I don’t try listen in when other people are talking privately. Especially not the other day, when I had gone to a local coffee shop to find a quiet place to work. Just the right number of people and all of their sounds drown each other out. Their presence becomes a kind of accountability too. But sometimes, some conversations are hard to ignore. Two friends were sitting close to me, and try as I might, I couldn’t help but pick up on everything they were saying.
They hadn’t seen each other for a year and had some catching up to do. They showed each other pictures of their children. One added another photo she had recently taken of a flower growing in her home, and explained how at that moment the sunlight was shining in through the sunroof at just the right angle to make an especially beautiful picture. The friend agreed that it was beautiful, but explained that the timing of the light was not random nor artistic timing, it was divine providence. “Because you were focusing on beauty,” she said, “that light manifested itself in your home, and you were there to capture it. I don’t think it’s coincidence at all.” This cosmic understanding seems to be increasingly popular, that the universe is primarily composed of energy, we can manipulate that energy with our thoughts, and that our emotions and feelings are the ultimate reality.
The discussion continued, and one casually mentioned the she had been recently divorced. The friend responded with concern. She apologized for not knowing this had happened, and asked if she was okay. She responded by saying that everything was fine, that she felt the marriage had run its course and that time had come for her to spread her wings. The friend asked again how she felt, and she insisted that she was fine. “I feel free, to be honest,” she said.
For all I know this could have a screen, masking her pain and hiding the stories of abuse and neglect that would warrant her sense of freedom. Those deeper reasons may have been too private for this friendship and were certainly none of my business. None of this was my business, but the conversation happened right beside me, at a volume I couldn’t ignore. While there may have been deeper, darker validations for the divorce, this surface level rationale for divorce is given more often than you might think. The friend, also divorced, went on to joke with her about how so many people are concerned, or even worse, disapproving, of their situation. Their discussion about the narrow-mindedness of their friends and family was interrupted by a phone call.
On the other end of the call was the teenage son of this newly divorced woman. He went on to explain (in a voice that I could also hear, through no effort of my own) that he was tired and wanted to call in sick for work that evening. His mother communicated her displeasure. He went on to explain that he was tired, and that he no longer felt the same as he did when he first agreed to work that shift. Whether it was intentional or not, he was using her logic and her words to defend his feelings and his desires (and lack thereof). And yet, even with her sentiments mirrored back to her, she was unmoved. “No,” she insisted, as any good mother would, “you made a commitment and you need to stick to that.” She went on to explain that he had given his word, and that mean the had to stand by it. He needed to stick by his word when things were difficult and when things were easy.
“I don’t miss those days,” the friend, whose children were now grown adults, said after the call ended.
I was still trying not to pay attention, and I was trying even harder not to draw their attention to what seemed like pretty obvious hypocrisy to me. They went on to talk about the difficulties of parenting teens and adults. For my story-telling purposes, it would have been handy if they said something like, “You know, you try to influence your kids, but they pick up bad habits” or “They’re going to need to learn that their actions have consequences and you just hope that when it happens, nobody gets hurt.” They may have said those words, they are the kind of things parents say about children entering adulthood. Again, I wasn’t listening to everything, so I might have missed some important details. But they probably didn’t say anything like that, because if they did, it might have been too much for me, and I would have been tempted to break the sacred bond between adjacent strangers, that we not involve ourselves in or develop opinions about each other’s lives.
I hear you teenage son. You have been taught to trust your feelings, but when you follow the example of the ones who are supposed to teach you about commitment and integrity the support and affirmation comes to end. What’s happened is that your feelings have come in direct contrast with theirs. You are both learning about consequences, and it will hurt.