On Divorce and Graduation

Sometimes when Craig and I talk about leaving the church, we liken it to a divorce. They kept the reputation, most of our friends, the house, and carried on like nothing happened. We were completely upended, moved houses, avoided (still avoid) seeing certain folks in public, bought new-to-us cars, and figured out what to do with Sunday mornings. There was a decent alimony package for a while, at least.

Recently, I listened to a podcast which posited the idea of considering endings more as graduations than divorces. I like this idea a lot. There’s much less residual bitterness.

When we graduate, whether from high school or college, it’s very much an ending like the one we walked through in 2018. Graduates change residences and take new jobs wherein they learn an entirely new way of living and thinking. Many relationships fade away and new ones are built. Sometimes there are even celebratory mimosas.

But even though many of the details are the same for graduation and divorce, the emotional load feels entirely different. This is interesting to me. As I’ve turned the idea over in my mind, I wonder if the reason is because divorce is something which happens to a person while graduation is something we actively work to achieve. Does it really all boil down to who controls the narrative?

(I know it’s so much more complex than this, as most things are, but stick with me for ideas about owning our narrative anyway)

In the last two years that we were part of a congregation, almost nothing felt like it was in my control. Punishment and censure happened unpredictably. Emotional abuse and gaslighting left us questioning our experiences and our sanity. When critical decisions were made regarding my actions and motives, I wasn’t allowed to be present to defend or refute allegations or accusations, but I was expected to humbly accept judgment as it was meted out. The narrative felt entirely out of my control.

But graduations feel entirely different. Graduations are our stories to tell. The work we do, the goals we achieve, these are our choices to make. What we will study and how we will present what we’ve learned rests on us. Questions, examination and curiosity are welcome and encouraged. We decide the path of our practices and our lives. We control the narrative.

It’s easier for me to keep playing the victim. To say, ‘this happened to me, this was taken from me, these things are lost to me.’ Being the victim is very passive and excuses me from any responsibility for what happens next.

But that’s not the story I want to tell.

The truth is, I anticipated leaving church, even when I had little hope it would happen. I worked very hard to acquire my own expression of faith and personality. I earned my understanding of the Universe because I dared to ask hard questions and explore the answers. I knew these actions would be considered subversive and dangerous to those who seek to control the narrative, and I did them anyway. I knew the eventual cost (though I did not anticipate the cruelty of the method) when I started. I knew I was working towards a graduation.

Last year I spent a lot of time pulling free of the victim narrative. It isn’t easy to unwrite fundamental brainwashing and relearn self-compassion, but it’s the only way to reclaim my sanity and sense of self. The church divorced me, but it’s ok. I’m ok. I’ve graduated to a better understanding of myself and regained control of my life’s narrative. There are things and people and entire systems of belief I had to release along the way. It’s the way of life: we evolve and change and not everyone and everything evolves with us. It’s more painful to try and force conformity than it is to say goodbye and move on. This lesson is one I am still learning to embrace.

There are things and people I miss, but not as much as I enjoy anticipating what happens next. More growing, more changing, more graduations to come for as long as I have a story to tell.