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On Divorce and the Search for the Mustard Seed

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In the Buddhist parable, The Mustard Seed, Kisa Gotami's son died when he was just a baby, and, naturally, she was grief stricken. She went to the Buddha and pleaded for some medicine that would bring her baby back to life. The Buddha instructed Kisa Gotami to go to the village and gather some mustard seeds from a home where no one had ever been touched by death. With renewed hope, carrying her dead son, Kisa Gotami walked tirelessly from house to house. While everyone who greeted her was kind and understanding, no one could help her, for every home had, in some way, been touched by death.

A few weeks ago, as I waited patiently for my hairdresser, who was running late for our appointment, I couldn't help overhearing her conversation with her prior client, a young, anxious bride-to-be who was having her hair styled as a practice run-through before her wedding day. My somewhat jaded mind began to reflect on all the time, energy, expense, and emotional commitment she and her groom-to-be were investing in this day and in their future together. I began to wonder whether this young woman would eventually find herself facing the prospect of divorce, and if so, whether she would know where to turn for help.

While Kisa Gotami's story did not have a Hollywood ending, she came to realize that her grief and suffering were not hers alone. This realization allowed her to accept that death is an inevitable part of life, and that life itself is impermanent. Kisa Gotami carried her son to the forest and buried him there. Still grieving, but with a greater understanding, she went on to become a disciple of the Buddha.

Like death, divorce has touched every one of us, whether it is our own divorce, or that of a family member, friend, or loved one. Why, then, does it seem that so many people contemplating or in the midst of divorce have little, if any, understanding about the process. Perhaps it is due to the media's often lopsided portrayal of divorce. Maybe it is because there are so many differing, and sometimes conflicting, laws and interpretations of laws, governing divorce. Maybe it is because of a societal stigma against divorce, thereby resulting in a sense of shame and secrecy around the process. Or perhaps it is due to the fact that, like Kisa Gotami, people cannot think straight when their lives have been turned upside down and they feel as if their nerve endings reside on the outside of their skin. Whatever the reason--and I suspect it may be a mix of all of the above--misunderstandings and unchecked assumptions about divorce are quite prevalent and often contribute to people's irrational, but understandable, fears, or their misplaced confidence, about the process and the future they are facing.

As for the young bride-to-be, I, of course, have no idea what joys and sorrows await her on her journey. Perhaps she will be among the 50(ish) or 60(ish) percent of people whose marriage lasts "till death do us part." Perhaps she will not.

What I do know is that people I encounter who are going through divorce often feel a great sense of relief when I point out that every home in the "village" has been touched by divorce; that this too shall pass; and that, like Kisa Gotami, their grief and suffering are not theirs alone.