Friday, October 31, 2014

Parallels, Experience, and Knowledge

One of the primary benefits of getting older is living long enough to see parallels in life. It's a potentially sanity saving thing to have enough life experience to be able to learn from history, and in so doing, to be able to both avoid repeating similar mistakes in the future. More than that, having lived through enormously difficult circumstances before can either be crippling (if the focus is only on the current crisis and the long journey of survival and recovery ahead) or enlightening (by providing comfort in the firsthand knowledge, not mere speculative optimism, that you have gone through your own personal hell and survived). My divorce became final two days ago, and based in part on the events recounted in this post, I know beyond a shadow of any doubt that I will survive, thrive, and be a better man, husband, and father in the future.

Before I get to the story that is the subject of this post, I would be remiss if I didn't make clear that the biggest reason that I have hope for the future is my faith in God. There simply are no words to adequately thank Him for His mercy, grace, and love. I will be the first to admit that I have fallen short of His glory in my marriage and in my life as a whole on more occasions than I care to remember. I am both blessed and profoundly grateful that His love and salvation do not require perfection on my part. Father, I can't and won't promise that I will never fall short of your standard again. However, what I can and will do is to trust you, to ask forgiveness when I fail, and to bring it all (hopes, dreams, fears, failures, and beyond) to you. I once heard it said that God can take anything except our silence, I believe that's true. Therefore, it is incumbent upon me to do a better job to communicate with and to spend time with Him, and I definitely intend to do just that.

OK, so on with the story. It is the late summer of 1997, I am 17 years old (turning 18 in August), and I have just graduated high school that May. I have a full academic scholarship to attend college at Middle Tennessee State University ("MTSU"), which is about 45 minutes away from the small town in which I attended high school. At this point, I've been dating a girl I will call "AP" since about midway through my junior year, and I have a decision to make. It's a decision that many young people have had to navigate at this point in their lives...whether to stay with their high school sweetheart or whether to split up with them and go to college single.

On the "stay together" side of the ledger, there were quite a few reasons to try to make it work. Since AP would still be in the same town where we met, 45 minutes isn't that far a distance. She was a good person, a great friend, and a positive influence on me in many ways. Moreover, young love though it was, AP loved me unconditionally, and I know she would have been faithful and would have done everything in her power to make our relationship work. Perhaps the most difficult part of this list to deal with was my desire not to hurt her because she had been so good to me during our time together.

There were also some valid arguments on the "split up" list of reasons. First and foremost, my father was in no financial position to help me stay in college if I somehow lost my scholarship. Accordingly, I knew that maintaining my scholarship had to be my first priority, and that it would require a virtually single-minded focus (especially early on until I got the hang of college life), thereby leaving little time to dedicate to a long-distance relationship. In addition to academics, I had also been an All-Region football player in high school. Although my football talent did not earn me an athletic scholarship, I still wanted to know just how good a player I was and how I measured up against Division I athletes. As such, I planned to try out for the college football team as a walk-on, which would leave even less time for my relationship with AP. Further, I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit that it was thrilling almost to the point of intoxication knowing that I would soon be meeting and exposed to an entirely new universe of smart, interesting people (yes, including women), some of whom might becomes professional colleagues, friends, or even love interests. Finally, even though MTSU was only 45 minutes from my hometown, given how naive and inexperienced I was with so many things, that college campus might as well have been on Mars. I expected that my college life in a suburb of a mid-major metropolitan city (Nashville) would be quite a change and a culture shock from my small hometown, and while it was not on the level of change I would have experienced in New York or Los Angeles, I wasn't disappointed. It was, at once, scarily unknown and incredibly exciting.

Based on the tenor of this post, it's probably not too hard to discern that I chose to break up with AP shortly before I left for college, but it wasn't an easy decision at all. In fact, it was one of the hardest things I'd ever had to do (especially at that juncture in my young life), and I absolutely dreaded communicating my decision to AP. There were many nights before I left for college that I laid awake, staring at the ceiling and praying earnestly for guidance as to what I should do. Once I'd made my decision, I had more than a few moments of doubt, stress, and heartache as to whether I was doing the right thing. Hell, even after I'd informed AP of my choice and had already moved to MTSU to start college life, I had more than a few doubts as to whether I'd made the right call or not, and I did experience more than a little grief and regret at the pain my decision had caused.

The ultimate deciding factor led me to choose the "split up" door was where I saw my life going and where I hoped it would go. Having lived in my small hometown longer than anywhere else I'd grown up, I knew for a fact that opportunities for the kind of life, opportunities, and successes I hoped to have were, to be charitable, extremely limited. More candidly though, I'd seen more than a few smart, talented people get sucked down and irrevocably tied to that suffocating little town to the detriment of their future, and I knew as certainly as I knew anything that I didn't want that future for myself. Unfortunately, I knew that every moment I spent with AP trying to maintain a relationship would be time I spent looking back toward a life, place, and future that I didn't want and time that I couldn't spend being present, living in the moment during my college life, and focusing on the future I did want to build. As it turns out, I made the right decision to split up with AP, and that decision is still paying dividends even to this day.

