on Salon’s forgiveness column

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I read this column by Mary Elizabeth Williams – “My imperfect forgiveness project: How writing a memoir forced me to deal with old resentments on forgiveness a couple days ago and have been thinking about it since” – a couple days ago, and it’s stayed on my mind since. Like this part, which was instantly familiar:

And I felt freshly stung by the people I had loved and trusted who hadn’t been [steadfast and kind]. That’s when I realized I had to get to work.

So I gathered a bunch of friends together for some drinks and a healthy reality check of the abundance I do have. I worked more consciously on keeping a daily gratitude list, one of the easiest and most life changing things a person can do to feel good. I made a concerted effort to find opportunities for small acts of generosity I could do for others. And I asked a few wise friends how they have gotten through their own hardest moments of resentment and betrayal.

I wrote about forgiveness myself, back around Christmas, a column that prompted several positive emails and Facebook messages (and was also referred to in a Craigslist rant as “one of the saddest things I have ever read”). My first point, that you don’t have to forgive someone, especially if you’re a woman who’s been conditioned to always be the peacemaker, often at your own expense – this troubled some people, despite my later emphasis that we don’t get to be bitter and my agreement with the larger notion of forgiveness as a way to bring peace to ourselves. What I was fighting against with that opening salvo is this pressure we put people under – You Must Forgive! – as if one can wave her hand, announce, “It is done!” and then move through the world like Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi, all grace and bliss and impervious to the lesser emotions.

Williams writes this:

Forgiveness is a long process, one that takes place in fits and starts, one that often occurs without ever even hearing the words “I’m sorry.”

And that, that bit about “fits and starts,” so important. We have this romantic notion that we should be able to turn our lives on a dime. You know, this kind of stuff: “And then one day I woke up and decided it was time to be the person I wanted to be and from that day forward, I have been patient and kind, rich and thin, happy forevermore.” And sure, people have epiphanies from time to time, find God, quit drinking, discover the outdoors, and can pinpoint their new selves to a particular moment. But even when a specific event triggers the desire for change or the need for forgiveness, incorporating it into one’s busy life, overcoming one’s default programming, isn’t easy.

I spend a lot of my time wondering why human beings struggle so much to make what are clearly better choices – why do we order French fries if we’re hoping to lose weight? Why do we have a third drink when we know in the morning we’ll regret the blurriness of the night? Why do we peruse Zappo’s when we’ve told ourselves that we must pay off our credit card debt? Why do we stop and clean the house in the morning instead of running out to the beach when the later is clearly the one that brings us joy? (By “human beings,” I mean, of course, “me.”)

Changing habits is hard. Changing who you are is even harder. Grudge-holding runs in my family and overcoming that impulse is something that I’ve only been able to do successfully because I’m already too busy to remember what I meant to pick up at the Co-op, much less recall if I’m supposed to actively resent the person I’m passing in the canned beans aisle. Also I’ve grown up enough to realize that if people judged me on a sole act or impression, I’d likely have far fewer friends; humbled, I try to return the favor.

As Williams writes:

We all have things we need forgiveness for, and we probably have things we don’t even know we need forgiveness for. I’m sure I haven’t won any gold medals at the Sensitivity Olympics in my time. And remembering that keeps pain from turning into self-righteousness.

Ah, the slip into self-righteousness – it pains me to admit that’s a path I’ve slid down a few times for sure. The initial foray comes from a place of wanting, desperately, to be understood. If I can explain why something hurt/offended/damaged me in a way that hits home within the person I’m explaining to, then I’ll know my feelings are valid and that I have a friend on my side.

And I think that’s okay, this wanting to check in about my own reactions, to get perspective, to assess who I am and who my friends are. But if not done well, the discussion can turn into an argument about who is right – and if you’ve already been wounded, having to defend the fact that you’re clearly bleeding from someone else stabbing you, feels insane. Likewise, if you’ve been raised to be polite about the fact you’re bleeding all over the place, the effort of speaking up about it might take all your bravery and leave you unable to continue rising to defend yourself.

To find oneself in the position of saying, “I’m a victim and you suck for not getting it,” frustrates in so many ways. If you’re not the sort of person who revels in victimhood, for example. If you’re keenly aware of your own imperfections. If you care about navigating through life’s challenges with as much grace as you can muster.

Williams sums up:

I have to keep putting into practice, every day, the three toughest challenges of my adult life: patience, acceptance, mercy. It doesn’t mean letting toxic people into our lives, or forgetting the past. It just means putting pain and anger and disappointment in its place, and moving forward.

And I love that, too – her words reflect my own feelings and the complexity of forgiveness. To practice “patience, acceptance, mercy” does not require embracing those who’ve detracted from your life or pretending things that happened, didn’t. You get to make the call, every day, of who and what is worth your attention – I’m particularly keen on the who – and that’s the key. As the story goes, don’t feed the hate wolf.

It’s early in the day yet and I have two beach cleanups and a big nonprofit party to attend, all full of good people doing good work. Later I have a best friend’s party to go to, then maybe some kickass live music with my husband. A lot of work and logistical planning awaits as part of all this, but I’m optimistic the happy moments along the way will be worth the effort – today and all days, I strive to move forward.

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One thought on “on Salon’s forgiveness column”

  1. I relate so much to all of this.

    I’ve only just now stumbled upon your blog; finding what has been in my heart and head now for years is sweet, indeed. Thank you for sharing.

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