“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to love deep and suck the marrow out of life. To put to rest all that was not life, and not, when I came to die, realize that I had not yet lived.”
~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Whether in the 1800s or 2000s, the path to sucking the marrow out of life and living on your own terms is paved with challenges, including dealing with those who don’t understand the concept. Robert Louis Stevenson called Thoreau’s journey into the woods “unmanly” and something he “tended with womanish solicitude.” John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that Thoreau would have man “lower himself to the level of a woodchuck on walk on four legs.”
Safe to say they didn’t get it.
George Eliot did though:
“People—very wise in their own eyes—who would have every man’s life ordered according to a particular pattern, and who are intolerant of every existence the utility of which is not palpable to them, may pooh-pooh Mr. Thoreau and this episode in his history, as unpractical and dreamy.”
Quite a woman, that George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans), and it’s amazing how wise her words still are, as many of us who have chosen a path different from the norm can appreciate.
In our private communications, Diana Baur* has called this “the untold side of the expat story.” When we carve paths for ourselves that are independent, open, and outside of conventional boundaries, even if it’s without leaving one’s home country but it seems especially then, we run the very real risk of losing people along the way.
I wish I could tell you that when you take your life into your own hands and create your path, all of your loved ones will be overjoyed for you. That they’ll continue loving and supporting you, so very proud that you not only know what you want but are also working your ass off to get there — learning, growing, and confronting challenges you had no idea existed. That no matter what you do in life or where you go, you’ll always be able to lean on the support network you thought was solid. But I can’t.
Some of your loved ones not only won’t get it, they won’t even care to try.
Now let’s be clear. It’s completely understandable that your mom may not *immediately* get why you’re planning on a year in an ashram in India, or that your childhood best friend can’t wrap her head around your career change from investment banking for teaching. You can’t make enormous life changes and expect that everyone you know will understand your choices and motivations from the moment you reveal your master plan — or even your next step.
But if you’re lucky, you have some people around you who care enough to try to understand.
Through that experience, some in your inner circle will prove to be your lifelong connections; they’ll do so by hanging in there. They’ll talk to you about your life, your goals, your dreams, your decisions, your actions, and try to understand where you’re coming from — and you will reciprocate and keep up the relationship you’ve always known, only enriched by new experiences and a deeper level of understanding.
They’ll travel across the city, country, or the world to visit you if you’ve physically moved, send you silly e-cards and motivational quotes when you’re having a bad day, or simply make sure you know about what’s happening in their daily lives, ask you about yours, and otherwise remain involved and engaged in your relationship.
They know that the lines of communication run two ways, and they will keep their end open so you know they love and support you, no matter what.
I’m lucky. My parents were blindsided by the whole “move to Italy” thing eight years ago, but they’ve loved and supported me anyway. Neither of them would choose to have their daughter live halfway around the world, but they accept that this is what I have decided is best for me — and they understand it has nothing to do with moving away from them and everything to do with moving toward me. In other words, they’re happy that I’m happy.
Unfortunately, there will probably be another type of person in your current sphere — the kind who flat-out refuses to try to understand your life as you envision it, or perhaps as you’re already living it.
These are people with closed minds and strict ideas not only of their own lives but also of yours and everyone else’s, or as Eliot wrote much more poetically, “intolerant of every existence the utility of which is not palpable to them.” They can’t fit you comfortably into a proverbial box, which means you threaten everything they think they know as absolute.
You thought these people loved you unconditionally, but, as it turns out, they only support you when you live on their terms, according to their plans and expectations. They may or may not confront you about the mistakes they think you’re making, but regardless they can’t help but judge your decisions and withhold love and support based on those judgments, whether they are based in fact or assumption (usually assumption since they don’t know enough about your life on which to base a valid opinion anyway).
Diana has written about the monstrous benefits of changing your life, and I actually think this is one of them — learning who really has your back and who will only be there for you when it’s convenient or comfortable for them. I call these types of people conditional lovers. And I also call bullshit.
Unconditionally is the only true way to love.
People who offer conditional love can suck the energy, inspiration, and dreams right the hell out of you if you let them. So don’t.
When it becomes painfully obvious that in certain places all you will find is a wall of judgment, condescension, and conditional love, it’s tough. When you’ve tried for days, weeks, months, or even years to keep a relationship going, but you get nothing but criticism and judgment in return, it can tear your heart out, stomp on it, and throw it down a ravine.
If you’re living a good life, though, you’ll feel that deep inside, and you’ll realize that if someone else is judging or criticizing you, it’s not about you. It’s about them. It’s about their own insecurities and failures and unhappiness, and if they don’t want to try to understand you and your life, that’s their loss — and so *not* your problem.
At that point, it’s time to go retrieve your heart, glue up the cracks as best you can, and move on.
How you react to the actions of others is always your choice, and you can either allow conditional lovers to suck up your time and energy, letting their snide comments, judgments, and lack of a desire to understand break your heart over and over again, or you can follow Thoreau and continue to suck the marrow out of life on your own terms, live deliberately, be mindful of each and every precious moment, and cherish the wonderful people around you who *do* love and support you unconditionally.
I don’t know about you, but I’m with Thoreau on this one.
*A special thank you and un abbraccio fortissimo to Diana Baur at A Certain Simplicity for being my North Star at the other end of the boot in Piemonte.