Forgiving – A Practice or a Gift?

image-2Forgiveness is not something most of us come to easily. 

I was a pretty happy child, but even so I remember all sorts of minor offenses.  Many of these are associated with my sister, who is seven years younger than I am.  Of course that meant that she was an endearing tow-headed four-year-old just as I was entering my awkward and mildly sullen preteens — ripe for feeling annoyed at the slightest perceived difference in attention and privilege — not to mention that she appropriated clothes that I left behind when I departed for college! Ok, I adore my sister now, but we still (sort of) joke about these things, including the countless abuses that I, the older child, inflicted on her.

But thinking about how ridiculous most of my childhood slights seem from a distance of over 60 years, I began to consider what forgiving means now.  And what occurs to me is that it is not an attribute (“Ahhh, she has a forgiving nature…”) as much as a practice.

Practices, at least in my life, are routines that I protect because they make my life – and often that of those around me — better.  Some of these are what I would call preventative routines of daily living: I make sure that the kitchen is reasonably tidy before I go to bed because a sink full of dirty dishes in the morning automatically puts me in a foul mood.    

Then there are simple practices that give my life meaning and depth.  I spend time almost every morning in focused conversation with Dan – Unlike tooth brushing or dish washing, this does not prevent bad consequences but ensures that the day starts by renewing our connection.  I take time at some point every day to reflect on gratitude – especially when I am facing challenges.  I do yoga two or three times a week because my mind is clearer and my aging body thanks me afterwards.

But forgiving practices are not like that.  Forgiving starts not with the feeling of anticipatory well-being or the reward of having accomplished small tasks of daily living, but with a big challenge.  Someone, somewhere, has done something that makes me sad, hurt, anxious or even enraged.  The feeling is not temporary – I know that it is not going to go away by tomorrow.  Sometimes it is an old hurt newly revealed.  At other times, it is like water-on-stone – repeated small experiences accumulate and the conclusion “I AM WOUNDED” bursts out.  It may be a sudden encounter – a quarrel, an accident, an insult from a stranger.  All of the emotions become a giant hairball of resentment. And I know that I am not alone – all of these emotions are unsettling but normal and familiar to everyone (and, I believe, even to my dog). 

We struggle to put resentment behind us, especially if it was not a threat to our life or essential being.  It affects not only us but people around us – directly or indirectly – even when they were not the source: 

I only give you a hard time
‘Cause I can’t go on and pretend like
I tried and I tried to forget this
But I’m too damn full of resentment

(‎Beyoncé Knowles, 2006)

I have tried to create practices that will help clear the cloud of bitterness when it arises, but I haven’t found a single list that works. I do most of the things that are recommended by tiny buddha, including loving kindness meditations.  I ruminate on the imperfections of mankind in general, acknowledging that the imperfection of others allows me to forgive myself.  I muster whatever empathy I can because I know that without it, my resentments will continue.  I remind myself that forgiving does not always imply condoning or even a full understanding of the circumstances that may have led to the behavior or words that keep stirring up negative emotions.

This is an unmanageable effort however, and doesn’t always work, especially if the person is dead or distant.  Returning the formal name of Lake Calhoun to its original Bde Maka Ska felt like a victory, but didn’t change my umbrage at the legacy of John C. Calhoun, a champion of slavery and dispossession of Native Americans.  But, if I continue to work at it, eventually something happens.

Susan Ruach refers to the end of the struggle as “simply to jump off into the abyss”.  The jumping off to find forgiveness comes as a surprise after the struggle.  This happened to me very recently – still fresh in my heart. 

image-3
Dick Nystrom and Rebecca Kanner, at our wedding

Dick was Dan’s buddy – and the best man at our wedding.  They were truly a Mutt-and-Jeff friendship, both physically and socially.  Dick was everything Dan is not: short and a bit rotund — his mouth was unchained, he was ebullient on almost all occasions, he loved to dance and to dress up for dancing.  He was restless and stubborn in a way that was always charming.  He was an entrepreneur, and ran his own business (largely unsuccessfully).  People loved him.  He was also a former heroin addict…

And, at some point that Dan and I saw but couldn’t really identify, it became clear that he was changing.  He became crabby, aggrieved, and jumpy rather than restless.  Then he relapsed, and after 20+ years of clean living, was readmitted to a Methadone program.  After a difficult back-and-forth, he stopped calling and stopped returning Dan’s calls.  Dan was devastated because he would have stood by his best friend through his physical and emotional challenges – but he was not allowed to do so.  I just became mad, and I couldn’t get over it – the waste of Dick’s large life and what I saw as a betrayal of friendship.  But then, just a month ago, Dick died – not of his addiction but of one of the other myriad illnesses that he had developed during his two decades of clean living.  We found out on Facebook – a crap way to hear about the death of our best man.

Dan had one of his many encounters-while-dreaming with Dick, who appeared as he used to be, dressed up for dancing and full of his usual quips.  When he told me about his dream, in which Dick was dead but making an amend, I tumbled –and fell – and the resentment slipped away, with no effort at all.

And, I guess that is a lesson for me about learning to forgive.  Forgiveness practices – well, they are just practice.  The gift of forgiving is free and often unexpected.  In an earlier post, I described how an encounter with a shaman blew the seeds of forgiving into me. But, if I don’t practice, I may not be ready and forgiveness may pass me by….

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