“Love means never having to say you’re sorry” is one of the most famous or perhaps notorious movie quotes, from the last forty years. I side with the cartoon character, Lisa, who vehemently disagreed regarding the idea of never a need for a loving apology, while watching Love Story on an episode of the Simpsons. I suppose if one weren’t Canadian, didn’t have intimate relationships, could read minds, never made mistakes, never spoke an unkind word or was always mindful, this might be more than a silly romantic notion. Perhaps love really means knowing when to say we’re sorry, to be accountable for when we are less than our best. When we are defensive, hurt, angry, or suffering from some unmet expectation we can so often hurt the ones we love without even knowing it.
I was recently humbled by yet another one of these experiences. This is the beauty and the bane of being in a long-term relationship. I get many opportunities to see myself again and again. As John Lennon once said perhaps, “Love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.” Thankfully, I don’t have to say the “s” word quite that frequently.
I returned from a trip to India with my husband in early December. Suffice it to say that he hated it. The pollution, misogyny, extreme poverty, open defecation, caste system and difficult travel conditions were bad enough. The fact that he was robbed of $400, bashed by the horn of a bull in the groin and managed to bring home a parasite and pruritic rash were all too much for him. I had imagined that this six-week “vacation,” the longest we had ever taken together, would bring us closer and create a mutual love affair with the practice. Before we went, friends and family kindly informed me that I was deluded, but I couldn’t or wouldn’t hear them. I’m not sure whether I was actually deaf or had put in my earplugs long before our arrival on the noisy subcontinent. We hear what we listen for.
We managed together during our secular Buddhist pilgrimage and I was so puffed up, so proud of how we coped. He suffered without complaint, although his usual good nature was subdued. I knew he was having the worst of times, but we didn’t talk about it much. We were meditating daily, studying, seeing the ancient relics and supporting each other as best we could. But eventually one’s skin can wear thin. By the time we went to Goa to recover, I was having grumbling fantasies of being on my own. My empathy was elusive.
Over the holidays, while walking in an icy park after our return home to Toronto we had a huge blow out. I can’t even remember what about, but I felt devastated, disliked and distant. I’ve always hated fighting with him. The residue hangs around for days.
At four a.m. one night, I lay in bed awake, focused on the sensations of breathing. The question arose, “What is this?” And then the insight came, “Sadness and disappointment are here.” I suddenly realized I had been so angry on the surface and so blaming, I had not seen how my expectations, my wishing things to be different and my aversion to my husband’s reactions had spiraled me into a hole. In that moment, in the dark, all my nasty thoughts and ruminations fell away. I saw how I was contributing to our misery. Finally accountable, I apologized. I won’t be going with him to a third world country anytime soon. Skillful action hopefully follows on the heels of right speech.