How to forgive, even if you can’t forget

Is it possible to forgive and forget? While a few lucky people seem able to embrace the idea as part of their “live and let live” philosophy, most of us have a tendency to hold on to hurt. For us the question becomes how to transform the experience enough to allow forgiveness.

Forgiving and forgetting have been on my mind since reading two different books dealing with love and war. In “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Saxons and the Britons have been at peace with each other since the time of King Arthur – but the price of the peace has been a near-total erasure of their memories of the past. A spell was cast upon them, so they live almost entirely in the present, with only occasional fragments of memory appearing out of the mist. They have blessedly forgotten the massacres of their families during the war, but they have also nearly forgotten that they had children at all. To awake “the buried giant” means that memory will be restored and people will renew their quest for revenge.

The second book dealing with forgiveness and memory was “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The story involves two sisters who have had a falling-out because of an infidelity, and are barely speaking to each other. But when the Biafran war breaks out, they are driven together for support amid the chaos, uncertainty and death around them. The wronged sister says to her sibling, “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.” The larger wrongs have helped her put her personal pain in perspective so that she can forgive her sister.

Psychologist Charlotte VanOyen Witvliet says that the act of forgiving doesn’t mean we literally forget what happened. Instead, “Forgiveness involves remembering graciously. The forgiver remembers the true though painful parts, but without the embellishment of angry adjectives and adverbs that stir up contempt.” Remembering graciously may mean re-telling the story of the painful event. If we strip the story of the angry words, what are we left with?

The message of “The Buried Giant” was that remembering graciously is impossible, that reconciliation is not an option, whereas “Half of a Yellow Sun” held it out as a possibility. In writing about reconciliation, Thich Nhat Hanh says that you must “begin to see that your enemy is suffering,” and while we sometimes “need indignation in order to act…the world does not lack people willing to throw themselves into action. What we need are people who are capable of loving…”IMG_2325

Forgiveness holds significant benefits for the person who extends it. When we let go of the angry narrative and negative emotions, blood pressure drops, the immune system gets a boost and we have fewer circulating stress hormones. Forgiveness heals us from the emotional pain that attaches itself to the constant replaying of a painful event. If you can stop the loop and retell the story, you don’t need to have your memory wiped clean in order to come to terms with the pain of the past. But that doesn’t mean forgiveness is easy either.

WebMD has some useful strategies for cultivating forgiveness, including practicing gratitude, using meditation and breathing to quell anger, and cognitive reframing (retelling the story). But they also make it clear that the first step in forgiveness is giving up the desire for revenge, and sometimes that is as far as someone can go. If one is able to move on from there, emotional forgiveness involves replacing emotions like anger, hatred, resentment and bitterness with empathy, compassion and love. Forgiveness becomes something that we have to commit to and maintain on a daily basis, much like sobriety.

Ultimately, emotional forgiveness means that you can begin to “see” the story of the person who hurt you. To do that it’s useful to remember one of my favorite quotes from Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”

Who would I be without my sisters?

At the end of each semester, I receive a packet of narrative comments that my students have submitted as part of the course evaluation. Leery as I sometimes am about reading them, they provide an opportunity to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and how I can improve the course. One of the things that my students most appreciate is the opportunity to heal through writing, and easily the most valuable assignment to them is the letter of gratitude that I ask them to write. The gratitude letter doesn’t just say “thank you,” it is a full acknowledgement of what someone has done for you and an appreciation of what that gift means.

But while assigning the gratitude letter to my students year after year, I have only rarely written one myself. Reading their comments recently made me realize that I have a group of people to whom I owe tremendous gratitude:

To my sisters:

Thank you for being my first friends, for teaching me about loyalty, the importance of relationships, and how to care for others. With you, I never felt alone – someone was always a step ahead and a step behind, protecting me. Being with you was like being in a private club with its own secrets and rituals. I think that’s why I hated camp, dropped out of Girl Scouts and never wanted to live in a dorm. My sisters were, for the longest time, the only group I needed to be part of. Remember how, no matter how old we were, Dad always referred to us collectively as “you girls”?

Thank you for teaching me how to share, no matter how reluctantly. Thank you for giving me the freedom to be myself. I know I can still be my most authentic when I am with you. Yes, we judge, doubt and second-guess each other sometimes, but we also accept each other, no matter how many flaws. We have learned through each other’s mistakes, and we have made mistakes together.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABrenda Shaughnessy has a poem called “Why I Wish I Had More Sisters”, where she writes, “I wish I had more sisters, enough to fight with and still have plenty more to confess to.” Over the years, we have fought and we have confessed; in fact we have experienced a full range of human emotion. When I was cruel to one of you, I learned shame. When one of you was cruel to me, I learned forgiveness. We have carried anger, jealousy and resentment with us at times, but also love, kindness and compassion.

