One curse of our times is the constant expectation of an epiphany. Therapists, psychics, spiritual teachers and all other kinds of helpers are expected to furnish a sudden revelation that will change everything -- at least until the next session.
But the reality is that true epiphanies cannot be orchestrated. Like love, the sudden burst of insight arrives when we least expect it, in unlikely places. The epiphanic messenger, too, is usually a mystery – like an angel or a demon in a Renaissance painting, breaking into the everyday world with a torrent of language that hangs in the air like stalactites.
November is the anniversary of one such encounter for me. It was 17 years ago. I was living in a rat-trap apartment off Ponce de Leon Avenue. A man in a basement apartment was operating a crack house. His elderly mother, who lived with him, frequently knocked on my door to come in and smoke 25 cigarettes while her son conducted business. Another elderly resident somehow used to climb into the Dumpster to rescue items of value – like mismatched shoes and Spam cans.
It was a very mixed time for me. I had ended yet another relationship, one that had lasted three years, and I'd been on something of a sexual binge. My therapist had told me he would not see me anymore if I didn't become abstinent. Meanwhile I was finishing classes for my M.A. in psychology and commuting to California for a couple weeks every month to get training in a facility outside San Francisco.
The abstinence, the rat-trap apartment building and the exhausting commuting made me feel very lonely and depressed much of the time. It didn't help that my mother had a stroke that catapulted me into painful memories of growing up.
The Zesto on Ponce de Leon was a short walk from my apartment. I developed the calorific habit of dropping in there frequently for a Toffee Coffee Arctic Swirl. One day in November, as I was spooning the sweet, creamy, crunchy icy substance into my mouth, I heard a kid crying. The boy, about 6, was being lectured loudly by his mother, who called him every name in the book.
It was a shocking scene. People looked at the woman then looked at one another, not sure what to do. One man got up from his table and spoke to the woman, who simply redirected her torrent of abusive language to him, telling him to mind his own business.
By this time, the boy had hidden under another table, out of reach of his swatting, swearing mother. In one of those moments when memory overwhelms the present, I became the boy. Like me when I was a kid, his hair was platinum. But, more important, there were pictures of me hiding under the cake table at my own birthday party when I was about his age. Without thinking, I walked to the table, squatted down and stretched out my arms, wanting to comfort him.
Then the boy did something that stunned me. He ran to his mother, for comfort, crawling into her lap. She looked at me triumphantly.
In that moment, one of the main narratives of my life made sense to me. While my mother had never been as cruel to me as this kid's was, she never really approved of me, either. I was constantly criticized. Therapist after therapist had observed how my adult relationships duplicated the dynamics between me and my mother – to the extent that if a partner wasn't sufficiently critical, I would provoke him to be.
But until my Zesto epiphany, I never understood why. The kid, in turning to his abuser for comfort, conflated love and pain. Masochism, I realized, was the principal result of feeling unloved by the parent I loved (and children, to survive, must love their parents). Nearly all my primary relationships, and many of my friendships, had the same character. Even harder to accept was that I also treated partners in the same way. The abusive or hypercritical parent not only damages the child. She also models the child's future behavior toward others.
I spent the next month in terrible grief. I can't lay any claim that this process, the conflation of love and pain, disappeared from my life. But genuine epiphanies have a way of altering the original curse by cursing you with awareness. When those feelings – self-directed or directed to others – arise now, I'm acutely aware that a part of me has climbed into the lap of pain. I've found this especially important to recall during the mandatory happiness of the holiday season.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.