Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Forgiveness, again.

I love Don Henley's song about forgiveness: The Heart of the Matter.

        All the words to this song resonate with me.  But there are a few in particular that really speak to me:
Ah, these times are so uncertain
There's a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
...

There are people in your life
Who've come and gone
They let you down
You know they hurt your pride
You better put it all behind you, baby
'Cause life goes on
You keep carrying that anger
It'll eat you up inside, baby

I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about forgiveness,
Forgiveness
Even if, even if, you don't love me anymore.

     I've made a lot of mistakes in my life. I've hurt people I've loved.  I've also been hurt by people I've loved. But while it may be that the losses or rifts or hurts that one person experiences may be more or less than what another person experiences, all of us suffer at the hands of one another, and all of us injure each other.  It's part of being human.  And we therefore have to make choices. Do we live lives of anger, bitterness and cynicism?  Do we nurse every pain we've experienced and carry grudges to our death beds?  Or do we learn how to forgive, to let go, to honor what was good and to move on from what was hard?
     Some people are better at this than others.  I recently read a story about a man who had contracted AIDS through a partner who knew he had it but who had chosen not to share that knowledge. The man who was now dying of AIDS harbored no anger or resentment, however. He didn't have room in his life for that kind of pain. He chose instead to spend his remaining days sharing laughter and stories and songs with his friends and family.  
      I envy that level of serenity.  I crave that ability to let anger pass through and out and on so that life can be lived in the "now" with joy and peace rather than anxiety, fear, and pain.  Anger hurts. And the one it hurts most is the one carrying it. It hurts us inside as it tears at us, increases blood pressure, blocks rational thought, impacts memory and cognition, causes ulcers and other physical damage. It can also destroy relationships, or stunt them, or damage them in such a way that they cannot be mended. It can affect how we deal with other people.  People who are very angry carry chips on their shoulders that do not allow them to form positive relationships with others. Anger can prevent us from trusting or from risking deep caring. That is tragic.  The inability to forgive is a fatal human flaw.  It eats us from the inside and creates shell-people: people who cannot see the blessings around them, who no longer delight in the beauty of life, and who often spread more pain and damage to others.
     Anger is meant to be a gift: it lets us know that something is unjust and should be changed.  It is a strong emotion because it must be in order to motivate us to do the work of changing that which is oppressive, dis-empowering and unfair.  But there are things that cannot be changed.  Once the man in the story above had contracted AIDS, his anger could no longer help him. In recognizing that truth, he chose, then, to let the anger go.  That ability to discern when anger can help us to do what needs to be done, and when it is simply a destructive and poisonous emotion can be elusive, however. Moreover, even when people realize their anger is not serving them, the ability to walk through it, out the other side and into freedom from that kind of imprisoning rage is not always easily gained.  
     And there is the other side of this as well: the other people with whom we interact also may not have the gift of being able to forgive. When we love someone who cannot forgive us, we are called to a deeper level of forgiveness yet: one that requires us to both forgive ourselves for our piece in the damage to the relationship, and to forgive the other's inability to forgive: to let go of the relationship or what we had hoped or envisioned the relationship to be: to forgive into finding peace with the schism, with the rift. 
      What helps us to be able to do that?  Number one thing that I've found to help is meditation: centering down, spending time in quiet; praying, if that's what it is for you; listening, as it is for me. Intentional calming of the heart and mind helps me more than anything else. There are so many ways to do this: centering prayer, Tai Chi, Yoga, breathing meditations, guided meditations. But besides meditation there are other things that can help: long hikes or runs where one's heart rate is really increased and the muscles are truly working. Dancing does the same. Playing the piano, writing, creating poetry or art. Finding a hilarious movie or song or joke and just enjoying some intensive laughter.  Notice that none of these things actually focus on the anger itself. And yet they all help more than anything I know.  There are other things that do involve focusing on the anger: talking to a friend, talking to a counselor, journalling about the experience and the feelings.  If there is a way to address the problem directly, it is important to try, but I think calming down enough that the anger is not leading the conversation is crucial. As I said before, anger actually blocks our ability to think clearly.  So when we are reacting from anger, we often end up saying or doing even more unforgivable things. Calming down first is therefore essential.
      All of these help us in striving to forgive.  But underneath there are two other things that are essential:  Time, and a commitment to forgiveness. Time does not heal all wounds.  But it does help. And sometimes that time is the only thing that can move us from anger into peace.  But along with that there must be a commitment, a decision, an intention to forgive.  Without that, there is no chance, no hope for reconciliation, for healing, or for peace with that which can't be reconciled or healed.  
      I continue to work on this, both forgiving those who've hurt me, and letting go of the need for healing and reconciliation from those who cannot forgive me.  It is a process.  And time is with me.  I rest in the time, I let go in meditation, and I walk forward in the hope of a more forgiving existence for all of us.