I am never at a loss for conversation when I am with you. We can laugh and cry, celebrate and grieve, in equal measure. Shaughnessy writes, “None of us would be forced to be stronger than we could be.” We have proven this to be true over and over again, as we have gone through difficult times together. When one of is hurting, there is someone to hold her up. We don’t always understand each other, but we never give up on each other.

Finally, thank you for making my husband part of the family, for loving him and our children almost as much as your own. We are stronger as a family because of the support and safe space you have provided. There is a synergy to love that is shared.

You continue to inspire me, to be my collective North Star. You are smart, dedicated, curious, funny and accomplished women. You keep me honest, you force me to grow, and I love you for it. I don’t wish I had more sisters – I realize I have just enough.

 

In the full moon’s reflection

Like it or not, we are formed by all of life’s experiences. Sometimes our faces or bodies hold the story; other times it stays hidden in the recesses of our hearts. But how often do we stop to feel gratitude for the bad experiences, the things that “don’t kill us, but make us stronger”? The full story of a life contains all that can be held of both past and present. So when the moon is at its fullest, it’s a fitting time to celebrate everything and everyone who helped us get to where we are, says yoga teacher Jo Tastula.

Tastula’s full moon yoga practice inspired me to explore the abundance of my existence. The poses are expansive and opening, sweeping in the totality of what I have observed, encountered, undergone or remembered. To celebrate our fullness, she says, we must include everything and exclude nothing. That means that all of the pain, the missteps, the bad judgments and embarrassments must be a part of the whole. We cannot selectively acknowledge just the joyful moments, successes and correct decisions that have made up our lives.image

Whenever I even remotely start to regret some of my youthful mistakes, I remind myself that I would never have met my husband if I had done things much differently. We were from opposite ends of the country, living in dissimilar circumstances, at very different places in our lives, when we met by chance in a foreign country. We really only had one chance to meet. The song “On My Way to You” beautifully expresses the idea that even the crooked roads we’ve traveled contribute to the goodness of life:

I relive the roles I’ve played

The tears I may have squandered

The many pipers I have paid

Along the roads I’ve wandered

Yet all the time I knew it

Love was somewhere out there waiting

Though I may regret a kiss or two

If I had changed a single day

What went amiss or went astray

I may have never found my way to you

The falls along the road help us find our way. Hardship and hassles round us out, hone our appreciation for the good times, teach us patience and tolerance, make us smarter and more interesting. So when we practice gratitude, why not give thanks for them too?

This week, for example, I had a lovely visit with my sister, read a good book, enjoyed phone calls with my kids, and did some meaningful volunteer work, all of which I loved. But I also got bug bites all over my body, had to deal with some issues in my house, and was screamed at by two separate people who didn’t like the bumper sticker on my car. Much as I might like to exclude those negative experiences,  I can’t. They are part of the whole picture of my week.

The full moon is visible to us when it is completely illuminated by the sun, as seen from Earth. It is something we perceive only because of the light shining on it. The full moon gives us the opportunity to illuminate all the nooks and crannies of our lives, to take a look at what’s in there that we’ve tried to hide, and to be grateful for our capacity to hold it all.

 

Thanks for…well, everything

Even on a bad day, I try to remain grateful. And the thing that I am most grateful for is opportunity. It is opportunity that’s given me the education to get the job that puts me in the traffic that frustrates me. It is opportunity that led to success that bought the house where things break down. It is opportunity that widens my experience so that I go to the concert that disappoints me. So I accept the bad with the good, just grateful that I have choices. thanks

Acknowledging all the good that I have immediately puts life in a different, more favorable perspective. Maybe that’s why having a day devoted to giving thanks is so appealing to everyone. For one day, we put aside our worries, and sometimes our differences, to come together in appreciation, and see things in a positive light.

Here are a few of the other things I give thanks for this year:

Gardens; the gift of friendship; goodness;  grace; room to grow.

Insight; ideas; my ipad; my in-laws; interesting conversations.

Visitors; vacations; Vinyasa yoga; the view from my window.

Eating with friends; the feeling of empathy; my eighty-something mother; having enough.

Time for the things that bring me joy; traditions, old and new;  the taste of good food; the touch of a loved one.

Happiness; good health; a helping hand; my husband.

Acceptance of differences; fresh fall apples; ancestors; the aroma of pie.Thanksgiving_16

Nature; new friends; naps; physical and spiritual nourishment; my neighbors.

Kindness; kisses; my wonderful kids; knowledge; holding a koala.Brisbane_122

Stories; my sisters; the sight of a sunrise; solitude when I need it; stars in the night sky; songs, especially when my daughter sings them.

Tecumseh said, “When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”

Thank you for reading!

Time flies, but it’s a lovely ride

Every time I have to wash and dry my hair, I think, “This again, already?” Each week when we put out the trash, I ask, “How can it be Friday again, so soon?” Paying the phone bill always makes me think, “How can a month have passed so quickly?” And whenever I celebrate a birthday, I wonder, “Where did the year go?”

