I recently chose to separate from my husband of five years. He is an incredibly handsome and successful artist known all over the world. We lived and worked in the same space and were rarely apart for even a day. Finally after our baby was 2 he went away for 3 months to work in new York and when he returned we both realized how deeply unhappy we were. I have my own place and am starting my own business and have become physically healthier. I have no interest in a new partner. I want to be the best artist and mom I can be and a true individual. Yet I’m bothered by my frequent fantasies of the structured, group-oriented life of a nun or soldier. Thoughts?
This is an interesting question. You’re not depressed or sad or lonely or grieving, much, it doesn’t sound like. You sound focused and smart and very self-aware. You know what you want to do, and you’re taking the steps toward doing it–all great things. It must feel so good to get out of a situation that made you unhappy for so long, and to start running things your way again. How well I remember my last breakup, and the deep enjoyment I experienced just doing things like sitting alone in my new bedroom, or listening to an album my boyfriend had hated. Having your own space is always amazing, but especially after you’ve extricated yourself from a space involving another human who bums you out.
I feel like I totally get these structure-fantasies you’re having, though. The thing about change is that no matter how for-the-best it is, it’s always unsettling and even kind of sad. Not anything in particular, just kind of the experience of change itself, the concept of change. I feel like when we go through a big change it weirdly makes us feel time, the passage of time. It becomes a marker between two ages. It makes us aware of death and confusion–if this change is possible, then maybe literally anything could change! And that is both exhilarating and terrifying. I worked so hard to get into my first-choice grad school, and it was like a year of my life devoted to this task, and then once I’d attained it and had moved to a new city and was sitting on the floor of my new apartment I just started bawling on the phone to my mom. Even though everything had happened just like in my wildest dreams, and even though I was so happy and proud, it was still sad and scary. I felt unmoored and rootless, like just floating in the world. Change like that weirdly makes you feel small and cosmically insignificant, like nobody–god, the universe–actually cares what you do, if it’s so easy to just pick up and do it.
Added to this general change-malaise is the fact that your particular change involves moving from a super intertwined co-existence into an independent one. Which is wonderful and exciting, but also a major shift in the whole way you experience yourself in the world. And maybe it’s a little sad, too, even as it’s also awesome. Independence can be just as conceptually sad as codependence, in a way. Being Just You, Alone In The World! So then I think your fantasies of abbeys and armies make sense, at least in the way I’m thinking about Life Change and Independence. Who among us has not fantasized about being a medieval nun? Well, maybe some among us have not. But I know I sure have. Because the thing about medieval nuns is that there is no choice involved, no change, no nothing. That’s like the whole point of being a nun. They barely even moved! Sometimes they wouldn’t even SPEAK for 20 years! What a relief! They prayed all day and then made soup together or whatever. Sometimes, when bombarded with choices or decisions, or when going through a big huge change in the way your life is being led–and, in your case, when those changes specifically involve becoming independent and making all your own choices only in your own head–I think it makes perfect sense that a regimented, laid-out life path feels good when you think about it. If only someone else would make decisions for me; if only things were simple. What could be simpler than praying all day to a God you have no problem believing in? What could be simpler than just doing everything your drill sergeant tells you to do?
The funny thing is that obviously both soldiers and nuns have suffered terribly from things like doubt and guilt and anguish and uncertainty. But that’s why it’s a fantasy. You’re not really going to join a nunnery. Sidenote: isn’t it so weird that there are still nunneries you can join, though?
You’re trying to become independent, to become an individual to-the-max. We suffer from “grass is greener” complex–anything you’re trying to do, it’s easy to see how it would be so much easier if you did this other thing. Becoming independent is hard. The other thing is that, though it’s awesome, there’s also something melancholy about it. Perhaps people are SUPPOSED to live in big hierarchized (?) communities, like in olden times. Mean rich republicans aren’t the only ones who romanticize lost golden ages. We make the past into whatever we think is lacking in the present. For the mean guys it’s Jesus and women not being literate; for me it’s things like living in small tight communities and growing all your own food. Both of us conveniently overlook things like plague and feudal overlords coming and raping you all day long, and toothpaste not being invented yet. Also I just realized that I’m conflating the republican’s love of the fictional 1950s with my own love of the fictional FIFTEENTH CENTURY. But still.
