F. Scott Fitzgerald: "It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won't save us any more than love did." Perhaps F. knew what it is like, when the inner world speeds up while the clock on the wall seems to slow down. When the hours become mud, and tremors pass through the body. That bomb in us which only loved ones can detonate. No distance separates strangers in a room, and yet there is a chasm. No distance separates the heart of true friends, but betrayal creates a chasm. Whether in romance or friendship, how do we live with betrayal?
Trust holds us together. It creates that unity which is togetherness. Family, friends, community. It also enables that unity which is a self, for we hold one another in being: "no man is an island", and the love of others toward each of us is the glue that holds our body and mind together. That we must eat to live tells us all we need to know about the whole of us: the source of our being is outside ourselves. When trust is broken deeply, the cracks move in many directions. The centre cannot hold. We lose our grip on each other, and on ourselves. The undoing of trust is the undoing of worlds. It leaves us hanging in space. Shattered into pieces. Trust is the earth beneath our feet. Betrayal creates a negation and emptiness. A moral, emotional, physical void.
What fills the void created by betrayal? Often it is anger. Anger of a sort that can eat us. Anger that is born of various sources. One, which gives it an ongoing life, is the unstated hope that it might undo the past and right the balance. That we might pay the other in turn, as though that would fill the void. But this is a fantasy we cannot achieve. The first principle of reality here is that nothing fills the void. In life we are fundamentally empty-handed; much that matters is out of our control. Hence betrayal feels so much like fear.
When we are robbed in betrayal we are empty-handed and must accept the emptiness. If we can do that we may perform a miracle: the creation of something out of nothing. To create something precisely where the other has made a nothing. Betrayal is a denial of value. An erasing. We must move forward through the creation of new value.
This is the age old war between love and hate. Love creates, gives birth. Hate tears down. Can we answer a crime with love? Like the parents of a murdered man who, when asked by journalists if the death penalty should be introduced, reply that "enough evil has taken place already." The only truly good response to the destruction of value in our lives is the re-affirmation of value.
This creative act involves looking at your life in its various affected dimensions. Making sense of what happened in ways that are true, just, and good. Practising geometry: the art of proportion and placement, of giving things their proper names, recognising what has been done and balancing the juxtaposing truths of individual responsibility versus the weakness of the human condition. Above all it requires connecting with those who are loving and faithful in your life. Connecting with what gives deep value to your life: the sources of beauty, love, friendship, truth.
Betrayal is the denial of our individual value. When that bomb goes off - the news, the revelation - it can seem to wipe away our value. We need to find value once again within ourselves and within our life and world. This is the essence of healing from betrayal.
Two afterward reflections....
One last word, regarding a good practice. Those who are struck down by the pain of betrayal are quickly told to let hate go, usually by those who are fortunate enough not to suffer the pain that leads to its grip. But that can be so very hard to do. We can struggle with such anger for a long time, regardless of our attempts to overcome it. It is that loss of value which I spoke of, which is the fuel for continued anger. Alongside, of course, the protracted pain of mourning. In response I suggest that you find a symbol of true value. If you are secular it may be a poem, if you are religious or spiritual it may be a prayer. It needs to be something that points in a rich and deep way to what truly gives value to life. Many people use the Serenity Prayer, secularised or not depending on their outlook:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
A client of mine who was Catholic read Simone Weil's short essay, Concerning the Our Father, and would recite that prayer every time she became absorbed by any thought relating to her best friend betraying her with her partner. She would then recite the prayer many times a day, every time she became aware of being absorbed in the angry thoughts. This is the practice. When I first suggested it, she replied that such repetition sounded exhausting. I answered that being angry all day sounded even more exhausting. She understood, for indeed her whole body had become affected, from her sleep, her eating, to aches and pains. In time, along with other practices and support, this technique worked. When people are suffering, only the highest words and images will do. This is why, when Primo Levi was starving in a concentration camp and had forgotten a line of Dante, he said he would have given that day's bread to remember it. Find something that speaks to the highest values in you.
People close their eyes to what matters, in order to allow themselves to fulfil their illicit desires. After that initial choice, everything else follows according to a kind of psychological mechanics, insofar as they do not open their eyes again. Such people become like tiles blown off a roof, and their responsibility lies merely in the initial consent to become a tile. We suffer throughout life by this consent of others to become obedient to their desires no matter where that leads and what they violate. And others suffer from us making tiles of ourselves. Through this choice some people betray others in appalling and callous ways. Some will afterwards struggle with conscience, while others will wrap themselves in self-righteous narratives and distractions. Some will suffer later due to their flawed character, while others will seem to flourish, for life is not directed by justice but by blind, natural laws, whether biological, psychological, or social. (Violation takes its toll on every wrongdoer, but the effects are often masked.) It is through paying attention that we see reality at the ethical level - at the level of love. This is why during the trials in Jerusalem of Nazi murderers, Hannah Arendt was struck by "the banality of evil." It is banal because it is blind. The creation or discovery of value is lucid. It is the opening of eyes. When we look we can see. A path opens up ahead....