Mundane tasks and rituals can be comforting because they provide order to our days and a sense that some things do not change, but they can also be disturbing because they remind us that life seems to be inexorably speeding past, with nothing to slow it down. The fear that time is slipping away, combined with the tediousness of some of our days is enough to bring anyone down.

But, as James Taylor reminds us:

“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time

Any fool can do it

There ain’t nothing to it….

It’s just a lovely ride.”

Maybe the secret to enjoying the passage of time is to bring more mindfulness to the chores and more awareness to the celebrations. Can I up my level of engagement? Paying closer attention might imbue activities with more of the pleasure that James Taylor sings about so beautifully.

For instance, my first act upon waking is to start making coffee. But I usually do it by rote, not stopping to appreciate the smell of the coffee or the clarity of the water going into the pot. Though my attention snaps back when I take my first sip, my challenge is to bring awareness to the entire process. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” wrote T.S. Eliot. If this is literally true of my life, shouldn’t I at least smell the coffee?

Jon Kabat-Zinn says that, “If we are to grasp the reality of our life while we have it, we will need to wake up to our moments. Otherwise, whole days, even a whole life, could slip past unnoticed.” In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, he has a wonderful entry called “Cleaning the stove while listening to Bobby McFerrin,” about using the process of cleaning the stove as a mindfulness practice, and the accompanying music as a way to engage the whole body in the task. It is a good lesson for me to remember when I reluctantly approach the job of drying my hair – can I engage both my mind and body while doing it, can I be more fully aware of the transition from wet to dry?

So maybe you’re saying “Sure, I zone out when I’m doing boring jobs, but I always pay attention when it’s something important like lunch with my mom, or playing a game with my kids.” Really? Kabat-Zinn suggests that one way to wake up “is to look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them. Sometimes our thoughts act like dream glasses…Without knowing it, we are coloring everything, putting our spin on it all.” Am I fully IMG2present at the birthday party, soaking it in with all my senses, or just going through the motions of enjoyment while planning the story I will tell about it later?

As I write this, it strikes me that everyday mindfulness can’t help but be connected to a sense of gratitude. How can I smell the coffee beans or acknowledge the clean water that goes into making the coffee without being grateful that I have both those things available to me? How can I pay my bills every month without gratitude that I have the money to pay them? How can I observe my birthday, and those of others, without giving thanks that we’re all here together to celebrate? Yes, time flies, but the ride is lovely even when it’s fast.

 

Don’t just be thankful – say it!

I’ll never forget the boss I once had who told me that he preferred to have employees who didn’t need to be praised. That’s right – he didn’t ever want to say “Good job!” The only positive feedback I ever received from him came after I had organized a huge (and successful) event for major clients. He said quietly, “That went well.”

Needless to say, that job was not a highlight of my life. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I needed a pep talk every day, or wanted to be told how great I was all the time. It’s just that it helps to know that people appreciate you and believe in you.

It turns out that my boss’ managerial style was not in the best interests of the business either. Some recent research reported on Inc.com shows a strong correlation between employee recognition and good business results. Companies that place importance on recognizing and rewarding their employees measure significantly better in productivity, employee engagement and customer service. The most successful companies tie employee recognition to the organization’s values, and also make sure that people are acknowledged by their peers as wells as their superiors.

I’m sure there are workers who don’t need or want to be praised, publicly or privately; but words of gratitude, a simple thank-you, can never be wrong. Expressions of gratitude can be powerful for their giver and their recipient, as well as the people around them. Just because you were doing your job doesn’t mean gratitude is out of order.

Writing a letter of gratitude to a previously unrecognized benefactor is an assignment I give my stress management students each semester. I can’t take credit for the idea; I got it from Martin Seligman. (Thank you, Dr. Seligman!) For most students, this is a deeply meaningful exercise; many write letters of appreciation to former teachers, parents, coaches and friends. Some write to public figures who have influenced them. For everyone, the letter is an opportunity to say “thank you”, either for the first time, or in a more formal way than they ever have before.

There is a great deal of research around the health benefits of practicing gratitude, much of it by Robert Emmons at U.C. Davis. But the rewards go beyond physical health. For some people, practicing gratitude means they are more likely to be making progress on achieving their personal goals; for others, daily gratitude practice leads to increases in energy, enthusiasm and attentiveness; and for children, thinking gratefully leads to more positive attitudes about school.

If you are curious about how the practice of gratitude might improve your life, you can be a part of a new project spearheaded by U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Davis. “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” is a 3-year, $5.6 million endeavor that includes as one component,  an interactive, on-line gratitude journal. At the website Thnx4.org, you can register and start keeping a 2-week journal, which will be shared with others on the site and become part of the larger research project.

In the meantime, perhaps we can all expand our practice of gratitude on Thanksgiving Day. In addition to expressing thanks for our food, our many blessings and our families, maybe we can each take a moment to remember and thank someone who helped set us on the right path, or was there for us at a crucial time, or just showed kindness when we needed it most.

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” — Albert Schweitzer