I'm in a book group where we're reading the wonderful and complex Bewilderments by Aviva Zornberg, a study of the biblical book of Bemidbar (Numbers; literally, "in the wilderness"). When the spies return from their survey mission of the Land, she writes, and offer an ambiguous message—it's all milk and honey, but populated by fearsome giants—the Israelites face a paradox: is it good or evil? Do we stay or do we go? They're stuck in a place where they have no choice but to "acknowledge life and death as inextricably interwoven [p.139]." This confusion and disruption forces them to confront "questions about themselves, the world, and God [p.146]." Their existential agony, in a way, teaches them to be better people, which gives them the strength to continue on their desert journey.
Almost exactly three years ago, a friend since childhood stopped talking to me. We were like family; we were sisters. We had an argument of the big, whopping, nasty variety, and she refused to sit down and discuss what happened. And then she simply cut me off. Complete silence. At first I tried to make contact. Then I reached out to mutual friends, and learned they'd been instructed not to talk to me, either. She was facing a serious health crisis, and I wasn't supposed to know if she was dead or alive.
Her birthday came. I didn't send a card. The next day I received an undeniably hostile message from her, just one word. I wrote back with many more words, saying that I didn't understand why she wanted to hurt me, why we couldn't just talk, and so this was goodbye. I would stop reaching out, but would always love her.
I tied myself into knots and then tore myself apart. What did I do to her? I identified a million little sins; surely it was all my fault. I also spoke to many wise people, who pointed out that her behavior over the years had been extremely and obviously dysfunctional. I knew this, of course, but it's easy to make excuses for someone you love: "She's going through a hard time." "She'll realize tomorrow how much that hurt." But it was always the same, and worse. But if course it would get better. We were special, and none of that other stuff applied.
Now I understand that mental illness can strike anyone, and there was nothing special about us at all. I mourn the person she once was and embrace who I am now, with the ability to seek out friends who have space in their lives for my life, and who make me feel good about myself. I'm still sad, sometimes. I forgive her, although can't imagine ever being able to trust her, should she return. (See this wonderful essay on that topic.) I'll send her a New Year's card like I did last year, wishing her all goodness, and will not hear back. It's OK. I'm now on the other side of the wilderness paradox, done with the worst parts of wrestling good and bad, love and not-love, and I really do understand.