Myth Busters: Romantic History Edition

Originally posted on Heartalytics.

First, you should know I was drunk. Not hammered, but drunk enough that I’d nearly missed my bus. The Bavarian lager I’d chugged at lunch to calm my nerves sloshed in my belly as the driver skidded down the Autobahn Highway at, yes you guessed it, an alarming speed. This was one of those beautiful serendipitous moments when my external circumstances perfectly aligned with my internal topography: absurd, completely outside of my comfort zone, and causing me to question what the hell I was doing at every turn. And the turns, my friends, were plentiful.

You know that person who sits on a throne as the deity in your personal romantic mythology? That person who shook you to the core and revealed to you the gushy impetus behind Barry Manilow’s entire career; the one who features prominently in the reel of memories you play in your mind when you can’t sleep and decide to take delectable and masochistic stroll down memory lane; the one you’ve had to train yourself not to rank new relationships against and who you’ve indubitably written your share of horrendous poetry about, possibly using the metaphor of him as a Hummer, and your heart as a stray chicken just trying to cross the damn road. (I can’t be alone here.)

For me, this person is my first love Maximilian. An impossibly gorgeous, smooth-talking German-Chilean, he was a charmer of elderly librarians, singer of salsa in the shower, trotter of the globe, and knower of unknowable things. The type of person who is so radiant, self-confident, and socially savvy, that it’s clear he’s always gotten what he wants and has no intention of stopping. Maybe even at the cost of others.

I was smitten.  But with high investment comes high risk of pain.

A dramatic and not-so-clean breakup left my heart smushed flat like a pancake. It took me a couple years to get over my anger, and a couple more to respond to his periodic attempts at contact. When I knew I’d be in Germany I told him, and he suggested I swing through his small Southern town to say hey. And so, five years after what I thought had been our last goodbye, I found my emotions spiking high on a Meinfernbus, Maximilian-bound.

It was a rash decision, and a risk. He had hurt me profoundly. I was afraid I wouldn’t like him at all and have to maneuver myself out of the awkward situation of being alone with him in a small German town off the grid. But I was more afraid that I’d really like him, that he’d still captivate me. And I’d gone through so much personal work to separate myself from him. I was afraid of going back to square one. But it was a challenge I wanted to face, a measuring stick of my progress that I wanted to examine, a still body of water I wanted to stick my toe in, if only to see what would happen. I was curious and maybe a little self-sabotaging. I wanted clarity, and I was absolutely terrified.

Revisiting the past, esoecially the romantic past, threatens to upheave the internal peace we’ve made of conflict.  The stories we’ve told ourselves in order to glean the clarity necessary to move forward, the conjecture we’ve spun as fact in order to protect our egos. It threatens to open doors that feel safer left closed and, like the original love, to shake a foundation we have carefully constructed. And that’s scary as hell.

So we don’t go there. Because isn’t it easier to write someone off as an asshole than to entertain the possibility that he, like you, might have evolved as a human in the last five years? That he, like you, should not have his character eternally tied to a set of complex emotional decisions he made in his youth? Isn’t it just wayyyy easier to crystalize a vilified image of someone who has hurt you, engrave it in stone, and hold that image static and sacred? Isn’t it??

As it turns out, Maximilian had changed monumentally. Because sometimes people do. He’d replaced his latin pop iPod Shuffle for Devandra Banhart records, his borderline slimy charm for a deep and reverent capacity to listen, his Abercrombie cologne for a crystal that he used as deodorant. (Yes, a crystal as deodorant. Apparently it’s a thing.) He grew vegetables. He spent his leisure time chatting about urban politics with his elderly neighbors. He was an absolute delight of a pacifist hippie man.

And I adored him.

I adored him as a different person, from my perspective as a different person: platonically, and in a fresh way that was all the sweeter for our gnarled history.

What followed was an amazing week spent picking vegetables, milking cows (not an innuendo), laughing our asses off and talking about everything under the sun, hanging out in an alternative-lifestyle-boxcar community, attending a tattoo convention on a yacht, and skinny dipping in an idyllic aqua lake. At the end of the week I felt I had made truly great and valuable friend. He was the same, and not the same at all.  And I was the same and not the same at all. As they say, many things can be true at once.

Maybe your ex-boyfriend is still an asshole. Maybe he’s transformed into an amicable pacifist with a quiet wisdom and a heart of gold. Maybe you were the asshole. And maybe you both were assholes. Either way, you’re not doing yourself any favors by holding on.

Isn’t it just easier to let it all go?

Who he was when he hurt you no longer exists, just as who you were at that time no longer does.

If we want the the freedom to learn and grow and change, we have to grant that same freedom to others.

And that freedom starts by loosening our grip on how others have wronged us.  We do that not by discounting the validity of our feelings and our hurt, but by recognizing the stories we tell ourselves for what they are: stories. Linear narratives highlighting important aspects of a series of events. But stories are living organisms, subject to revision. We can choose to deconstruct them, highlight different aspects with new perspective, or even re-enter their mythical worlds to rewrite the endings, rendering the ultimate meaning as uncertain as a day drunk American girl on a bus on the Autobahn.

We’re the authors of our own lives, and we’re also the editors. No feeling is final. And sometimes the most compelling stories are the ones left open-ended.