Betrayal: Small and Large

Last week’s topic was on entrusting our hearts’ longings to another. Embedded in that blog post was the subject of betrayal. To be betrayed or betray another means that we have / or had an explicit or perceived agreement violated on some level. Archetypal in nature; betrayal is experienced by human beings globally. Regardless of ethnicity, geography, age, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation, betrayal is a bitter factor of living a full life. Looking outside ourselves to a broader perspective, betrayal can also be against “one’s country, [or] a group” (1). Betrayal then is both personal and collective in nature. Individual and communal stories of treachery, deception, and double-dealings fill our religions, mythologies, movie screens, nightly news, novels, and biographies. 

We are all likely to remember a time when we felt betrayed: by parents, teachers, preachers, friends, or lovers. The pain burns so intensely, it leaves scars embedded in the crevices of our hearts. At worst, any time we even think of the betrayal, our hearts are once again set ablaze, reigniting that tender scar tissue as if it were tinder. At best, the old scar is thick but itches as a reminder to be aware of what and to whom we share our vulnerable parts. 

 A lesser-discussed form of betrayal is the one we inflict upon ourselves. We must dig deep into our well of courage in order to act on our internal knowing and honor our longings. Too often dreams, desires, and goals end up in a muddy wasteland, buried in the bog of our unconscious. How often do we sacrifice our words or our dreams in order to “keep the peace”? If we keep giving ourselves away or refuse to honor what we truly think or feel, we are ultimately sending the message that we are not as important as the other person. In effect betraying our self- respect, our time, our knowledge, or other aspects of our lives. 

Back in 2002 when my partner and I were planning our wedding we came across a poem titled The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. The poem is threatening because it point blank calls forth the places in ourselves we hold in fear and challenges us to be raw, courageous and absolutely honest with each other and ourselves; in other words, our authentic selves. The poem could be accused of being Oriah's idealistic notion of a relationship but in reality it is so brutally confrontational most folks betray their own internal fear and walk away. Sounds absolutely perfect for a wedding reading, right! We had more comments about this poem after our wedding than the venue, meal, or clothes we wore. Friends who were completely sworn off marriage said later, “if I could have that, that kind of relationship, I would get married tomorrow.” 

 The stanza from Oriah’s poem, written below addresses the double edge sword of being true to oneself, and who do you ultimately betray¾yourself or the other person? This stanza is tucked in the middle of the poem, which for me indicates that it is at the heart of the questions she asks.

 “I want to know if you can

disappoint another

to be true to yourself.

if you can bear 

the accusation of betrayal

and not betray your own soul.”  (stanza 6).  

She is asking if we know who we are, what we need, what kind of life we are willing to live while walking this great big planet. To answer ‘yes’ requires a kind of honesty towards oneself and ultimately all others that is both conscious and rare. Depending on our gender, cultural norms, and the time period in which we were raised, most of us are taught to avoid conflict at all cost, that keeping the peace is more worthy than being consciously honest with ourselves and our loved ones. In other words, we are taught that betraying our own needs to make another feel comfortable is the higher honor. Is this really true¾perhaps sometimes, but certainly not all the time? 

To live in alignment with our authentic self requires three things: discernment, courage, and a long-term view. Discernment is key. The way I have learned to discern what is really important is to ask myself if the thing presenting itself is a want or a need. Wants are things: experiences or items that I can ultimately live without whereas a need is a calling from the soul. A need in these situations keeps poking at me until I hold it tenderly in my hands and look it squarely in the eyes, acknowledge it, and decide whether or not to take action. Needs are situations or experiences I process very consciously, talk about with those close to me, or those it will directly impact. Then using discernment, I determine if I wish to proceed or not. Ultimately, I am deciding if the risk of being accused of betrayal, the possible turmoil and loneliness are worth pressing forward. 

When an opportunity or deep knowing about taking an action returns time and again we are being asked by our soul to shift direction, expand our hearts, or lives, or minds. At this juncture, we then need to take the long-view. To be able to weigh up the possible consequences and take or avoid action is the sign of a regulated pre-frontal cortex but also a sign of maturity, wisdom, and consciousness. 

Either way, whether we betray ourselves or are accused of betraying another there is a cost. Can you identify the ways in which you betray yourself? As you read the following, I urge you to practice self-compassion. Approach the questions with a sense of curiosity rather than shame or guilt; after all, we are all just doing our best. 

Exercise: Think about the times in your life you have betrayed yourself, either by not speaking a truth, by ignoring an intuitive warning, or by going against an inner knowing. Can you think of times that you gave yourself away, in order to be liked, to keep the peace, or fit in? Are there times in your life when you wanted to leave but stayed because it was easier or you didn’t know what the future would bring? Conversely, did you leave somewhere, someone, or some job when you should have stayed?   

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 Citations, including links where possible. 

 Oriah House (Oriah Mountain Dreamer) The Invitation.