Forty More Days, Day 33–On Forgiveness

Tonight I was going to write an original blog, but sometimes I stumble across one of my earlier writings and find that it articulates very well for me what I might have struggled with this evening. In searching for what piece to repost, I ran across one that was not from any of my Lenten blogs, but could just has well have been as it is about one of my favorite things: forgiveness. I don’t mean that sarcastically; thinking about forgiveness and the act itself is incredibly meaningful and powerful. Forgiving another person or being forgiven represents pure freedom for all involved. True forgiveness given and received is one of the greatest spiritual gifts a person can receive. So I invite you to reflect on the place forgiveness has had in your life and share in the comments here or on Facebook. Enjoy.
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Day 14–The Power of Letting Go

At the end of life, our questions are very simple: Did I love well? Did I live fully? Did I learn to let go? ~Jack Kornfield

I was talking to a friend on the phone the other night. It was actually a person from whom I had been estranged for some time. We spent a long while just catching up on all that had transpired in our lives since the last time we’d talked several months earlier. Her sister had died–one to whom she had been particularly close–and we talked about the grieving process she was undergoing. I listened carefully as we spoke, checking in with myself to see if I could feel any lingering aftereffects of our earlier estrangement and the circumstances leading up to it. I discovered that much of the scar tissue I had accumulated over the years had healed cleanly, and although there’s likely still a few remnants of old pain lingering in the various nooks and crannies of my psyche, for the most part our conversation felt easy and natural as it had back in the day when we’d been friends. It was a sign to me that I had indeed been able to let go of  much of the emotional baggage that not only didn’t serve me anymore, but would actually begin to hinder my progress and stunt by growth if I didn’t let go.

I’m a big believer in the power of letting go and its corollary–forgiveness. It seems to me that the letting go process involves at least two-steps and can happen in any order: in order to be able to truly move on you have to (1) let go, and (2) forgive. Letting go means exactly what it sounds like: there are some unhealthy elements in most relationships. The key to getting healthy is to release anger, frustration, and fear, as well as expectations and attachment to outcomes, and embrace the possibilities of what is in front of you. As long as I am holding on to my ideas, opinions, grudges, righteous indignation, etc. then no it makes it that much more difficult to attract good things into my life. In order to let good things come, I have to let other things go.

Nearly every day I offer lovingkindness–wishes of good will and consideration–to a variety of people in my life. The Buddhist principle of lovingkindness meditation (metta) that I learned during sitting meditations and classes when I was in California is a practice I regularly engage in, though I do not consider myself Buddhist. As part of the practice, I offer wishes for myself, and various others (loved ones and friends, teachers, acquaintances, strangers, all beings), including my “enemies.” At first when I considered this, I couldn’t really decide who to put into the “enemies” category, but as I thought about it more, I realized that these are people who I needed to forgive. It is an odd assortment of people with whom I struggle: from people who have hurt me deeply, old bosses who treated me unfairly, various people in my life who in one way or another caused me hurt or injury. When I put it in those terms, while my list of “enemies” had been relatively small, the list of people I struggle with and need to forgive was substantial.

I’ve written about forgiveness before, a lot in fact, and I still have a great deal to learn and a lot of growing to do in this area. Offering metta has allowed me to flex and strengthen my forgiveness muscles as well as foster goodwill toward everyone. I am also aware that forgiving the people who’ve hurt me doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve let go of the impact that they or their actions have had in my life. Both forgiving and letting go are each processes; that is, they are very rarely immediate and instantaneous. I may forgive a person as sincerely and earnestly as I can in a given moment, only to later be confronted with the realization that I am in fact still hurting. It doesn’t mean I didn’t forgive, it doesn’t mean I didn’t let go. What it means is that I forgave as much as I could at the time, but the wound is deep and so the forgiving must be also. So I have the opportunity to forgive again. And again. And oh yes, again.

I’ve described this process as being like a coil or spring that gets wider as it coils upward: you forgive at one point and it circles back around and you have to forgive again, only this time the circle is a little bit wider. As the forgiveness spiral coils upward the circle gets wider and wider until you’re forgiving less and less often, until eventually it rarely comes around again. I’ve diagrammed it rather poorly below, but hopefully the image is good enough to make the point.

