I was listening today to an interview of the soon-to-be 94 year old Norman Lear, the creator of such innovative American TV shows as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, and One Day at a Time. His career spans over 50 years and he’s still going strong.
When asked for his secret to happiness and success, he said, “Two words. Over and next. When you finish something, keep moving forward.”
Simple but not easy. Relationships, jobs, and friendships are hard to move on from.
A widow, I’ll call her Maria, came to see me because of a 10 year affair she was having with a married man. She was desperately unhappy but felt unable to break it off.
“What is it that you’ll miss if you stop seeing him?” I asked. “Does he take you to nice places?”
“Tom has never taken me anywhere,” Maria said. “He calls me on a Sunday morning and says he wants to stop by. He gives me about 15 minutes notice, then brings 2 bagels for our breakfast. We go to bed for about an hour. Then he leaves.”
“You like these regular Sunday morning visits?” I asked, baffled.
“They’re not so regular,” Maria said. “I hear from him every couple of weeks, or even less. Once he didn’t call for 4 months. I felt tortured every day I didn’t see him.”
“Did you call him?” I asked.
“I did that once and he got angry. I wouldn’t dare do it again.”
“Maybe you like the gifts he brings you?” I wanted to make sense of this empty liaison.
Maria looked sheepish. “He never brings anything but those 2 bagels,” she said. “Not even cream cheese or butter to go with it. He uses whatever I have in the house.”
On and off, for 5 years, I would sometimes see Maria. She was still with Tom and the terms of their relationship never changed.
“I’m too lonely to give him up,” Maria said. Tom gave her someone to think about, someone to pine over. Even though her place in Tom’s life was meager, she had a place. She believed it was better than nothing.
A few years passed and I no longer heard from Maria. Then I ran into her at a shopping mall. She looked beautiful. Younger, slimmer, more stylish. “Are you still seeing Tom?” I asked.
“No,” she said with a laugh.
“You finally ended it?” I asked excitedly.
“No,” she said. “Tom retired and moved out of state with his wife. I’m alone now, but I’m so much happier.”
It’s sad when people hold onto a relationship that gives them little joy and lots of pain. Why do they do it? Fear of being alone. The pain of severing an attachment, even a bad one, is strong.
From my own experience, and from hearing the stories of others, I know that life is much lonelier when you’re with the wrong person. When you are completely alone, you have hope in your life. You aren’t faced with the daily reminder of what you’re missing.
The novelist, Kemper Donovan, said it well in The Decent Proposal. “The alienation born of the failure to connect was the worst sort of loneliness there was, much uglier than simply lamenting a person’s absence.”
Did you ever wait too long to say over and next?
*Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.