We visited my husband’s centenarian grandmother yesterday, at a nursing home in Wisconsin. Although we had a lovely – and lively! – visit with her, something happened when we were about to leave that was kind of interesting. A woman who was walking up and down the halls tried to follow us out, but she was wearing a wristband that set off an alarm, and a couple of staffers quickly came alongside her. They stood outside the building and quietly talked to her, as she became more and more agitated. The woman pointed at our band of children, and you could tell from her body language that she thought she belonged to our family, and was upset that we were leaving without her.
It reminded me so much of how, during my dating years, my family members – especially my dad and one of my sisters – tried to “herd” me away from bad dating prospects and help me to make good decisions regarding men. I was one of those girls who saw boys as Projects, not Partners. Only three of the men I had dated since the age of 18 were grown, mature, Real Prospects — the rest of them were wounded, dysfunctional, angry or broken people – or even verbally or physically abusive. I really thought that if I paid these men enough attention, showed them enough love, or said all the right things, that they would straighten up and flight right.
You can guess how that went.
When you attach yourself to Projects, there’s no equality involved. Your main job is to placate and attend to emotional wounds. Your duty is to try to fill those holes that other people created before you even met the man. Your desperate attempts to “fix” the person actually creates a dynamic in which the man loses so much respect for you, because they recognize that you will put up with – even encourage – bad behavior, all in an attempt to Save the Person. So although it makes you feel good to reach your hand down and try to pull someone else up by your own bootstraps, it never works:
If you are successful at it, you are no longer needed, right?
If you fail at it, you have to keep trying, right?
I recently saw one of my Projects at the grocery store. He was covered in bad tattoos, one of which was an upside-down star with a horned devil inside (that one was on his neck, for all the world to see). He looked strung-out, worn down, and pathetic. He was following a woman in her fifties who was verbally chastising him (like a mother would to a toddler-aged son), but you could tell they were together. He saw me, and immediately turned tail and walked away. The whole time I was in the grocery store, anytime I came across him in an aisle, he avoided my eyes, hunched his shoulders, turned the corner.
He was walking shame.
As well he should have been! That man was too needy to chase me off when I decided he should be the next Project, and I proceeded to waste a year of my life trying to fix/help/save him. He was verbally abusive, couldn’t keep a job, lied about staying off of drugs, went through the motions of becoming Catholic, was welcomed into the church and then totally lost his common sense because of the strain of trying to maintain a duality of purpose.
At which point we parted ways (yes, I actually had a limit!).
Leaving the grocery store, I did two things: I thanked God for the common sense and blessing of knowing when to cut him loose; and I prayed for him. There must have been pity and shock in my eyes when I looked at him, and he responded with shame. I know he is living a hardscrabble life, the wear and tear on his face showed it. I pitied him and then thanked God that we didn’t end up together. I also thanked God that I had so many relatives praying for me during that time, that I would come to my senses and leave that man. Just like in football, they formed a line and kept me from permanently going after a lost cause. The things that I would have ruined – and lost – if I had stayed with that man are just – incalculable.
I then gratefully thanked God for my life now – which, while not perfect, is certainly complete and grace-filled.
Everything happens for a reason — I especially believe that about those who form the line and block the tackle. They stand in the gap when we are not strong enough to do it for ourselves.