Forgiveness Coil#2

The “Forgiveness Coil”

So as I sat talking to my friend I checked in with myself to test how well I was doing with both forgiving and letting go. I realized that I’d come a long way, but still have a bit further to go. With each cycle around the coil it has gotten easier, but it isn’t easy. Not quite. Not yet. Forgiveness and letting go are processes. And as much as we in our “instant gratification” society might wish it to be otherwise, processes take a while to unfold. But if we’re willing to put in the work, in the end we’re better off for having forgiven and let go. Because, in the end forgiveness is really much more about us than it is about the person who hurt us.  Forgiveness is a gift I give myself as well as the person I am forgiving.

Did I love well? Did I live fully? Did I learn to let go? I sure hope so, at least I’m working on it.

 

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Forty More Days, Day 32–Simple Truths

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8:32

Sometimes the truth is staring at you from the mirror and you can’t even see it. The other day I went to a hair stylist because I wanted to do something particular with my hair. I had been growing it for months (because it has to be at least three inches long all the way around) and was finally ready for my consultation at the beauty shop. I knew that what I wanted to do with my hair might not work, but I went into the shop hopeful that it would.

When I told the woman there what I wanted to do, she shook her head sadly and informed me that it wasn’t going to work, that my hair was too fine of texture and that to do what I wanted to do would take weekly visits over months to get it done, and even then it might not work. She even had another stylist come over to confer with us and she reached the same conclusion: it was a no-go. The shop owner apologized, knowing that I was disappointed, and I was. But I also knew that what she was saying was true. I had known my hair was “fine” and thinning up top and that the likelihood that it would do what I wanted was slim. The very next day I got it all cut off, back to my regular short cut.

I found myself wishing that all my truths could be as clear and simple as this one had been. I had known going in what was likely to happen; the woman simply confirmed what I already knew.  I have a number of other things I’m putting out to the Universe that aren’t nearly quite so clear. And yet, I find myself wondering if those truths are just as simple as the one with my hair: I already know what is true, I simply need some external confirmation, a validation of the truth. And that truth shall indeed set me free.

So now as I am in the midst of pondering a variety of actions I’m considering taking, I am hoping that if I follow the same pattern, perhaps I’ll get clarity for those as well. The key, in part, is asking myself, “what do I know already to be true?” and thinking through a host of possibilities and potential actions. Then I need to find an expert with whom I can consult who will either validate what I already know, or provide an alternative. Then my task is to accept the validation, make a decision, and move on from it. Simple, right? After all, it worked with my hair scenario. Perhaps it might also work on my more complicated matters.

I love these 40 days. They are one of those times of year when I really get to dig in deep and get curious, to reflect and introspect on various aspects of life. This really is a journey, and one destination is my innermost self. The destination is, of course, as individualized as our unique journeys. May we find our way into the answers we’re seeking during this time of Lent. Amen!

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Forty More Days, Day 31–Gimme a Break

You gotta love Facebook (or not.) Almost every day they put up a memory of something I posted some years earlier. Sometimes, like today, it provides a really good reminder of something I needed to know or remember. Eight years ago today, my daughter had posted a video of them playing and singing an original composition about staying positive in the face of things that could bring you down. I played it through, marveling on two different levels: first, the talent and creativity of my daughter, and second the fact that I needed to hear a positive message at just that moment. You gotta love the Universe.

Apparently yesterday I took the day off from this daily blog. I totally forgot that I hadn’t written or posted until this afternoon. I was kind of like, “Well, it’s a good thing that Lent actually lasts more than 40 days. I can miss a day and still write 40 posts. Still, you would think that after 30 days of daily writing it would be such a part of my daily routine that I would remember it.

Sometimes I simply get too preoccupied by all I have going on that something is bound to get lost. And do I ever have a lot going on. “Why don’t you just quit the blogging?” someone asked me recently, “You’re adding to your stress level.” “I can’t,” I responded, “I made a commitment and I need to stick with it.” Mama said there’ll be days like this…

I have no intention of quitting this daily blog before Jesus has risen again on April 21. At that point, with no small relief, I will write my last post until next Lent, unless I come to my senses and do something easy like give up swearing. In between now and then, I will no doubt have days that I will struggle, and potentially some days when I will forget, but in the end, I will, nevertheless, persist.