For me, this sense of nostalgia for the nunly or soldierly life seems like it has a lot to do with a sort of fantastical nostalgia for lost ways of life, easier ways of life, simpler ways of life. Nuns don’t worry about being good mothers, because they don’t have children. Soldiers don’t worry about being more independent, because that runs counter to the whole idea of being a soldier. Neither group could give a single shit about being a good artist. What a relief, to not have to strive so constantly for independence and INDIVIDUAL EXCELLENCE! What a relief to lay down that burden, the burden that modernity in the teleological West has laid upon us, that each man must be an island of greatness unto himself, like we’re all trying to be that Caspar David Friedrich painting.
I think what you’re feeling is very understandable. I think these fantasies will fade with time, as you get into your new life, as things become more routine, as you start laying new neural pathways in the part of your brain that deals with how you think of yourself in the world. Right now your life is full of beginnings. You’re STARTING your own business. You want to become things. You’ve just now become physically healthier. In your life, everything is either brand-new or still nascent. Of course you fantasize about age-old structures and routines.
Your tarot spread right now would be all about the beginnings of cycles. I bet we’d see the Wheel of Fortune and the Tower, maybe the Hermit, maybe even the Moon. Cycles end and new cycles begin, and in the time in between them you are more open to your mind playing tricks on you. The Moon is about not being able to tell dream from reality, subconscious stuff rising closer to the surface than it normally would be. You have to keep tabs on it, and try to avoid the pitfalls your mind sets for you, so that you can move toward the Sun and consciousness and glory. The Hermit tells you to chill out and think about where you’ve been, so that you can step directly onto the best path when you start heading toward where you’ll go next. Maybe the 8 of cups, leaving things behind and flying to other evils you know not of.
(I just made up a spread for you. Like actually you’d probably just draw a bunch of random wands and I’d be like “uhhh…”)
I just think thinking of your life in terms of inevitable cycles can be kind of empowering. If things always do end, and always do begin, then you’re just in a very normal slushy period in-between, and uncertainty and weird fantasies are par for the course. You just keep your eyes on the prize–which you’ve identified and are clearly going to have no problem attaining–and forge onward.
Also, maybe accessing some tiny little ghost experiences of structure and regimented life would make you feel good? This is kind of a wildcard suggestion, but I just suddenly remembered how incredible it feels to go to Sacred Harp sings. This is just one example. But like, I strive for independence as much as the next person–and I’m pretty much as hatefully atheist as a human could be–but there were these couple years in the midwest when I was going to Sacred Harp pretty regularly. And I would cry while singing, but not from sadness, just from my heart being all filled up, from the experience of being together with comrades on the earth, making music together. Thinking about the history of that music, of people striving for belief and understanding in a cold, cruel world (“And am I born to die?”–my favorite SH lyric). Making pretty amazing sounds together, just using our bodies, reading the notes out of a book. The regimentation and group coherence is essential, in any kind of group music-making. And that felt good to me. I didn’t even know any of those people, most of them were old people from Des Moines, but singing loudly about death and sorrow in a big group felt like it was accessing some deep need in my spirit.
Is there something like this that could sort of soothe your need for structure and group life right now? Can you get super into a yoga class, or join a choir, or some sort of awesome older-person non-super-competitive sports team?
I’m not sure if that’s the right call for you, I just thought of it. There are lots of ways of experiencing regimented group life without literally becoming a medieval nun. The lice! Think of the lice!
Generally, I just think what you’re feeling about soldiers and nuns seems very reasonable. I think getting to the bottom of that fantasy (which, maybe my interpretation does that and maybe it doesn’t, only you can know) would help you to stop being bothered by it; would break its power to bother you. And maybe accepting it as a reasonable response to tumultuous life change and new independence? Newly independent–it’s so great! But it also represents a profoundly different way of being in the world. It makes total sense to me that you would have intense counter-independent fantasies. I never fantasized more about just being a farmer and never speaking to anyone again than when I was in grad school, you know? I think fantasizing about the opposite of what’s happening is very normal, and doesn’t mean you actually want that fantasy to come true. It’s just your brain trying out other possibilities. Our great power and our curse, we humans!
Good luck! I think you are going to be fine. Your new life sounds awesome.