Monday, July 28, 2008

The Alphabet Backwards: F is for Forgiveness with a little Responsiblity Thrown In

(Please scroll down for One Single Impression)

Well, I have to start with the caveat that this is not fresh and new writing. It's something I wrote in May of 2002 and published in the Agoraphobia column I wrote for Suite at that time. I thought it was one of the best things I wrote there and even though I have backslid as far as leaving the house, and some of this material is dated (in October it will be 20 year since my sister's murder), I still think that I actually have something to say here. (Dear Dianne and others who tease me... Please take note that I am actually not only not apologizing, but almost bragging.... uh, oh... now I'm going to get in trouble with the gods...) Anyway, rather than try and update it, I am posting as it was written 6 years ago.

"I am responsible. Although I may not be able to prevent the worst from happening, I am responsible for my attitude toward the inevitable misfortunes that darken life. Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have - life itself." ~ Walter Anderson ~ (American Trainer, Author)

Well, I was completely stumped for something to write this week. Just didn't have any ideas that really seemed to resonate with me until I received an email with the above quote in it. I had a fairly intense response to the quote both because I think it's a wise and true statement and also because it's author carries the same name as the boy - well, I guess he is a grown man now - who murdered my sister thirteen years ago. How very peculiar to see such words attached to his name.

Although the quote doesn't actually use the word forgiveness, that is certainly one of the talents we need to master in order to move past certain events in our lives. That said, forgiveness is one of those peculiar words which has been so laden with gobbledy-gook over the years that instead of being a source of healing, for many people it has become a source of perpetual pain. As with almost everything in this life, forgiveness is not - as most of us have been taught - about the other person. It is not about overlooking cruelty or injustice or even forgetting it. It isn't about letting the other person off the hook. It's about letting OURSELVES off the hook. Ours is the only life we have any control over anyway. Forgiveness is not about perfection on anyone's part. It is not even really about goodness as is so often implied in both cultural and theological teaching. In truth, usually no matter where our anger is aimed, it is ourselves on some level whom we do not forgive.

In an odd way, I think forgiveness - or maybe the inability to forgive - is about being stuck in time, about remaining hooked to a past which we refuse or fear - or simply don't know how - to outlive. How do we put something like incest or murder or any profound betrayal behind us? These things impact us to the core of our being. They change who we are. Often they shatter who we are, or - more accurately - who we think we are.

As I have written before, part of what held me in my apartment for the ten years when I had such difficulty leaving it, had to do with being unable to process (move beyond/forgive/let go of) a series of profound traumas (sex abuse memories, my sister's murder, estrangement from my brother, physical injury, the death of both of my parents, and so on). In the face of all this, I lost my sense of who I was and how to navigate through the old familiar channels by which I avoided dealing with many painful truths which I had spent my life pretending weren't there. I had been trained in that lethal form of pseudo-forgiveness which involves smiling sweetly, swallowing your own pain and keeping peace at all costs. I had been trained to live by a twisted version of "Christian love" and forgiveness that relieved everyone but me of responsibility for their actions. If being raped made me sad, what was wrong with me that I could not put it behind me? If my brother was cruel, where was my goodness if I expressed my pain?

This kind of false forgiveness, whereby we pretend to not have our feelings, traps us perpetually in those feelings and leaves us hopelessly unforgiven for our own exquisite humanity. I spent almost 40 years being generously compassionate to everyone but myself. The implication of what so many of us are taught in this life is that compassion and anger or grief and pain are somehow opposites, that it's an either or choice, but that's just not the truth. When we are incapable of having compassion for our own pain, when we box it up and refuse to own it, to take responsibility for it, then generous as our hearts are, forgiving as we pretend to be to those who hurt us, we are living an unconscious lie that ties us forever to our past pain.

Which brings me to the word responsibility. In my upbringing, responsibility was some sort of burden that I was supposed to carry around. To be responsible was to be to blame. It encompassed the pain of all humanity. It implied guilt. If there was pain in the world (including my own), it was my fault. I am not alone in this. It is, to greater and lesser degree, how many, if not most of us, are trained to function. Even in a positive context - "she was responsible for saving the world..." - there is something onerous and burdensome about that word. I know that it can be used in a positive way, but I would be willing to bet money that more than 90 percent of the population of the world, hearing the question, "who's responsible for this," hears it in expectation of some form of criticism.