There are some who might consider this adamance admirable, after all, when has anyone ever really rewarded quitting? But the extent to which I sometimes push through difficulties and discomfort can at times be unhelpful and unhealthy, damaging my overall wellbeing. There are times when the body and/or the mind have simply had enough and need a break. To push through this is to do harm mentally, emotionally, physically, and maybe even spiritually. It takes discernment, I suppose, to know when to “soldier on” and persevere and when to take a step back or a time out and live to fight another day.

I still have a lot to learn in this process. I still too often ignore boundaries that I have set up to protect me from myself. I can’t help but believe there’s a price I pay every time I do this, even if the boundary I crash through ends up with things working out well. There’s a healthy level of pushing through, then there’s crashing the gate doing 98. I have to pay attention and take care of myself.

I wonder if Jesus ever gave himself a break. My guess is that he held high expectations of what he could do and did not doubt his abilities. And yet, the Son of Man part of him had to get tired from time to time. Did he soldier on and keep going in spite of it, or did he model self care for his followers and take a break? He probably did a little of both, which is a balance I would like to achieve for myself. It reminds me of that passage that talks about there being a season and a time for “every purpose under heaven.” There’s a time to work hard, and a time to rest. As we continue on this journey of 40 days, may we discern when it is time and do what needs doing and when that thing that needs doing can wait. May it be so for us all.

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Forty More Days, Day 29–On Grief

Tonight I worked late at the office and just got home. It is already past my bedtime and I am just getting to the blog. So Siri and I have decided to repost a piece from February of 2015 on grief. It’s a good thing to be contemplating during these 40 days, and so without further ado, here is the piece on grief.
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Forty Days, Day 4–Good Grief

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Ecclesiastes 3, 1-4

Even after I posted yesterday’s piece on grief, I still felt it resonating with me this morning as I wrote in my journal. Most of my writing occurs sitting on my bed with either my lap desk and journal on my lap in the mornings or with my laptop on my lap in the evenings. My bookend writing practices often occur in the lowest energy parts of my day, and yet they provide for me an important space to process and express what’s going on in my head, heart, and spirit at the beginning and close of each day.

Another important ambient feature in my room is that I sit directly across from shelves containing photographs of my parents, my children, and an old photo of my parents, siblings and some of their spouses, and my grandfather. At any given moment I can look up and see them. The most prominent among these is a picture of my father, in his old age, looking into the camera and saluting. It is a powerful image that at any given time, it has been particularly poignant when my grief consciousness is heightened as it has been lately.

On the shelf below that is a photo of my parents smiling into the camera. That photo had been in a box stored away for years until my older sister unpacked it and set it out on my shelf two years ago. It was joined by other pictures of my mother that had not seen the light of day since she’d died, which at that time it was 17 years earlier. For years after her passing in 1995 I could not look at a photograph of my mother without feeling such a keen sense of loss that I could scarcely bear it. So when my sister pulled it out and set it on the shelf, I felt the briefest twinge before realizing that the acuteness of that pain had passed and I could once again look upon my mother’s countenance without turning away.

So now I look at my parents’ faces each day, and while I am feeling their loss a bit more keenly at the moment, it is not in deep distress, but a gentler kind of ache. I wonder if this is the “sweet sorrow” that is sometimes spoken of. There is indeed a sweetness to this sadness, one of those smiling through tears kinds of feeling. Perhaps this is “good grief.”

I was still thinking about grief this morning as I was writing in my journal, and wondering about where the expression “good grief” came from. I believe grief is good; it is a healthy, natural emotion arising from a significant loss. It should not be diminished, denied, downplayed or stifled in any way. It sometimes feels as though the “stiff upper lip” bear-it-up mentality that perhaps passed to the U.S. from our British roots results in quiet, restrained grieving that disdains overly “dramatic” expressions and demonstrations at funerals. In some cultures, mourners wail and howl at funerals, tearing their clothes or throwing themselves at or across the coffins. After my mother died, I think I wanted to wail and throw myself down and pound on the ground in my grief and anger. Of course I didn’t do any of that lest it seem a bit over the top and unseemly.

