It is the stuff that dreams are made of – an encounter somewhere outside your normal day-to-day routine that turns into a romance and changes the course of your life. The French have a melodious expression for such a head-turning event: un coup de foudre. And David Lean (working from a screenplay by the ever-extraordinary Noel Coward) surveyed a very English postwar version of love-at-first-sight in his great film, ‘Brief Encounter’.
Certainly the David Lean film was present in my thoughts when I began to consider the storyline of my novel, ‘Five Days’ – in which Laura, a woman in her early forties (a radiography technician in a hospital on the Maine coast), meets an insurance salesman Richard by chance in Boston – and the events that transpire over their several days together completely upends her life. Especially as, like Richard, Laura is herself also in a marriage that has flat-lined, and seems destined for further decades of quiet desperation. There is central question lurking behind her story (which one which underscores the dilemmas that so many of us face): why is the verb ‘to change’ the most difficult to act upon in life?
Of course, one of the great truisms of the human condition is that, whenever we complain about the limitations of the lives we lead, we also have to face the fact that it is we ourselves who have created most of these barriers and frontiers. As such, when somebody moans to me about finding themselves in a personal cul-de-sac, my thought is always: but who constructed this cul-de-sac? Accompanying this question is the additional reflection: the only person who can lead you out of a life that you don’t want anymore is, ultimately, yourself. Just as our own happiness is also, ultimately, our own responsibility. The notion that someone else can render us content is one of the great missteps that we all have made at some juncture in our lives. Even if we are with someone who is difficult or abusive, it is, in the end, our choice to stay and be miserable, or to hit the door marked ‘Exit’.
Even when the relationship itself isn’t horrible – but merely blah and half-dead – the decision to to pass through that door into a new life often takes enormous courage. As such I never judge friends and acquaintances who have stayed put in an increasingly compromised and sad situation, because (speaking as someone who went through the necessary trauma of a divorce after a very long marriage) I know just how difficult it is to walk away from a life built with someone else, and to expose children to the hurt of a family cleaved in two.
But there is the other side of the equation – and this is the notion that you simply never know where life might bring you; that you could, indeed, encounter someone by accident with whom a wholly new way of seeing the world might just be possible. I’ve often maintained the belief that, as hard and as damaging as life can be, you still owe it to yourself to try to travel hopefully, For as long as you remain open to life’s great possibilities, there is still the chance to find a new way forward. As I said earlier, change is never simple – and perhaps the biggest struggle you will have in your life is going to be with yourself. And though we often don’t like to admit such things, unhappiness is frequently a choice. I’ve know people whose lives have been like The Book of Job, with multiple tragedies and setbacks, yet who have somehow managed to still soldier on (and indeed rebuild themselves). Just as I have known others for whom a few small setbacks have upended everything.
In the end, everything in life comes down to how you interpret all that has happened to you. And just as you can choose to stay bitter or anguished, so you can also choose to live a happier life. Which is perhaps the most difficult and courageous choice of them all.
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