When change happens, it can seem like a bolt out of the blue.
It can seem as though we’re heading in one stable direction in life and then something changes without warning — suddenly upending all of our plans and assumptions and hopes.
But is that the way it works? Is the dramatic moment of change what we think it is — a shocking thing we didn’t see coming — or is it just the moment when we finally accept what should have been obvious long before?
I met a young woman earlier this week who really impressed me. When I was eating at a restaurant where I rarely go Monday evening, I kept noticing an attractive server and thinking she looked familiar. I finally invited her over and asked if we might have met.
As far as we could figure, we had never met, but we talked for 10 or 15 minutes. She was delightful. She was intelligent, charming, funny and beautiful. She was tall and had dark brown hair that made her bright blue eyes all the more striking.
I had originally guessed her to be about 22, but she was actually just 17. We talked about where she’s going to college next year and we talked about her fiancé, who’s an older man. She talked quite a bit about him and how great their relationship was. She seemed very happy and eager to marry him after she got out of college.
Late Friday night, I was sitting in a fast food restaurant writing when I saw her coming toward me. She had stopped after work to get some food to take home and recognized me, so she was stopping to say hello.
After chatting for a minute, she broke the news that she and her fiancé have broken up. I was stunned. It was just four nights before when she had been telling me how great things were. I hadn’t seen that coming.
She told me that her boyfriend had a son with an ex-girlfriend and that he had been spending more and more time with that ex. Not just with the son they have together, but with the woman. He had always framed it as spending time with his son’s mother, but it was starting to look different when the two of them had started doing things together again — without the son.
My new friend said she tried to talk with him about it Thursday night and he wouldn’t even discuss it. She said he wasn’t interested in how it made her feel and he made it clear he wasn’t going to change anything for her. They had a big fight and the man suddenly removed all of her pictures from his social media account — and replaced them with a picture of the ex-girlfriend and his son.
As I listened to her story, my first reaction was to be shocked at how quickly things could have changed for her. But the more I thought about it, the more obvious it becomes that this change had already happened — well before Monday night — but she hadn’t been willing to accept it until now.
As of Monday night, she was still talking about how happy they were together, but now that she was telling me the story of how the breakup came, she talked about how the man had been spending time with this other woman for weeks. She had been feeling pain about this for some time.
And then it occurred to me that this wasn’t a sudden change. She simply got to the point at which she had to accept a change which had already occurred.
Our narratives for our own lives tend to be stable. We like to believe we have a story that makes sense and isn’t going to change. We like to believe that this person loves us and that we can count on that friend and that we can rely on financial security because of this other reason. We like this illusion of stability — even when we know deep down that things are wrong — because it keeps us from having to accept change which scares us.
The end of a relationship can seem to shock us for this very reason. We haven’t wanted to accept the upheaval which would come with the end. We haven’t wanted to accept the truth of where we really stand with someone who isn’t capable of loving us in the ways we had believed. We haven’t wanted to accept the many real changes that must happen when we acknowledge the truth.
But the truth has a way of catching up with us. If we have been denying the truth — and desperately trying to believe things are still as we pretend to the outside world — that moment hits us even harder. We tell everybody how we were blindsided, even though we had known deep down that the change was happening, often for years.
When you look at a dandelion — such as this one from my back yard — it looks lovely and solid and even strong. But as every child knows, a simple breath of air blows it apart, making it clear that its image of solidity and strength was just an illusion.
I’ve done this to myself. I’ve known things I haven’t wanted to admit and I’ve ignored them. I’ve known that a relationship was falling apart that I didn’t want to lose. I’ve known that business directions I’ve tried to force were completely wrong for me. I’ve known that I was never going to get love from people whose love I wanted. But because those were painful truths to me, I’ve lied to myself — at least until the moment when reality forced me to accept painful truths.
It’s not just me, of course. And it’s not just my charming young (and heartbroken) new friend. You’ve done it, too. You’re probably doing it right now. Denying reality can seem so much better than the alternative of making the changes which scare us.
But truth always catches up with me. Reality always bites me. The love or career or life path which had seemed so solid is suddenly as fragile as a dandelion in a stiff breeze.
We all need to learn to face reality more quickly. Why? I can tell you from painful experience that the alternatives we should have pursued while in denial are frequently gone by the time we finally accept the truth that should have been obvious for ages.
Sometimes, things really do change in shocking ways. More often, though, we are simply in denial about accepting painful change that we eventually have to deal with.