We humans express our grief in many ways. We weep, we mourn, we comfort one another. We laugh, we tell  funny stories and reminisce, we share meals with family and friends. We hold space for one another, bear witness, offer support. If we are fortunate we have all these things: support of other humans to uphold us when we can’t bear up and a safe place to express the hollow pain left by the departure of someone important to us. And somewhere in the midst of it all, over the course of days, weeks, months we figure out a way to move forward without them.

The pressure to get over it and move on is great. Maybe your boss gives you a few days off for bereavement, but after that you’re supposed to return to work, to school, to duty and move on. And the powers that be determine that you get a week for the death of a spouse or parent, but fewer to no days for an aunt or uncle or cousin. And I suppose the death of a non-relative, perhaps an old friend from high school or best friend from college doesn’t merit a single day. And yet my best friend is like a sister to me and her loss would be as painful as if we were bound together by blood. Who decides this stuff? A recent piece in the New York Times spoke very poignantly about grief: “The truth is that grief is as unique as a fingerprint, conforms to no timetable or societal expectation,” writes the author, Patrick O’Malley. Simply put, how you “do grief” is unique to you and there’s no right way to go through it and no statute of limitations to suggest when it should be over. It simply is gonna be what it’s gonna be.

I definitely don’t have all the answers on this whole grief phenomenon; I can only speak from my own experiences. I have grieved many losses–the deaths of beloved family members and friends, the ending of significant relationships in my life, the loss of a job and income to support myself and family. Through these losses I have staggered and stumbled, fallen on my face or to my knees, wept until I was hoarse and exhausted, sat in stunned disbelief, plunged into bouts of despair and loneliness. And yet through it all and by truly amazing grace I have been able to release, forgive, heal, recover, keep living. From good grief, I have grown in patience, compassion, and love. And for that I am deeply, deeply grateful.

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Forty More Days, Day 30–No Regrets, Continued

I want to make something perfectly clear–or as perfectly as I can: when I wrote the other about having no regrets, I didn’t mean me, that is I said that I want to live a life with few or no regrets. I don’t want to look back at this moment in time from some future moment in time and say, “I’m sure sorry I never ________.” But that does not mean I have no regrets in this moment. Earlier today, I was thinking about the prayer that asks for forgiveness for, “what I have done and what I have failed to do.” Talk about regrets, this prayer is all about looking back and seeing whatever ways I perhaps transgressed–particularly against other people–or those things I should have done but didn’t.

My intention is not to shame myself or anyone else. It is simply an acknowledgment that I have screwed up, hurt people, behaved irresponsibly, or engaged in a whole host of things that, if I let them, will eat me up with guilt, it not outright shame.

I am grateful to a colleague who after reading my blog about no regrets caused me to consider mistakes I have made that I regret. A different kind of regret than I wrote about before. How do I atone for those things I did that I regret? Perhaps there is no atonement. You can’t go back and fix things or change what happened. Sometimes you can’t even find the person(s) you hurt or were unkind to in order to make amends. You cannot go back and ask for forgiveness. What can you do?

I believe part of the answer may lie in self-compassion. I need to be kind to myself, acknowledging my mistakes, making amends where I can, and where I cannot to pray for the wellbeing of the person(s) whom I have wronged in some way. And, from a karmic perspective, I need to treat the people in my life now, all the people around me with respect, compassion, and kindness. I may not be able to go back and connect with those whom I may have hurt, but I can learn from past mistakes and practice treating people the way they want, need, and deserve to be treated.

I would like to live a life with few regrets. It is possible, if I consider the moment I am in, to begin right now to live life more fully and authentically, as best I can. The past, while there are no doubt regrettable things that happened, is the past. And where I can set things right and make a difference, I should try to do that. For the rest, all I can do is pray and ask that whatever harm I did somehow be healed.

I am grateful for these 40 days that provide me a space to think and feel and introspect. There is so much to be gained from times of reflection. I hope I learn from it, and I hope that by sharing my perspectives through this blog, others might reflect and learn as well. It is a worthwhile effort. And so it goes.

