Me versus my Things:
The interpersonal struggle to define who I was in the midst of an all too common crisis
Family failures leading to fragmentation, whether or not they lead to divorce, are one of the greatest problems faced by our society in its transition from male domination (as is the resulting economic dislocation and unemployment), but that’s the inevitable price of social progress and of the righting of wrongs too long ignored. On a macro – strategic level the problem can be viewed with detachment: an improvement that will eventually pan out, all wrinkles ironed out (I wonder who’ll do the ironing though). But on the micro – personal level, its consequences are devastating and when they are devastating to such a large segment of the population, they transition from the micro to the macro sphere and create a real threat to attaining the ultimate goals of social justice and economic efficiency. As some among the wise note, you have to be able to survive short term problems in order to enjoy long term solutions. I wonder if we will.
I think I did.
During the past decade my life was rocked by the fragmentation of what I’d believed to be a very solid household, one where maintaining and supporting the core family was the primary goal, so much so that it seemed a religion. We were a family of five, two parents and three wonderful sons aged nine to fifteen. We seemed adequately provided for financially to assure a good retirement, full educations for the boys (at whatever levels they desired) and down payments on their first homes. While I earned all of the money I believed that my wife at the time was perpetually involved in personal improvement which I expected would eventually make her an equally financially productive partner. The boys were not as studious or disciplined as I hoped but they were wonderful human beings: brilliant, insightful and with strong social consciences.
Things seemed almost perfect then and perhaps I got too greedy. I wanted an even better family and increased our core group, first with my wife’s parents and then with two members of my long sundered family: my father, who had left us when I was about three and a half-brother, then about thirty, whom I had last seen when he was two-and-a-half. A critical mass was attained and surpassed and the resulting explosion first threatened and then destroyed our family as a unit.
The reasons matter a great deal to me personally but are irrelevant in analyzing the two principal introspective decisions I’ve struggled with during the past decade, both involving who I am. I believe they’re the decisions that face many if not most people who find themselves in similar situations: “am I the things I’ve managed to accumulate or, even if they’re completely lost, is my core of real values, those positive aspects of my character, worth salvaging”?
In my case the struggle was evolutionary, one shock following another, but with enough time intervening to (almost) make it possible to deal with them. The transition was also evolutionary: first a loss in intimacy and confidence; then an internal separation, two separate lives in one house, no longer a home; then, a local separation in separate houses; and finally, a transcontinental separation. A transition from lovers, to friends to colleagues to adversaries, and finally, to bitter antagonists; as usual with the children in the middle.
In the end, I found myself faced with a decision involving whether to fight a terminal battle to preserve all the property, investments and goods I’d earned over a lifetime of very hard work, one my ex was determined to fight using any means necessary to win regardless of the consequences or the merits; or, whether, looking deeply inside myself I would determine that what still remained of my most noble hopes and aspirations was worth attempting to salvage. During the past four years, when I found myself rather than comfortably retired, again struggling to earn an adequate living, and separated by a continent from two of my three sons, I sought to keep all options open, unable to tilt the balance on my own until one day my estranged spouse facilitated my decision by completing her own quest which left her with virtually everything I had ever earned, not all that much anymore as she had through carelessness or ill will apparently lost or successfully hidden it all; unfortunately, not at all an unusual situation.
I wish I could say that I’d nobly decided that being true to principals had mattered more to me than fighting for the material remnants of a failed family but, though my instincts were in that direction, that’s not the way it happened. Ironically, in light of my former legal career (any pity from others now being lost), lack of funds rendered me unable to engage in a meaningful legal fight (my estranged wife having appropriated the totality of our liquid assets through self-help first), and so, … being a thousand miles from the courthouse, I declined to appear or participate. Something that also happens all too often.
How did I find myself a virtually penniless former millionaire? In all honesty, I’d permitted that to occur, ignoring the long term signs that it was happening, that hundreds of thousands of dollars from family trust accounts didn’t just disappear. Perhaps I didn’t want to admit that it could happen, that someone for whom I’d cared had it in her to behave that way, or that I’d been so foolish in not recognizing that aspect of human nature, the instinct for self-preservation at any cost, in time. But happen it did. I was caught in the headlights and fearing the consequences, declined to act, and in not acting, was left with consequences of another’s decision.
That’s now all in the past and as it ended I awoke and realized I was happy, at peace, and grateful that I’d not trod the other path. I looked in the mirror, saw myself, and was not ashamed of what I saw. I’m not happy with having lost all my property, investments and goods; I’m certainly not happy that in a world itself turned economically upside down, the secure future I thought I’d assured for my sons is no longer even a dream; but I am, perhaps inexplicably, happy that I can remain the self-righteous (too often pompously so) person that evolved in a complicated process of dysfunctional but creative and spiritual families and morally strict educational institutions; a person who cares deeply about the world, its society, justice, truth and honor (I already admitted to being at least a bit pompous): something that could not have happened had I trod the other path.
As I review what I’m writing I can’t help but noting how self-serving this all sounds, and it is, and it should be, but for therapeutic reasons, not for self-justification, and as a means of understanding others and in doing so, perhaps being better able to find solutions to the problems we share.
So what does all this have to do with my initial premise? I think it reinforces concepts most of us are taught and to which most of us at least render lip-service: that who we are is not what we own and that preserving the former is more important than preserving the latter. Trite but true and hopefully someday soon, tried and true. I certainly hope that proves true in my case.
 © Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2011; all rights reserved