Looking back on my break up with AP so many years ago reveals many similarities to my recent divorce. I've heard it said many times that the seven year mark is the most common fish or cut bait time for married couples. In my case, that turned out to be pretty accurate. My now ex-wife and I were married for just over 6 years, and if our dating and engagement period is included, our total time together was about 7 and a half years. As with my high school relationship with AP, after the amount of time my wife and I were together, I knew pretty well what I had and what I didn't have in my marriage. I knew what my marriage was, what it was not, and in too many sad ways, what it would never be. At that point, my only real decision was whether to consciously choose to stay in the marriage, knowing that the future would contain copious amounts of suffocation, unhappiness, and a profound lack of fulfillment. No matter how painful it was to end my marriage (and it was more painful than I'd ever imagined), I knew that would be a pittance compared to the pain and unhappiness of wasting years that could never be better spent or lived again in a dysfunctional, destructive marriage that was inevitably doomed to failure. Also, the fear, doubt, uncertainty, and sleepless nights that came with the decision to get a divorce were many orders of magnitude more scary and stressful than the high school break up decision because the stakes were so much higher.

Comparing an average high school relationship to a marriage is like comparing a grass hut with a dirt floor to the Empire State Building. Spouses have their lives, careers, financial futures, and more wrapped up in one another, whereas high school dating partners usually don't. Additionally, there's the old "devil you know vs. the devil you don't" issue. My now ex-wife and I had our share of problems, but we were and are both fundamentally good people, and there were more than a few good things about our relationship. For example, we were good friends and had a lot of common interests (and maybe we should've always been just friends), our perspectives on the outside world (politics, current events, etc.) were pretty similar, and we ran a pretty solid household together for better than half a decade. I mention these things because there's no guarantee I'll find those things and more in another woman, or even that I'll ever find someone I love enough to get married again. However, because I made the hard choice to end my high school relationship, I met and had relationships with several high-quality women and solid people (CL, TWC, and yes, even my now ex-wife) who taught me a lot about life, about myself, and who made me a better man.

I'm still very early in my post-divorce journey. It wasn't easy to make and to follow through with the decision to end my marriage, but I believe in my heart that it was the right call. I have no idea exactly what my future holds, and I do know there will be more than a few hard times, but I've lived long enough to know, trust, and believe that there are so many more incredible times to come and so many amazing people to meet that I can't conceive of right now...and that, dear reader, is more than enough to help make life worth living. :)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

D-Day (It's Been Too Long...)

According to this blog, it's been 4 years and 6 days (counting today) since I've written anything. Like many other good things in my life which have fallen by the wayside during that time, more than 4 years between writing and posting is just too long. I'm certainly a little biased, but I'm not a bad writer, and re-reading some of my older posts makes clear to me that at least some of them served a therapeutic and healing purpose. I have no idea how often I'll write going forward, but I will probably do a little writing from time to time in the future, even if only to help get things straight in my head.

I am writing this post just before bedtime on Wednesday, October 29, 2014. Today was a day that will live in infamy...the day that no married person or couple should ever have to experience. At just after 10:30 A.M. this morning, the Honorable Philip Smith in the Fourth Circuit Court for Davidson County, Tennessee, granted me a divorce from Althea Penix, my wife of 6 years and 25 days, on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. Typing that sentence is absolutely heartbreaking beyond anything I can put into words. Divorce, while sometimes necessary, is an awful, excruciating process that I would not wish on my worst enemy.

I will likely have more to say on this topic in future scribblings, but for now, I'll just settle for trying to capture my feelings on such a life-changing day. Above all else, I wish more than anything Althea and I could have worked things out in a way where we both could have been happy and fulfilled in our marriage. For any number of reasons, that simply wasn't possible, and that's why today became necessary.

With that said, I am glad that the legal part of the divorce process is now over. Especially in the beginning, when it first became clear that our marriage was not going to survive, there were far too many angry and hurtful words spoken going both directions. While understandable given the circumstances, that didn't make the legal process any easier. As a fair-minded person, I genuinely try to give credit where it is due, and in this regard, Althea deserves some credit: notwithstanding the incredibly rocky and unfortunate beginning to the divorce process, she eventually did calm down enough to see that there is life after the legal process and the divorce, and that both of us would be better served (financially and otherwise) to come to a settlement agreement. She could have made the legal process much more painful and expensive, but she made a mature, logical decision not to do so, and it is to her everlasting credit that she made that choice.

In closing, I'll admit that I have been kind of all over the place emotionally today, and frankly, I expect that to continue for a while. The hopes and dreams that Althea and I started out to achieve as a married couple will never come to pass now, and that is unbelievably sad. Short of death itself, divorce is probably the second biggest loss and separation from love that we as humans can experience. Because divorce is a loss, it is only natural that the grieving process must occur in order to move on from that loss. The 5 most generally recognized stages of the grieving process are: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness/periodic depression, and acceptance. No one can say ahead of time when those stages will run their respective courses ahead of time. All I know is that I experienced some of all of these stages prior to and during the divorce process, and that I will certainly experience them again as the healing process unfolds.

Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of my life, and I look forward to seeing what it holds.

Marriage of Chris Whittaker and Althea Penix
October 4, 2008 through October 29, 2014 (R.I.P)