We are used to seeing screen stars avow eternal love one week and divorce the next week, and follow up with unsavory stories about one another. This is not confined to Hollywood. In big cities and small, in our close circles, the rupture of close relations is a common occurrence. We care for somebody, perhaps deeply, as deeply as we know how, and yet the relationship collapses at some point, leaving odious detritus.
The question is: What remains? Of an event that was of such prime importance, what endures in our life? I was recently in a club where somebody invited me to play a game of table tennis. He was a very poor player, but I discovered to my embarrassment, I played even worse. This was a memorable epiphany, because I had played the game for years with a fair degree of skill. I had entered competitions and even received lessons from two world champions, Viktor Barna and Richard Bergmann.
Equally discomfiting was the experience when a friendly woman showed me the acoustic guitar she had recently acquired. She showed me a couple of chords she had just learned, and I tried to show her a couple more. I couldn’t. My fingers simply didn’t obey my arrogant will. It was no use reminding myself that I was a guitarist in a band and had performed in events and restaurants.
My years of loyal practice did not let me retain my proficiency in playing a guitar or table tennis. I had lost the skill, though fragments of the know-how might have lingered. I asked myself: What had remained? In table tennis, the joy of learning from masters and playing against wizards had faded, but I had learned the heady thrill of competing and, more often than not, coping with the pain of losing.
Playing in a band taught me, in a way I could not have imagined, the real meaning of coordination, of doing things with others. Even more, my ears learned the difference, even for a folk song or movie tune, the difference between good music and truly good music.
Building a relationship with another person, or even living with him or her, is a much more important affair. When it ends, do we retain anything of value? Recently I attended the graduation ceremony of a young person whose parents I have known for years. The parents, Michael and Abigail. divorced some years back, and Abigail attended with her current husband and Michael came with his new girlfriend. As we sat together after the ceremony, unaccountably I felt a great sadness seeing Abigail and Michael talking to each other, amicably but distantly, like polite neighbors.
I remembered the time when they started seeing each other and dreamed of living together and the many years they lived together and had children. Is this all that remains? Courtesy and quiet conversation? I spoke to Michael and Abigail later, independently. Michael isn’t a loquacious person. Eventually, he volunteered, “I felt angry and humiliated when she left me. It was no comfort that she wasn’t leaving me for another person. It made it clearer, in fact, that she would have no part of me. But you can’t be angry all the time. It came to me that she had struggled – and, in fact, had had problems. I was a large part of the problem.
“So, four years down the line, when she told me that she was to marry someone, I sincerely wished her well. I had briefly met the person, and he seemed a decent person. I wanted them to find the happiness that had eluded us.” I am more comfortable talking with Abigail, and she was more outspoken. “Michael was a special person for me, for a long number of years. I had a difficult time with him later on, and the marriage became a burden instead of a joy or a support.”
She looked at her present husband and added, “I do not regret my decision to leave the marriage. It was the right thing to do. I was not happy, and there was no way I could be happy. No matter. Michael will always be a very special person for me.” I remembered my discussion, some years earlier, with a couple both of whom are well-known practicing psychologists. They had each divorced their spouses after a failed marriage and met and married years later.
“We did not know any better then. Our marriages had seemed burdensome, and we decided to end them. Our spouses were decent people, but our relationship had seemed irrecoverable and hopeless. That’s the way the cookie crumbled. “Now, having counselled scores of couples and seen their problems, we feel perhaps our relationships weren’t so ill-fated after all. Probably those marriages could have been saved. One is never sure, but it is possible. We just didn’t know better.”
Many leave their partners in acrimony, at least distaste. Fortunate – but sadly few — are those whose relations end on a reassuring note and they can go their way with something to treasure. We cannot all play guitar or good table tennis all our life, but we can treasure what we have loved and learned.
(The writer is a US-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])