“You can live as if nothing is a miracle, or you can live as if everything is a miracle.”
I never chose one or the other, but the second one chose me. For reasons I can’t explain, life has given me opportunities that few on this Earth get.
My life is full.
Every day I do something meaningful. People throw opportunities my way to change the world and use my brain, and I take them. In a world where 6 billion other people have jobs, I have a vocation (though I can’t tell you exactly what it is yet). Every day I get to do what I like and people pay me for it!
Some days, I think, “Wow! People are paying me for this?!”
Other days, after taking risks and failing big time, I wonder, “Wow! People are paying me for this?!“
But through wonders and fiascos I have incurred no debts. My PhD was free; all I did was earn it.
Other people work out of necessity. They live under debt, and are generally confined by their circumstances. Wealth and property become assets to be managed, not tools that help us fulfill our dreams. I never want to live that way, so I haven’t.
In 2012 I visited my 48th country on an all-expenses paid vacation (South Africa). And to do what? Help people living with HIV fight the stigma that society confines them to. That seems like a darn good excuse to travel. On Mondays I get to talk about the most interesting topics in science at Kenyatta University – those being Neuroscience and Complexity – and I get to share that experience with a group of the best and brightest students in Kenya, who will one day change the face of Africa. I should be paying them for the opportunity, but oddly, they just let me do it. “We want you to teach however you want, so that we can learn about your techniques,” explained Dr. Orinda – my academic counterpart.
I sleep late, work hard, and meet new people every day. Some of these – like Fatuma of HODI and Katie Meyler of the More than Me Foundation – are an inspiration. They never stop working for what they believe, and they believe that they can change lives. Their lives are forged by strife. They often do good because doing anything else would be to accept defeat at the hands of the world into which they were born. I should be pinching myself that in the next year I can go anywhere, do almost anything, live as I choose. And to this point I’ve been pretty good about keeping to my three life goals:
- Find work that helps other people more than it helps me, and hopefully travel the world doing it.
- Challenge myself and learn whatever I must to accomplish the goal.
- Inspire people as a major part of my career (either in speaking, teaching or writing).
I’m lucky to have stumbled into an organization that is a model of worthy risk-taking and good management. In 2008 they took a chance on me – a Neuroscientist – to fill an “analyst’s” shoes, and I’m a much more competent person today just by absorbing the wisdom of people around me at GlobalGiving. When I go on to my next gig – either transforming the way science is taught at universities, or how research translates to the real world, or building tools to improve community efforts through storytelling feedback, or tackling renewable energy with complexity tools, or making big pharma obsolete by systems that provide medicines in the public’s best interest, I hope I can create a nurturing environment for others that is even half as innovative as the one inside GlobalGiving. I’m not eager to leave there – but at some point it’ll be time to shake up a new domain.
Of course, the reason I’m writing all this is to explain why the story of how Heather and I got to know each other, become lovers, married, and then became best friends (though divorced) is not about me. It’s not about her. Nor is it a “we” story. This is about taking risk. It is about embracing a love that grows deeper each day, which helps each of us live life to the fullest, even if we live it apart.
Geez, I’m beginning to sound like this is the “last lecture,” when it is not the end of anything, but a new beginning.
Just to clue you in
In 2002 Heather and I met when she was looking to share a house. She decided not to take my place, but we hit it off and agreed to hang out “once or twice” a week, tops. Pretty soon we were together every day. Then I did a Fulbright in Africa for 7 months and we wrote and emailed constantly. When I returned we moved in together, lived together for the next 5 years in three cities, and eventually got married. Somewhere during our marriage the romance dwindled and it would not have been a problem except that in 2011 Heather met somebody else that she did have strong romantic feelings for.
This was not a crisis. We’d always been emotionally honest. And when our love evolved into admiration, friendship, companionship, but no longer passion and romance, we both felt the change.
We talked about it, and seeing this, I gave her permission to to explore her feelings. But the romance was slowly leaving our relationship as we both knew. And after about a year of exploring her heart, we agreed that it was time for her and I to separate, as she was feeling serious about him. This kind of a separation shouldn’t require giving up your best friend too, and so we remained happy roommates for many months that followed. I eventually moved back to USA.
