No one can understand an orphan

Only someone who's been through it can know what's like to lose both parents at 16

By Cary Tennis
July 9, 2009 2:18PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

Why do I wail like a third-world widow when I'm rejected by men I like? I am convinced it is because of becoming an orphan at age 16. But how do I deal with this?

Imagine that you are a trapeze artist. You are sparkling up there in your sequined leotard, on the bars doing twirls and such when someone cuts the wire. You drop, but there is no net. Every bone in your body is snapped and you think you can't get up, but you do because if you don't, the tiger, which has escaped from the tamer, is coming after you. So you crawl, and every time you crawl, you cry out in suffering, but you barely escape the tiger whose jaws come so close to tearing your throat out. So, it takes a long time, but you climb up the ladder, and again it is very painful. Finally, you reach the top, and they throw the bar at you. You hesitate because the memory of the unforgiving cement is still fresh in your memory. But you do take it and swing, and you swing while singing, you swing backward and forward, and finally even with one hand until you see a man trapeze artist who beckons you to swing over to meet him in the middle, and you do, and you like it, so you swing back and pretty soon you're swinging back and forth and then he asks you to let go and catch his hands (he's hanging upside down, so cute) and that is terrifying, but so tempting, and so you let go and for some reason or another he doesn't catch you, but there's no net and you go crashing down and your body hits the cement and every bone in your body splinters. And so it goes every time the man beckons, and every time there is no net. And then one night you are lying in your bed at 11 p.m. wide awake, crying because you have touched that crash, and the tears are from an eternal well.


It hurts because what every woman wants is to be cared for, but an orphan wants to be cared for in a way that can never, ever be found. It goes beyond anyone's imagination. Only other orphans know. And there are so few of us, and we're so powerless. We don't even have our own self-help group. That's how hard it is to be an orphan. I repeat that word because even though we live in a sanitized superpower country where orphans do not technically exist, orphan is orphan whether in the Sudan, Southeast Asia or the U.S.

So, getting back to the rejection, how do I manage?



Dear Orphan,

You can manage the rejection in two ways. You can tell yourself a new story. And you can stop dating men for a while.

If you keep telling yourself this same story and keep dating men, the same things will keep happening.

Some people cannot forge new pathways, new ways of seeing the same situation; or they will not, because to do so threatens them existentially. They cannot stop what they are doing, even though it appears to the rest of us that it would be easy for them to stop. But I advocate that all of us, rather than trying to convince the world why our ideas make sense, instead use methods -- therapeutic, meditative, etc. -- that allow us to do the opposite, to question our own ideas and shake off what we believe to be true. Only in this way can we continue to discover greater truths. So although what you say is true, it is not the whole truth or the only truth. It is just one truth.


While we cling to our beliefs about why we feel the way we do, and cannot imagine simply jettisoning them wholesale (for what would replace them?!) many of our beliefs are more pliable than we suspect. They are layers of assertions, memories, wishes; under each belief and each assertion lies another belief and another assertion; as we begin to take the layers down we find infinite gradations of consciousness; we find surprising pain and fear; we find memories; we find ecstasy; we find our own pride and our own grim determination to assert ourselves as real before the world; we find many discrete phenomena; we find an astounding array of human feeling and connection -- because that is what the brain is! The brain is an amazingly complex array of connections. As we turn inward and train ourselves to observe ourselves, we find an immensity. So without claiming to know everything, we keep uncovering the layers; we accept the contingent nature of what we find, knowing that tomorrow there will be more.

Perhaps that sounds vague. Let us talk about your own case.


I suggest that from this day forward, you take personal responsibility for all your interactions with men. Allow yourself no rationalizations. If you believe that men cannot be trusted, then stop trusting them. Stop entrusting them with your life and your feelings. You are not forced to interact with men in a romantic, trusting way. You can say to a man that you are not interested in dating or romance. You can abstain.

I suggest you do this partly for its immediate relief, and partly to demonstrate to yourself that you indeed have a choice.

What comes after you stop is no concern of yours right now. Just try stopping.


As to your story, and how you understand your life: Rather than telling yourself that you are a victim whose suffering no one understands, I suggest you take a kinder approach to yourself: Yes, your parents died when you were 16. Their deaths were tragic. Why they died when they did, no one can really know. But they left you too soon. You have made it through life so far but it has not been easy. Relationships with men have been especially tough. You've had some painful disappointments. But you are not doomed to keep repeating the same patterns. You can try new things.

I don't want you to take this the wrong way. Your suffering is real. It is real and it is great. And it is also a special kind of suffering that people who are not orphans cannot fully understand.

What I want you to realize, though, is that today you have some power over this suffering. Your story of the repeatedly betrayed trapeze artist is not the one controlling story of your life. It is an episode. It is a chapter. You have now begun a new chapter in which you come to grips with this, see the pattern and change it.


The story will go on. Perhaps in the next chapter you leave the circus. Perhaps you take up bareback riding, or become the ringmaster -- or a bearded lady! Perhaps you drop the trapeze artist on his head the next time. I don't know exactly. I just know that your story is poignant and real but it is not the only story.

I also suggest this, as you go forward: Rather than asserting that no one can know your pain, and thus shutting others out, try actively sharing your pain with others. Share it without insisting that we understand it. Let us be the judge of what we can and cannot understand. Share it with us. You will be doing us a service.

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What? You want more advice?



Cary Tennis

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