"Of course, you may" his master replied, "knowledge comes to those who seek it."
Respectfully his disciple said, "yesterday I saw you break one of our most sacred vows when you picked up that young girl and carried her across the stream. How could you do such a thing?"
His master replied, "That is true, and you are right it is something I should not have done, but you are as guilty as I am."
"How so?" asked his disciple, "For it was you who carried her across the stream, not I."
"I know," replied his master, "but on the other side I put her down. You, however, are obviously still carrying her."
I shared that story in my sermon on Sunday. I share it again because it has been a story that I have been carrying in my heart and mind for the last few weeks as I've been struggling to put some things down. As I said on Sunday, the feelings we carry are calling us to pay attention. We are called to walk through, not around, those feelings, memories, and experiences to work them through. But, as I also said on Sunday, there are other things that haunt us that we cannot do anything about. Those things usually involve the behaviors of other people. There still may be some inner work that needs to be done around those experiences. But when we carry anger, hate, thoughts of revenge, or even just pain because of memories of things other people have done to us, we are continuing to carry a burden that is only injuring us with its weight and pain.
I write this from a place of struggling to let certain things go. But I have found myself reflecting on this story often as I have strived to put down those people I am carrying whose weight is simply hurting me. I think about the man we met in Canada who was simply attacking and unkind. I am certain that was just his MO. He has probably never given us one thought since he was hurtful towards us. But I have continued to carry him, as I've found myself remembering, trying to imagine how I might have better answered his comments, how I might have stood up for myself, how I might have been stronger in the face of his attack. He was mean for a minute. But I have continued to carry him for weeks, and in doing so, I have allowed him to do so much more damage. I have given him power over me, a power to harm, that goes beyond even what the meanest person might intend.
Likewise I often have a hard time putting down anonymous, unkind comments on social media. Anonymity allows the writers to be much more mean-spirited than they would be if there was any accountability. But these are just people saying stuff because they can. I should not carry them farther than that. Yet I do. I have a hard time putting them down, as it were, on the other side of reading through them.
I wonder why these things affect me so much. My family went through a huge public humiliation and many have told me that since I came through that storm of judgment and condemnation, I must now be stronger and more able to handle judgments and criticism. But in fact the opposite is true. These comments affect me much more than they used to. For me, my reaction to their comments feels more like what Yann Martel wrote in The Life of Pi, "When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling." (2001. Knopf Canada: Canada).
I have the awareness that the anonymous words, these unkindnesses are trifling. I have the objectivity to understand that any comment reflects so much more on the speaker/writer than on the recipient of those comments. I am aware of how little and unimportant these attacks on others are. I can have pity and sometimes compassion for those who waste their time in anger at strangers, in spite towards people they don't know and will never understand. And at the same time, those unkindnesses are unbearable to me. They mark for me another indication that there is a subgroup of humanity that is cruel and thoughtless, that many are so filled with anger that kindnesses do not pass their lips, or infuse their beings. It hurts my heart to know this. At a personal level, I feel others' barbs as physical thorns poking into an already bruised and sore skin. And in that way, too, it feels unbearable.
After writing the above, I found an article that discussed a gene that some people have that simply makes them more sensitive to pain, both emotionally and physically. It was helpful to read that some people are just built in a way that makes us much more sensitive, but it also caused me to think about others I know who also struggle to let go of pain. One of my children is extremely sensitive in this way. But I like this about them. I value this in others, that caring and awareness and sensitivity. It doesn't feel good to my child. But I love that their heart is open, compassionate, and kind.
Of course, there are several lessons here. The first, obviously, is that it is becoming clearer to me that social media is not a good place for me to spend time. Publishing things in places where strangers can make nasty comments is not healthy for the person that I am. I wish I were someone who was not affected in this way, but I am. I am a person who is injured by these things, so choosing intentionally to not put myself in those situations where harm is the norm rather than the exception is a wise choice.
Second, I continue to work on the images of putting down the girl on the far side of the river, of no longer needing to carry a burden that is not mine.
Third, it calls me to continue to be more careful and thoughtful with my own words, to seek to avoid being another barb or thorn for someone else.
Fourth, the article I read about sensitive people emphasized (again) that aerobic exercise is a helpful way to boost one's ability to cope with pain. (Interestingly the author also said that laughter and chocolate are helpful. Imagine that?)
And finally, it reminds me again that forgiveness is for ourselves: we are called to wipe clean the slates of others so that we are not carrying them in our hearts. I strive to forgive myself in this as well. Not easy, and still, what we are called to do.