Separating isn’t a bad thing when the foundation of our relationship remains – mutual honesty and trust. And of course enjoying each other’s company. But companionship is not enough for the kind of love that we both seek – the kind that grows deeper each day. The kind that grows families.
It makes me happy to see her with a person she loves and deserves to be with. Friends, I appreciate your thoughts. But hold your condolences. I just want you to understand what this is.
There isn’t a word for Marriages that end in friendships. But there should be.
I might be the only person who’s had this kind of separation, where we cherish each other’s friendship but terminated the romance. Once Heather knew that she was in love with someone else – I wanted her to seize the opportunity to follow her heart. That’s the kind of love that permeates the pulpit at my church and is the cornerstone of my religion. See it for yourself at All Souls Church in Washington DC. But you know what? Following my heart which told me to let Heather follow her heart was one of the easiest things for me to do. Explaining it has been much harder.
Most people go through life avoiding risks, holding onto a sure thing for fear of losing it. But love isn’t something you protect. Love grows, it evolves. The fact that we’ve always admired honesty in each other over any social obligations to live up to a certain societal expectation has made us who we are – and why we’re happy with who we are. In this case, 9 years later, we’re best friends – and I expect we’ll remain a significant part of each other’s lives forever. What I’m seeing is that many married couples become marriages of trust and respect that are beyond the romantic. Ours could have been, but as we had no children and she was obviously falling in love with someone else, to hold this together would ultimately make us all less happy.
I myself am looking forward to meeting someone who I can again fall in love with. Hopefully this person won’t feel jealousy over my friendship with Heather, just as I felt none for her new boyfriend. I’m just not wired for jealousy. Maybe I was born a Buddhist or something. At some point in the last year I was a little disappointed that things changed for us, but never in denial that they were changing and therefore much happier to be part of her life as she struggled to follow her heart.
Our culture is saturated by stories where one woman leaves one man for another – but they get it wrong. In these stories, I’m the old “bad” guy and the new lover is perfect, an obvious “step up.” The reality is that we constantly change as people, and today her lover is a better match for her than I am, just as I am probably a great match for some woman who wouldn’t have been a match for me 10 years ago. George Bernard Shaw once said:
“The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.”
Love – in my view – is a lot like that, and there are a lot of taboos and assumptions people make or borrow from society that lead them astray. I think the marriages that do end in messy divorces are between people who don’t listen. They think about the person whom they married in the past and stop noticing the person whom they are with in the present. They don’t expect people to change and they fight it, or they prefer convenient lies to the transforming truth. None of that happened to me. I retained everything I loved in my relationship with Heather whilst encouraging her to listen to the person inside her that society makes so hard to hear. And because I feel no sadness and no jealousy, you shouldn’t either.
I’d say I’m a very lucky person indeed, and that my life is filled with miracles, even if you can’t see them yet.
One Year Later…
Writing this story was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Many people thanked me, and some even felt inspired to reexamine the kind of love they had in their lives. I feel we choose wisely by listening to our hearts – though I still struggle to explain it. After a year, (It is December 2012), I would say that my life remains filled with miracles because I remain steadfast in my search for a Love that fulfills this one rule:
When I find a person whom I love more deeply each new day than the last, then I will have found the kind of Love I want in a marriage.
Love cannot be static. Love grows every day. And an open heart helps us remain aware of what this love is growing into. Sometimes it ends in friendship. Sometimes people fight against the path of love and it ends in agony. Occasionally it keeps growing and lasts a lifetime in all its various facets from eros, to philia to agape.
The Persian literary badass poet Hafiz writes:
after all this time
the Sun never says to the Earth:
“You owe me.”
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights the whole sky.
And as much as I admire this, Hafiz isn’t telling the second part of the story:
the sun cannot change
it’s always the same
shining on the Earth,
never warmer than the first day.
True Love grows warmer every day.
It lights our whole inside.
Love is growing all the time. As gardeners, we must observe, respond, cultivate, and replant as necessary.
Letting go is necessary in order to open our arms and receive the gifts that life has been storing up for us.
Wisdom is knowing when to “replant” a relationship and when to nurture it. Sometimes it is just winter, and love is waiting. Other times we’ve planted ourselves where we’ll starve for light, because the scenery has changed, or we’ve changed.
Honesty and listening with an open heart is the daily discipline that gives us the wisdom to know the difference.