At a party a few weeks ago, a reader came up to speak to me.
"You're angry a lot," he said of my columns.
He wasn't saying it as a judgment so much as an observation. At least, that's the way I decided to take it. I recognize the pernicious stereotype of the angry, bitter woman, and if that's what he was trying to place on my shoulders in order to make me feel bad, well, forget it - I wasn't playing.
"Disappointed is more accurate," I replied over my wine glass.
He thought about this for a second or two, and said, "Yes, I see what you mean." A pause ensued. "Perhaps," he added after more reflection.
We chatted amicably for 15 minutes or so about various things: journalism, writing about other people as a living, how my divorce and those of people I know provide fodder for this column, and the way many midlife women look back on their former married lives.
These women are sad, I offered. Divorce is painful and never easy, no matter who initiates it. But I also explained that divorce has a way of clearing the head after some time has passed. Finally, you can see yourself, your ex, and most important, the unhelpful female behaviours - wanting to please others, being "nice," adopting the self-effacing wife identity - that can work against you, building resentment and creating unhappiness. Unknowingly, women are often instrumental in the demise of their own happily-ever-after fairy tale.
"So the disappointment is often directed inward," I said with a shrug. "It's not just about disappointment with men." He nodded at that point, and his wife, who had joined the conversation, responded with a look of surprised acknowledgment. "It's not anger, though," I said by way of conclusion. "Anger is too blunt."
I don't often think about what makes me - or any other journalist - write in a certain way. It's just what comes out; the mind takes information and experience and processes it into a written form. And if processing our experience is what all people do - to a greater or lesser extent - a writer has the task to find the lessons (and insights, hopefully) to be gained from it in a way that resonates with others. You can't avoid what you really think because writing distills it - and forces it, often under pressure of a deadline.
Later, I began to think a little more about the difference between disappointment and anger. I hadn't expressed this shift in the way I thought about my divorce before. I guess I hadn't fully realized, until I said it at that party, that I was in a new emotional place.
Some of that change happens with the passage of time; 2010 marks nine years since my ex and I separated and seven since we were officially divorced. I was angry at the beginning, of course - angry about the divorce proceedings, which were very stressful, angry about his dealings with me, angry about his lack of responsibility with our three boys. I think everyone can recognize anger as the first-response emotion. It's natural - not wise or considered. And we don't like it or condone it. No one is congratulating Elin Nordegren over the widely held suspicion that she took a swing at her husband, Tiger Woods, upon discovery of his infidelities. But they understand why she might have wanted to.
"It's a basic emotion. It's what we're hard-wired with," explained Caryn Miller, a Toronto psychotherapist, when I asked her about the nature of anger. Deborah Brakeley, a family therapist in Vancouver, added that it "tends to mask … an underlying feeling. It is what one usually experiences before digging deeper to the softer underbelly of a hurt."
I worked through those hurts along the way, as many divorced people do.
And now I see that my former husband's actions had little to do with me or even our sons. They were more about him and his particular way of surviving and moving on. I couldn't control his actions. I couldn't change what he did, what he needed to do. And if there were to be unhappy consequences to his decisions, then those would be part of his experience, just as the decisions that I made would potentially deliver outcomes I would not be able to avoid.
People often talk about forgiveness as a crucial part of healing. The culture likes the idea of it - a warm, white blanket we lay out to smooth over bad feelings and events.
But I don't think you can forgive everything. And there's an element of superiority in forgiveness that I don't like: You are somehow above the one to be forgiven, more generous, morally above it all.
If you are to do forgiveness well, to make it more about catharsis and less about your own attempts to take the high road, it has to be co-operative, I think. The person whose actions you want to forgive has to be willing to listen to how you feel, to the impact they had on you. They have to know what they did, in other words. "And that's a very brave thing to do," notes Ms. Miller. "Most people can't. They don't want to face that pain and sadness, so they run away."
So in place of forgiveness, I prefer disappointment. It provides the necessary emotional distance. No one wants to be stuck in anger, which turns toxic if you live with it for too long. It ends up hurting the person who hangs onto it rather than the one to whom it is directed. And disappointment is more nuanced than forgiveness - it doesn't attempt to whitewash what someone has done - which makes it a good midlife emotional stance.
Most of us have learned at this point that nothing and no one is perfect, that a fairy tale is just that. There's no perfect job. No perfect relationship. Life isn't going to start as soon as you are thinner or in love or you get that promotion. It's here now. And you begin to see that the richness of life is having the whole, complicated mess of it in front of you, in full view. The trick is being able to recognize the happy strands in it - not to the exclusion of the others, but just so you see them, notice them, as part of the fabric.
It's not a white blanket. And it's far more beautiful.