So what, in a healthier world, what should responsibility mean? Most New Age books that I read redefine it as "the ability to respond," which I find a tad cutesy and not very helpful. I think that it's more meaningful to say that responsibility is about taking ownership of our responses, our feelings - all of them, regardless of what those feelings are. My wonderfully wise former therapist used to tell me that I stayed inside because I could not avoid having feelings when I went out into the world. (That's also, by the way, the reason that many of us over eat, particularly sugar-based foods - because it numbs our feelings.) No matter what anyone tells you, there are no wrong feelings. I've said it before but it needs to be repeated over and over because so much of the pain in this world stems from the false belief that there is something wrong with feelings of anger or pain or hurt or even hate. What's wrong is getting stuck in those feelings and what gets us stuck in them is the belief that we shouldn't have them, because it makes us try to pretend them away rather than letting them move through us and be gone.

This negation of our feelings, this false notion of responsibility, is how - hopefully I'm getting to the point - we get stuck in time and why forgiveness, especially forgiveness for ourselves is such a difficult task for most of us to accomplish. Many of us race through life trying to outrun these feelings. We keep our minds constantly occupied. We take on super human loads. We try to stop pain wherever we see it, partly perhaps from nobility, but also to stop our own pain from being awakened by it's siblings, from surfacing and overwhelming us. I think agoraphobia may often take over when the load of pain and guilt gets so heavy that we can no longer out run it. We are immobilized not by our pain or our sorrow, but by our fear of those feelings.

If we taught our children to ignore the pain of putting their hands into the flame of a stove burner, we would be very rightly locked up for child abuse. Teaching children to swallow their anger and sorrow is the emotional equivalent of holding their hands in the flames and praising them for not screaming in agony. It is a form of learned insanity which is passed from generation to generation. The good thing, the place where hope lies, is that it can be unlearned. We can teach our children (inner and outer) that it is not a crime to be human, that Love (God's and our own) is unconditional, relentless, all-encompassing and eternal. In the end, we can only truly treasure life, when we allow ourselves and those around us to live it in all it's random, awesome, mysterious, confusing, and exquisite beauty and ugliness.

I know I'm on my soap box today and it always embarrasses me when I find myself standing up there. I usually wind up there when I feel like I am touching on a vein of pain so deeply entrenched in both my own and our collective psyches that to tackle it feels like shouting into the wind, when something in me wants to run from person to person and lift away hurts which are so big that we almost don't know we are feeling them. We deserve better treatment than we give ourselves. We deserve to be forgiven for being fallible. We deserve love. And even though it embarrasses me to say it, even though I may not know you, I need to say that "I love you." And now I need to run blushing into a corner and hope you will forgive me for saying so.


Carletta said...

Dearest Raven - by the time I finished reading this I was in tears. You write so profoundly that I am always in awe.

I'm so proud to 'know' you and I love you too. Come out of that corner for a big hug!!!!

Gene Bach said...

Dang, you wrote this when you DIDN'T have anything to say? LOL!

Great post!

Casdok said...

I think its great to get up on your soap box every now and again, and you do it so well!

Crazy Charlene said...

raven~~such a powerful post~~i really needed to hear the things you said

i am really glad i decided to visit your blog (i read jay at cyn bastard)

Dianne said...


and you bragged! you have no idea how happy that makes me.

Queen-Size funny bone said...

oh this hit the spot...thank you

Linda Murphy said...

This is important to remember-we deserve love. Absolutely. You have written so introspectively as if you are reading inside our hearts.

Thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

Really powerful writing... so glad you have come to own these truths for yourself.

San said...

Raven, I love the image of you running around to all of us, lifting our pain away. Run over here any old time!

Several years ago I sat in a sweat lodge on a Cree reserve. A woman elder spoke a few words on forgiveness which have stuck with me: "Forgive yourself. Then the others are taken care of." I ponder the various levels of meaning of these words from time to time. They bring me comfort.

Annie Jeffries said...

How true your words are about the layers of gobledigook that are layers onto the meaning of forgiveness. How lovely it would be if we could all be Little Mary Sunshine. Such a perfect world. Sadly, the world is not perfect and some of us are more overtaken with it imperfections that others. Certainly you have been. It is in these circumstances that we are most tested and with grace we can find our way to true forgiveness and understanding of what forgiveness is REALLY all about. God bless, Annie

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