Reframing a challenge can open our eyes to opportunity

It could have been an agonizing weekend.

Not that she hadn’t had time to prepare herself in the months leading up to it, or, some might even say, the years.

On a sultry Saturday in July, the ex-husband of one of my good friends remarried. They had been college sweethearts and had spent 36 years of their lives bound to each other in what she’d once believed was a true and steadfast union. Now, a cataclysmic betrayal and heartbreaking divorce later, she was staring down a life unhinged from almost every dream she’d ever known.

And, yes, the dissolution of their marriage was in some ways less a sudden eruption than the slow erosion of a union battered by too much accumulating wreckage from their initial attempts at salvation. And, yes, my friend had had time to grieve and rage and fumble in a bewildering darkness that would give way to a yawning emptiness before her. She’d worked hard to heal not only her searing pain but to cultivate a measure of civility with the man with whom she’d set up house, reared children and envisioned, despite the occasional bumps, a long and fulfilling road of togetherness. And along the way, she’d also found new joys and opportunities to savor, other connections to deepen and a tremulous anticipation of the years stretching ahead, offering themselves up to her like a canvas awaiting those first, bold brushstrokes in the life she’d invent as her own.

Yet, with the looming nuptials of her ex, she couldn’t deny the tumult of emotions that were surfacing. But rather than wallow in them, she decided, on the day of his wedding, to celebrate the richness of her life by inviting some of her best girlfriends over to swim, feast and mark the finality of this last chapter with both a moment of somber reminiscing and an opportunity to look, with hope and playful mischief, to that future awaiting her dreams.

And so we came, with giant hugs and potluck dishes and the intention to rally her spirits by reminding her of her preciousness to each of us at a time when her coming undone might have been the easier — and certainly understandable — route. Before the merrier part of our evening began, we circled around her as she gave in to the vestiges of her grief, choosing not only to mourn a past that had once held such idyllic promise but to honor the gifts that 30-plus years of marriage had given her. Then, she declared to us all the bright and bountiful ways in which she envisioned this new phase of her life being filled before taking the time to individually thank us for our friendship.

Driving home later that night, after we’d dined at her kitchen table amid much laughter and more lighthearted conversation, I marveled at her deliberate choice to create something different from a situation that could only have abraded the wounds she’d worked so hard to heal. And I thought of the bravery and resilience it takes to so gracefully shift one’s perspective in such moments. It isn’t the easiest thing to do, when hounded by pain, confronted by bad news or stuck in a debilitating pattern that has begun to feel more like the norm. Yet I believe that such circumstances often come to us in service, if we’re willing to reframe whatever it is we’re experiencing or to search for, and then embrace, the opportunity or lesson tucked within them. Sometimes, if we’re really vigilant, we may even catch a glimmer of what awaits on the other side.

It was two and a half years ago that I sat in my car, half-dreading the task before me. Typically, the prospect of performing a baby blessing would be thrilling (yes, in addition to being a writer, I also am an interfaith minister), but two nights before, I had broken up with a boy. I loved him. He loved me. But he wasn’t ready for the commitment that, to me, seemed like the most natural step after nine months of dating and the sweet surprise of coming to love each other. At an impasse, the only way out was individually, and so I severed a connection that perhaps could have eventually flourished in friendship, but that wasn’t a road I was willing to explore.

On the day of the baby blessing, I felt raw and fragile, and like the last place I should have been was with a group of people in such celebratory spirits. I wanted to hide away and tend to my aching heart, but duty called — and with it, a startling revelation. As I sat in my car, waiting until the last possible moment to go into the house to greet an angelic baby girl and her parents, I was struck by the juxtaposition of endings and beginnings. Two days before, I had made the difficult choice to cut all ties to a man who, despite feeling ill prepared to take our relationship to another level, had been terrified of losing me.

And yet here I sat, mere feet away from new life stirring in all of its resplendent promise. I had walked away from a closing door and was entering a space that was wide open to just about anything, with an infant who effortlessly trusted that she would be taken care of and provided for. I couldn’t help, even in the face of my heavy sadness, to begin to see this challenging time as a period that would ultimately give birth to something better. Having made the courageous choice to stand up for what I deserved and truly wanted, I saw that my life would now take a different turn from the relationship sequences of my past, the ones that usually resulted in the guy leaving and me struggling to maintain a friendship while my heart floundered in all its false hopes of reconciliation.

I’m not saying that my tears ended with that realization or that it somehow vanquished the painful days ahead. But I was able to move forward with my life from that moment with a greater trust in the unknown.

Just like my friend had chosen to mark her ex-husband’s remarrying with a gathering that gave new context to the occasion, I could now view that relationship from the lens of all it had come to teach me and with gratitude for the ways in which it also allowed me to see how much I’d grown.

Sometimes, it’s not how we survive our challenges that determines the quality of life that follows. It’s how we choose to meet them that will direct the shape of things to come, once the dust begins to settle and the heat from the tempest has cooled.

Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times