It was just a fleeting part of a dream, but it’s been bothering me for the last couple of days. It had been a happy dream until that moment. I dreamed that I was married and had a family, although I don’t know who my wife was. We were all at home. Everything was normal and good.
Then all of a sudden, I realized that my wife was disappointed in me — and I felt ashamed of myself.
She wasn’t even in the room, but I somehow felt her disapproval. I had let her down. I was fat, even though she had expected me to get into better shape. I wasn’t as successful as she wanted me to be. I wasn’t as ambitious as she wanted me to be. I wasn’t who she hoped I would be.
In that moment, I feared that I could never be good enough for her. And then I woke up.
I’ve been listening lately to stories of people who’ve had “near-death experiences.” Physician Raymond Moody brought the subject of such experiences to the public consciousness when he wrote “Life After Life” in 1975. Since that time, millions of people have shared a variety of similar experiences.
A person who has a near-death experience typically has some sort of accident or medical trauma which leaves him clinically dead for a period before being revived. He typically has no heartbeat or brain waves for awhile. During that period when he’s clinically dead, he has experiences of interacting with spirits or beings or dead loved ones.
One of the most common features of such experiences is something which is termed a “life review,” during which a person relives the good and bad that he’s done. Most people who report such things say they had to experience the feelings of other people in their lives. When they had hurt other people, for whatever reason, they had to experience what those other people felt as a consequence.
This reminded me of one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had.
When I was in counseling with a good therapist about 12 years ago, there was an exercise she had me do that was surprisingly painful. My therapist and I were working through a recent romantic relationship and she wanted me to understand some things from this woman’s point of view.
Lying down at home alone, I had to carefully take myself back to the beginning of when I had met the woman and then try to experience everything that happened between us — but from the point of view of my ex-girlfriend. My feelings were irrelevant to this particular exercise. All that mattered was imagining exactly how she had felt at each point of what we went through.
I found the exercise painful, because it forced me to confront the reality that I had hurt this woman in little ways that added up to big ways. These weren’t even issues that amounted to abuse or betrayal. They were just times when I acted in my own interest — or in my own defense when I was afraid — in ways that caused her pain.
I was mortified by the experience, because it really showed me all the ways that my actions had helped create a dysfunctional dynamic which left me confused — and which ultimately ended our relationship. She had played a big role in creating our shared situation, of course, but the purpose of this exercise was for me to see how she must have felt.
At first, I tried to justify my hurtful actions. I found myself thinking about why I did some of the things I had done. Surely, I thought, she would understand why I had done the things I’d done if she could see all of what had gone into making me what I am. If she just understood how I’d been hurt and molded, she would understand.
I found myself thinking about that experience this week as I listened to these people with the near-death experiences recount their life reviews. Although some of these people admitted to feeling shame at what they had done to others, a common theme was that there were no secrets at that point. Everybody knew what everybody else had done — and everybody understood why those hurtful things happened.
In this human life, we tend to be hurt and angry and disappointed with others all the time. From our point of view, our hurt and anger and disappointment make perfect sense. All of my hurt and anger with my father, for instance, over what I experienced with him — both as a child and as an adult — is perfectly reasonable from my point of view. I’m not out of line to be disappointed in what he was.
But if I could somehow have understood everything that made him exactly the way he was, I would surely have to say — as an objective person standing outside of the relationship — that it’s obvious why he did the things he did. Even though he had the choice to change — and chose not to — something in the way he was made and the way he was shaped made it inevitable that he become what he was.
That wouldn’t justify the ways in which he hurt a lot of people, but it could help remove the anger and shame, at least from this distance.
I’ve thought the same thing about my dream about having a wife who was disappointed with me. If she really loved me — and if she understood exactly what all went into making me who I am — she would understand why I had become exactly what I am. What’s more, if I understood exactly what went into making her who she was, I would understand why she had the seemingly irrational need for me to be something which I wasn’t.
We spend a lot of time angry and hurt and disappointed with the ones we love. Much of the time, it’s because one of us isn’t meeting the unspoken expectations of the other. Each of us has expectations of the other, much of the time unexamined and unconscious expectations.
What if we could be completely open with ourselves? What if we could be completely honest with each other? What if we could somehow find ways to communicate exactly who we are and where all those expectations came from?
Wouldn’t we be less likely to be disappointed with one another?
Humans have trouble with self-knowledge — and they have even more trouble with being able to honestly communicate their feelings and fears and pasts. So I know better than to think we’re ever going to be as good at sharing the sort of total knowledge that those people felt during their reported life reviews.
But maybe it should be a goal for all of us. Even if we can’t be perfect, how much better could our relationships be if we took the time to understand ourselves better and then took the time to apply that same kind of understanding to others?
I don’t want anyone to be disappointed in me, much less my future wife. I hope that I’ll be wise enough — and that I’ll fall in love with a woman who is also wise enough — that we marry each other only if we truly want what the other person is capable of offering. I hope we’ll do all that’s in our power to offer each other the things we desire in one another — but I hope we can understand that each of us will always be limited by the genetics and the “programming” of how we were created.
I’d like to be perfect for my future wife, but since that’s not possible, I pray that she can be happy with the best that I have to offer. I hope that can be enough for her — and I hope her best will always be enough for me.
Note: I’ve never had a near-death experience, but I find such stories credible. I might feel that way because the first such experience I ever heard was from my mother when I was a small child. She didn’t have the “life review” portion of hers, but what she described to me fits many of the experiences I’ve discovered that other people have had. I wrote about that almost three years ago when I found out my mother had died.