Lessons from longing

Longing is a unique feeling. For me it includes aching in my stomach, tingling in my upper sinuses, a catch in my heart, and high shallow breathing. Longing shows up in grief after loss, homesickness, and regret.

I grieved after the abuser killed himself. Despite his brutal abuse, I still longed for the person I hoped he could be. Grief is a complicated mish-mash of feelings and the part of grief related to longing informs us about ourselves. We’re all challenged to see ourselves clearly, and one of the back doors to self awareness is longing. What we long for tells us what’s missing.

After his death, I faced the task of sorting out his chaotic workshop. At the start of a sorting session, I spied a pair of vise grips on the workbench and broke into sobs. He’d been an abusive brute, sometimes physically attacking me in this very place. Why was I now sentimental about vise grips? They were among his favorite tools because he counted on reliability and consistency. The tight fit achieved by a vise grip was certainly better than a sloppy crescent wrench.

I now believe that my sobs were about my lost control. Early in our relationship, he modeled the self-discipline, decisiveness, and certainty that I admired, probably feeling those traits were missing in my own life. But those traits disguised a severely controlling person who eventually overwhelmed me. My longing after the vise grips represented my missing control over my life.

When I once fled the abuser to live in the city, I longed for my rural community. Partly driven by homesickness, I returned to the abuser, causing my sister to ask if I might find what I was looking for somewhere safer. I discounted her insightful question, convinced that the setting was the answer.

Now I see that my community represented stability and security, which I could have found elsewhere. Fortunately, my recovery keeps me in my beloved rural community, but it is not my only source of stability and safety. I’ve started finding it within and carefully garden those traits.

Among the strongest longings I know is regret for past decisions – the what ifs. What if I’d left the abuser after the first blow? What if I’d matched up with a healthy partner and been able to have children? What if a stable home life had allowed me a more successful career? What if I’d left the abuser before my mother died so she and I could have reunited?

The what ifs and their associated longings are like giant highway signs directing me to my missing parts. Use Exit 231 for weakened self-protection. Merge right for needed nurturing. Slow down and stay left for an unmet sense of achievement.

Feelings don’t have to dictate our decisions, and longing doesn’t have to darken our future. When I look at longing as a pointer to my missing parts, it becomes useful. When my breath is high and shallow, my stomach aches, the sinuses tingle, and my heart skips a beat, I now get ready for the upcoming lesson.

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