Sunday, May 20, 2007

Giving up the ghost

Seraphic Single is going out of her way to avoid the ghost of her ex-boyfriend.

"There are churches I don't go to anymore, cafes that hold bitter memories, and parks I won't cut through on my way to a bus stop," she writes.

While everyone's entitled to heal in their own way, I believe that changing one's lifestyle in order to avoid "bitter memories" is Not a Good Idea.

During the times of my life when I've gone through a breakup, it can be very painful to revisit places that recall lost intimacy. But the alternative, avoiding a place where I might ultimately find joy — be it a church of which I'm fond, a café that serves bubble tea, or a beautiful park — is worse. And when it comes to forgoing short cuts, I don't think any emotional pain is worth missing a bus. The old, cynical maxim that "men are like buses" is a base canard, but so too is its corollary; if you miss a bus, there may well not be another one coming around the pike.

That is not to say that I was terribly happy that day, one week after my last breakup, when a magazine photographer phoned to tell me he'd found the perfect spot for his shoot with me that day, a Village café — which happened to be the site of my first date with my former boyfriend. In the ensuing photos (taken at the café and in Washington Square), I looked like a condemned woman on her way to the gallows. But then, the café wasn't a place where I would normally have gone; that first date was the first time I'd been there in years. Avoiding it for a while wouldn't have disrupted my life.

I also don't recommend revisiting music enjoyed with a past love if the pain of separation is still fresh. Music has far more power to stir the emotions than a geographical place. When a piece of classical music that I'd experienced with a former boyfriend popped up on an Internet radio station, I decided I'd listen to it all the way through and thereby purge myself of any painful associations it evoked. Forty minutes later, my computer desk was a minefield of wet tissues — and I still bawled the next time that piece of music hit my ears.

But reclaiming geographical places in order to bring a semblance of normalcy back to your life — that's different. It really is possible to "rebaptize" them, and not just with tears. Go to them determined to exorcise the ghost who resides there. It stings the first time. The second time, the pain goes down to a dull ache, and then it falls off steeply. Pretty soon, you'll be much better off than if you did the avoidance thing — partly because you'll no longer be deprived of places you like, and partly because the avoidance itself only reopens the wound. The mental energy required to consciously avoid a place causes painful memories to arise afresh.

More than that, it's important to get beyond thinking in terms of "places we went/places where we didn't go." If you're determined to avoid places with painful associations, think about what you're doing in the places where you don't have such associations. If you're simply seeking relief and distraction, then you're still turned in upon yourself, as your life continues to be ruled by the empty space. Sometimes it may be better to feel the empty space. At least then, recognizing your own limitations, you may eventually reach a place where you can make something good of your pain — by removing your focus from yourself and reaching out to others who are hurting.

Don't worry about what people will think at the places where you and your former love hung out. If the waiter asks about your former love, tell him you broke up. He won't ask you again — and you might even get an extra biscotti.