How can I serve the world?

I'm getting divorced. I will soon be economically independent. I could do anything!

By Cary Tennis
Published August 6, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

Three years ago, my boyfriend and I had been together for three years. We were very happy and were living together in my home country. He was then headhunted for a position overseas, and we moved to this foreign country.

We married last year in this foreign country, but he emotionally checked out of the marriage after five months, saying it was nothing to do with us or me. I later found out he was having an affair with an ex-girlfriend who lives in his home country, and that he had been meeting up with her on business trips as well as texting and emailing her while in bed beside me. Our being less than happy as individuals, or together, didn't come as a surprise. Between moving countries, looking for work, renovating a new home, learning a new language and generally finding our feet here, I had expected something would have to give, even if only temporarily.

But the betrayal came as a huge shock to me.

He left our home with an hour's notice and refused to discuss the affair, saying it was his private life and none of my business. We have begun divorce proceedings. I have moments when I wonder why he said yes to marriage and then blew it up by having an affair a few months later and why he was uninterested in trying to save our marriage or discuss what happened, even if the outcome was still divorce.

In a matter of months, I am going to have no ties to any person or country in the world, except me and my two dogs. I have built up a healthy savings over the past 15 years, and I have the financial freedom (within reason) to do whatever I want.

I have this unopened gift of a second chance, and while I'm not striving for perfection, I don't want to waste it or half-use it. I am 36 years old, am not sure if I want to have children, and am a creative, adventurous and loving person. I'm also scared, unsure but excited about the future. I am painfully aware that life is full of riches but few guarantees. I used to have so many goals, but now I just want to love and be of service in some way.

I would love to hear your words of inspiration, wisdom, practical advice, stories, as I begin the process of creating a new life that is real, authentic and purpose-built for me. I would also love to hear from readers about the advice and adventures they would give or have given themselves in the same situation.

Keep up the great work, Cary. Your words cause ripples and waves.

Scared, Unsure but Excited (SUE)

Dear SUE,

Something tells me you will not be happy and effective until you identify your deep motivation, and you will not be safe until you identify your shadow self.

But before we get into that, may I just exclaim, what a wonderful opportunity your letter offers! What a luxury it is to ask, What does the world need? Such questions invigorate the soul.

What does the world need? The world needs wise resource allocation and new patterns of industrial production that require less energy. The world needs better, cheaper, wiser food distribution. The world needs 10 million more psychotherapists. The world needs fewer warlords. The world needs individuals who can inspire the masses to slow down their consumption. The world needs better cookstoves. The world needs a reordering of social and family hierarchies. The world needs to change centuries-old methods of conferring social status. The world needs emerging countries to not repeat the resource-hungry mistakes of developed countries. The world needs to reroute its emotions and beliefs into modes of conflict resolution. The world needs to defeat malaria. The world needs China to develop more wisely than the United States did. The world needs more yoga teachers. The world needs a massive effort to understand how family and environment create fanaticism. The world needs more rational resource sharing. The world needs for no one to starve to death.

Any one of these goals could provide the rationale for a lifetime of good work.

But what will make you happy? What do you need for your personal happiness? And where are your blind spots?

Let's play a slightly unsavory game called What Is the Worst Thing About You? Since we don't know each other, I will do some guessing. Perhaps, since you have amassed wealth, you have a secretly selfish, greedy, egotistical side. There is nothing wrong with admitting that. We all have shadows. I have a shadow self that is mean, cold, selfish and arrogant. I have a death wish. I suppress my anger, and I am not good with people in authority. I become sullen and withdrawn when I'm not expressing my anger. We could go on. But you get the idea. I'm just suggesting that, in this crucial time, you look into your dark side and get to know it. Maybe your dark side is something surprising. I am only guessing, and being quite literal about it.

Speaking of anger: Having been hurt by your husband, you may unconsciously wish to humiliate him and take revenge. Who wouldn't? It would be sweet, would it not, to see him tumble? But you can't really do that. Can you? Fantasizing makes things conscious, so we do not act them out unconsciously.

I was asked in a radio interview last night why I reveal so much of myself in this column. One reason is that airing one's dark side takes its power away. When we are hiding our weaknesses, they are easy for others to see and take advantage of. When we admit them, we lessen their power.

Here is an idea. Look at your husband as though he represents some aspect of your shadow self. Were there things about him that were unsavory yet strangely attractive? Was he, for instance, occasionally brutal, savage, greedy, unkind? Unethical? Selfish? When a partner's unsavory side mirrors our own shadow self, we may be drawn to it. Consider the emotional power of certain "fantasy" elements in the bedroom: They have power because they are taboo. Breaking taboos is like splitting atoms. It releases energy.

So what were the taboo elements in your relationship? Where were the secrets kept? Were his attractions and prior involvements with other women suppressed? Was there a habit of just not talking about certain things?

Early family life, married life and organizational life can mirror one another. Business organizations tend to be hierarchical structures, like family. If you have succeeded in such organizations, it may be because you move easily in such realms. The hierarchical realm is also the realm of secrets and betrayal, of hidden power secretly wielded. So, in trying to understand how your husband deceived you, I would ask about your relationship to the keeping of secrets. Where in your working life and family life have you been required to keep secrets? Where have you been trained not to ask for the truth, not to challenge the silence of a superior?

It would be good to think about such things before entering an area of service such as a nonprofit, because outwardly selfless leaders have shadow sides, too.

In fact, when leaders of social movements act in self-destructive ways, I often suspect it's the work of the shadow. Were they espousing asceticism while repressing hedonism? Were they espousing peace while craving power? Such inner contradictions represent the attempt to balance competing energies.

So that's a lot to chew on. You have your desire to do good in the world. You have your desire for a happy and productive life. You have freedom.

Plumb the depths of your own soul. Choose wisely.

Cary Tennis

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