“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”
― Oscar Wilde
It’s been a chaotic week for me of fear, memories, fire, grief, a couple of new friends and unfinished emotional business resulting in a foul snarl of neglected feelings. Also, in common with millions of others, we are sweltering under a heavy blanket of heat and humidity and I feel about as attractive as a slime mold.
My old home place, my old community in Colorado, is burning. I’m not there. I’m glad I’m not there.
I should be there. I hate myself for not being there.
I’ve written before about blessing the ground between us . Now my mind is filled with the ground I once lived on, and all I can see are the horrifying images of flames, smoke, and the ashy remains of structures and scorched land. I spend hours every day searching the web for updates from local command and incident centers, the local papers, TV and radio and residents who post pictures and videos. I watch interviews with old friends and weep. I see video clips of my town and it’s like a ghost town, the streets empty and everything looking sere and dry because of drought. Towers of smoke loom and the air is an eerie sullen color. This should be the height of the tourist season there, the streets busy, flowers growing, and shade trees green and cool.
Now there are tens of thousands of scorched acres between me and my memories of that place. I bless the ground between us. Given time and water, it will renew, but I think water is no longer a certainty and my lifetime will have run its course before the land recovers and the forests regrow. In a strange sort of way, the desolation of all that scorched earth echoes the desolation I feel as I watch nations, communities, and people become more divisive and competitive. It seems we’re getting more and more skilled all the time at scorching the ground between us, soaking it in blood and then sowing it with salt. We do not forgive differences. We carry hatred between peoples from one generation to the next, and many are at work in the world to increase the divisions by fanning the flames with rhetoric and disinformation, and pouring gasoline onto the fire in the form of resentment, ignorance, and fear.
We do not forgive. We are not forgiven.
Never have despair, powerlessness and fear seemed so darkly seductive to me as they do in these times. My experience is only an infinitesimal part of what’s happening now on Planet Earth, and I’m quite sure we have not yet descended as far as we’re going to. At times, it’s only by deliberately stoking my stubbornness and will and refusing to take my gaze away from where my power is that I continue to cling to faith in some kind of a cosmic balance and plan in spite of fear.
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about my family and dealing with some of the aforementioned unfinished business. I’ve written letters, both to the dead and to the living, some that have been sent and others that never will be. As I make new friends, I listen to what we talk about, watch how we get to know one another and feel the flowing give and take of compassion and support that healthy female friendships create.
“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”
― Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Over and over again, in all these places in my life, I stumble upon the theme forgiveness: The power of it; the terrible, helpless pain of feeling unforgiven; the weapon we make of it; the fear that we will not be — cannot be — forgiven for whatever our particular stain or shame is. I have lately asked myself and others: Am I unforgivable? Can that be true? Can love be true without forgiveness? How do I continue to demonstrate love and connection in the face of obdurate unforgiveness? When others told me I was unforgivable, did they mean it, or am I still bleeding over something they have, in fact, forgiven?
It struck me this morning, as I lay in bed at 6:00 a.m. with the rattling roar of the window air conditioner in my ears and the damp sheet over my sweaty body, that I’ve once again lost my way, been seduced by the false comfort of victimhood. I’ve been lost in the tangled maze of all those messy feelings and forgotten, temporarily, that the point is not what anyone else does about forgiveness. The point is, and the power resides in, what I do with it. Furthermore, the biggest question of all is the one I haven’t been asking.
Can I, do I, will I forgive myself?
That’s where my power is.
Can I forgive myself for living in this lovely green, lush, landscape where we do still have water? Can I forgive myself for reading the signs of what was to come in the long, unending drought and fires in my old place and leaving before I was forced out by climate change and fire? Can I forgive myself for the mother, daughter and sister I was and am? Can I forgive myself for loving, trusting, hoping, believing, trying, accommodating, pleasing and failing? Can I forgive myself for all the years of neglect, silencing and abuse I colluded with and perpetrated toward myself? Can I forgive myself for now recognizing and responding to my own feelings and needs first? Can I forgive myself for writing or speaking the simple truth?
Forgiveness is a slippery concept, like tolerance. I don’t think of forgiving as forgetting. I’d be foolish to forget what I’ve learned as I interact with others. I’ll cripple myself if I don’t forgive. For me, forgiveness is an integral part of loving. Forgetting is not. Nor do I equate forgiveness with trust. Trust can be lost and rebuilt, but it takes time. Trust depends on forgiveness, but forgiveness doesn’t necessarily include trust.
I’m not at all sure we can create a better world together without forgiveness. I’m quite sure we won’t forgive one another if we’re unable to forgive ourselves. As resources shrink, we’re going to be forced onto a more level playing field in terms of our standard of living. Some of us have a lot more to lose than others. The have-nots are filled with rage. The haves are filled with fear.
There will be a lot to learn in the years ahead. I might as well start now to work with forgiveness, to befriend it, to embrace it, and to talk about it. Forgiving and letting go are both easier for me to do externally than internally, but internal work is the one place where we all have equal power. That’s where it must begin. We’re going to need our power, and we’re going to need to manage it well in order to survive. When our houses, businesses, cars and stuff disappear in fire, storm and flood, when our arable land becomes too hot to grow food, when no water comes from the tap and when money no longer allows us to pretend it’s not all happening, then we will rediscover what true power is, and then perhaps we can begin to bless the ground between us, forgive what has come before, and find new ways to collaborate and cooperate with the living system we call Earth.
In the meantime, I think I’ll stop begging others for forgiveness and concentrate on the places where I have power. Others may think of me as unforgivable, but I needn’t agree, and no one can prevent me from forgiving another.
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
― Mahatma Gandhi, All Men are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections
My road to self-forgiveness may be long. It’s hard to take back the power of forgiveness, because now I have to be responsible for granting or withholding it. In some ways, it’s easier to beg others for it. If it’s not forthcoming from others, well, it’s not my fault. The path of self-forgiveness, though, is all up to me. It will be interesting to discover what sort of shame, guilt and self-loathing lurk in my internal terrain. It will be interesting to challenge the power of what others think and navigate by my own stars and compass. It will be interesting to put out fires on my side and observe whether others are invested in keeping them smoldering or assist in quenching them so the ground between us can heal.
Here’s a poem by Wendell Berry that maps the journey of self-forgiveness. It’s a good map. I’m taking it with me.
Do Not Be Ashamed
You will be walking some night
in the comfortable dark of your yard
and suddenly a great light will shine
round about you, and behind you
will be a wall you never saw before.
It will be clear to you suddenly
that you were about to escape,
and that you are guilty: you misread
the complex instructions, you are not
a member, you lost your card
or never had one. And you will know
that they have been there all along,
their eyes on your letters and books,
their hands in your pockets,
their ears wired to your bed.
Though you have done nothing shameful,
they will want you to be ashamed.
They will want you to kneel and weep
and say you should have been like them.
And once you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.
They will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach. Be ready.
When their light has picked you out
and their questions are asked, say to them:
“I am not ashamed.” A sure horizon
will come around you. The heron will begin
his evening flight from the hilltop.
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