I was haunted for years by the thought that it might happen: a startling deathbed revelation that a core belief on which I had built my life was faulty. I would see in an instant how hundreds or thousands of micro and macro decisions had issued from a false premise. Scientists encounter this phenomenon frequently in research,  and have to go back philosophically and methodologically to the fork in the road and choose a different direction. But I would have no opportunity to do that, and would die immersed in regret amplified by realizing my unlived lives too late.

And then it happened. I recognized that I had told myself an untrue story for years. I had indeed acted upon it in ways I regretted. The saving grace was that this happened not on my deathbed, but in my mid-forties.

Let me set the scene. My parents were pre-war prairie babies who lived through The Depression on dusty farms with seven siblings each, only to have that suffering replaced by the dangers and deprivations of war as their adolescence bloomed. They learned hard work and forbearance, making it through long winters on carrots and potatoes from their root cellars. My mother lamented even as an older adult that she never had a bicycle growing up. My father hoed beets and shot hoops in the Mormon church across the street from a house that the frigid wind blew straight through. Neither knew much about what would come to be called emotional intelligence. They married at twenty, and six weeks later, my father left her for over two years to serve a Mormon mission in South Africa. At the time, getting to South Africa was a weeks-long proposition via train to New York, then ships to Southampton and Cape Town. The only communication they had were weekly handwritten letters. My mother lived with her parents in a small Canadian town and worked as a medical receptionist to save money for their married life to come, shelving her dream of becoming a nurse. Though they had planned this separation before they married, she never forgave him for leaving. 

I was born ten years after the Paris Peace Treaties that concluded World War II, into a very different time, a time of hope and mod cons. Fed on formula and then things from boxes and cans, I had a mother who embraced every possible labor saving strategy. Her fury was never far beneath the surface. So I grew up hiding. I hid my feelings, even from myself. I hid the shame I felt when I overheard her telling her friends that she had not wanted to have me at all. 

My father hid, too; absorbing his work like a sponge, coming home late, saturated and spent. On the rare evenings he remained at home, he wound the only curly telephone cord into the only private space in the house (the bathroom) and talked for hours to work friends. 

So I believed I had been abandoned. This perception was reinforced by a broken marriage and early relationships in which I abandoned partners before they could leave me. Many other things issued from this belief, including a high level of activation; I was always ready to respond to someone precious leaving me high and dry and thus became defensively self-reliant and carefully in control. I hid my quest for authenticity inside an outer image of sincerity. My choice of a professorial career – one of the only sectors where jobs can be counted on – was no doubt related to my wobbly beginnings.

Only later did I see that I had a key role in recreating the very abandonment that was a core aspect of my childhood. It happened by surprise. I was at a workshop on the Enneagram, a personality system developed by a Chilean psychologist Oscar Ichazo and further elaborated by Helen Palmer and Richard Rohr, amongst others. In this system, there are nine personality types. The theory holds that each of us choose one of the nine very early in life in response to our realization that the world will not respond to our needs as they arise. I had worked with the system for several years, having self-identified as a point three. Threes value achievement above all else. They have huge energy and the chameleon-like capacity to blend in and succeed. They tend not to be aware of their feelings, instead driving themselves to achieve more and more in a quest for elusive self-worth.

This description, while true in some ways, had always fit me imperfectly. As I walked past the point four group that afternoon, I overhead them speaking, and I thought to myself, “Now those people make sense.” It was then that I realized that I was more like these point fours than the point threes with whom I had identified for so long. Richard Rohr writes that “the life of Fours is shaped by longing….” and that they believe they need to make an impression so they are not abandoned again. As I joined this group and we shared similar life stories, I not only felt found in the Enneagram. I felt found in my life in a new way as I realized that my capacity to live from equanimity rather than longing arose from my relationship with my grandmother Luella. 

Luella had spent long hours with me as a child, folding origami, relating stories, and playing card games. She said our surname “LeBaron” was sexy, supplanting my longing for the Scottish or English names of so many of my peers. She gave me her piano, an old upright where I had perched, mesmerized, as she played rousing marches. I still treasure the yellowed pages of that crumbling book of music. Luella was there for me when my parents were too busy or too troubled with their own struggles. She was the finger in the dyke; she saved me from the free fall of emotional abandonment.

Realizing that I had grown up with someone whom I completely trusted not to abandon me freed me. I embraced my vocation as a peace-builder in new ways, writing on the positive value of emotions in conflict. I began to work with dancers and artists to find out what they knew about conflict and I was willing to explore vulnerability in new ways. As the imagined demons of my inner tortured child receded, I welcomed the life-giving understanding of what Luella had bestowed on the sensitive child I had been. I found myself more able to be with others in pain. The patient and reliable accompaniment of a body psychotherapist brought me to a place where I could have honest conversations with my adult children about the legacies of my journey for them. 

My work continues. I can still fall into a place of longing even in the midst of beauty and joyful times. I can catch myself re-enacting old scripts of abandonment. But now, in my sixties, I can often interrupt these scripts, replacing them with a lived-in faith. This faith extends not only to the unseen world of spirit, but – importantly – to the tangible world of relationships where I live out a serendipitous realization that I owe my resilience to a grandmother who found time to sit beside me and listen even to my unspoken hurts and dreams. These days, I have found freedom, too, in realizing that my suffering parents had their own distorted perceptions, and that their ways of coping showed mostly the limits of their imaginations. They weren’t personal rejections of the little curly-haired girl who asked too many questions. 

I had never intended to lie to myself. But touching the deeper truth that one important person received and loved me as I was, allowed me to comfort and heal my abandoned inner child. This realization opened a new path accenting beauty not only in my work, but also in my relationships and my home. It made me more courageous in telling the truth to self and others, even when the news was not good. 

The fear of dying with regret about unlived lives no longer haunts me in the same way. I am living more and more of the life I sensed as a child was mine to live, a life that is no longer hidden inside the longing that had no name.

Michelle LeBaron is a conflict transformation and legal scholar/practitioner in British Columbia, Canada.