this" does not translate into "they deserve this." OK. So help me out, here. Where's the foothold? I can't find my way into inspiring heroic myths. Once upon a time I was the Wise Mother and honored and cherished in my family without much fuss about it. So much for that one. What the hell can I grow into now? Sisyphus? Magdalena? I figure I don't really have the right to sink lethargically into Sodden Heap of Remorse, despite sucking undertows. And I'm done with trying to glamorize the thing -- it is to vomit.
Just Plain Lost
Dear Just Plain Lost,
I suggest that you undertake a program of service to people in jails and prisons. I suggest you seek out those who share with you some fatal flaw of action and who, like you, are enduring harsh consequences.
You did not go to jail for what you did, but you are suffering as though you had been sentenced by a jury. Indeed, though it might be too easily said, you are a kind of prisoner. By bringing comfort to prisoners you may, after a time, learn to bring some comfort to yourself. Perhaps you will learn to forgive yourself, too, for what you have done.
If this sounds like rather an extreme measure, consider the extremity of what you have written -- your biting, wrathful self-condemnation, your lacerating, saw-toothed rancor. Consider the extremity and long duration of your affliction. Rarely have I read a letter whose fury lashed me so -- and I am not even the intended target. You are! So I shudder to think what condition your tender skin is in.
Being punished so, and apparently continuing to punish yourself, you need to turn outward, away from your self, who is also your victim. What power on earth could help you do that? Earthly pleasure, being your sin, is now poison to you. It cannot possibly take you out of yourself but only deeper into your self-hatred. So I'm guessing that only service, humble, austere, difficult service, can awaken you to the joys of life once again.
I see you at San Quentin, or maybe down at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, or Calipatria, or Lancaster, down there in Southern California. (Why do I picture you in Southern California? I do not know, frankly; I do not know where you are!)
How might you arrange this program of service, and what might you have to offer? I understand from our private correspondence that you have certain skills that may be of value to those who are residents of the penal system. These skills and the benefits they offer I would suggest you present to officials of the penal system, or, if to an agency that coordinates such visits. You need not explain what personal benefit you plan to gain. That is your business.
But precisely the kind of karma-reversing issue I had in mind revolves around this question: What if, in your life, at that crucial moment when you made whatever fateful decision it was that cast you into this cauldron, what if there had been someone there to persuade you to hold on, to help you clarify your thoughts, so you could deny yourself whatever delicious but disastrous pleasure lured you out of happy home, and thus avoid the prodigious torment you so strangely, with dark eloquence, describe? What if some such person had been present at the right moment? Might your life not have turned out a little differently?
What good is that? You certainly can't intercede now to prevent what has happened. But you can warn loudly of fire and flood, as perhaps you wish someone had warned you. You can warn not to jump head first into that shallow, rock-bottomed stream. You can teach about the virtues and usefulness of sharing with others whatever disastrous and ill-conceived actions we might contemplate. You can teach about the dangers of acting in isolation without revealing our plans.
We all need, now and then, warnings of catastrophe from someone. Perhaps henceforth you can be that person full of warning, replete with grave caution for others to borrow.
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What? You want more?