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Forty More Days, Day 28–No Regrets

I’m never going to win an olympic gold medal in track and field. I’m too old–unless I participate in the senior olympics, but then I would be put to shame by incredibly athletic old folks. Besides, I never ran track (they didn’t have girls track at my high school and I was not encouraged to run in college.) So I’ve never started started out of blocks or flew into a long jump pit or thrown a javelin. Thus, my dream of competing in an olympic games, let alone winning a gold medal in one passed quietly away a long time ago.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve had to let a few things go. “You know,” I say to myself, “you’re probably never going to do that.” Whatever “that” is, I have to acknowledge it’s true. There are quite a few things I’m probably never going to do, to accomplish, to be, or maybe even try. I have learned to let quite a few of them go with only mild regret, but others aren’t quite so easy to let go of.

I was recently talking to a friend who lamented that there were things he felt he was too old to do. “You’re not too old to do that,” I contradicted him. Because the truth is, sometimes we–and I include myself in this number–talk ourselves out of some of our dreams using excuses like we’re too old, when really we’re too afraid to try lest we  fail to live up to the hopes and expectations we had for that thing.

I have been a singer-songwriter for most of my adult life. Fear has kept me from pursuing my music in any meaningful way. I have used the legitimate-sounding excuses of working full time, raising a family, living real life as reasons why I’ve never done much with my music other than entertain friends. And yes, it’s true, I have worked full-time, raised two kids, and lived a whole lot of life in these 60-plus years. But the truth is that the only thing standing between me and sharing my music with a broader audience is fear. So no, my friend and fellow musician, you are not too old. As long as you have breath in your body and are able to play your instrument, it is not too late to do your music. And neither am I.

Now having outed myself, I will also confess to not feeling ready to deal with the fear. I confront all kinds of things on a daily basis in my work that I simply power through as best I can. I don’t have the energy to power through this, not at the moment. There are all kinds of stories about people who started their creative careers in their 60s, 70s, even 80s and older. And while I don’t want to take for granted that I have all the time in the world, I need to take a little more time with this one.

One of the most important things I want to focus on is living a life with few regrets. I will never win an olympic gold medal, and I am okay with that. But I don’t want to regret what I could have done, whether music or other things in my life, because I let fear or other factors hold me back. What are the things you’re not doing, the dreams or goals you want to reclaim? Definitely something to ponder during these 40 days.

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Forty More Days, Day 27–A Single Step

Lao Tzu is quoted as saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I have taken many single steps on my journey, and I know I’ve traveled many more than a thousand miles. The other day I took a single step that may take me in an interesting and unexpected direction. That’s the interesting thing: sometimes we can only see the first step, until something shines a light on the second or third. With any luck, we have enough light or visibility to see a few steps ahead, but more often than not, we’re operating in semi-darkness.

This can be disconcerting, particularly to someone who likes to see and predict what’s coming. The truth is, we can only really see what we think is coming or where we think we’re headed. It’s often a little less cut and dried as we’d like it. Sometimes, though, we take a step into the void, not knowing if there’s something to hold us up or we’re going to go splat. We step into the unknown, based on a feeling that something just beyond our periphery is worth reaching out for. Sometimes it makes no clear sense to do this, but something compels us, so we take the step and decide to see where it might lead.

I am someone who likes predictability. I want to know what’s happening and what’s going to happen. My actual life has been anything but predictable, but I like to pretend that it has been. I look back at decisions I made, at the single steps I have taken that have caused me to go a bit off course from where I thought I was headed into a completely different direction. I’m sure that anyone watching me might have been shaking their heads wondering what on earth had gotten into me. You see, besides me liking predictability, so do some of the people around me. As one who mostly did what was expected, it was kind of nice to surprise myself and everyone around me by taking an unlikely left turn when everyone thought sure I would stay in the straight lane.

The truth is, we really aren’t promised any of this. And as trite as it’s come to sound, we really do only have this moment we’re in right now. In an instant everything can change, and unless and until I can dance with uncertainty and trust that no matter what happens I will end up in “the place just right,” I’m only living a partial life. I’ll keep waiting and watching for something to happen, and not take a step in any direction, but remain rooted to the same spot. So I might take a wacky turn from time to time, but my hope is that I’ll learn what I need to from that phase of my journey.

These 40 days might be just the right time to make a shift, if only to shake myself from complacency. How about you? Are you ready to take the single step on your next 1000-mile journey? In a sense, we walk our paths alone. In another sense, we are all walking our individual paths at the same time, our paths intersecting with one another in interesting and unexpected ways. Such is the journey of these 40 days and beyond.

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