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Walking the Path of Forgiveness
By Kent Nerburn
New World LibraryCopyright © 2000 Kent Nerburn
All rights reserved.
More Than I Had Hoped, Less Than I Had Dreamed
He who has faults is forgiven. Tao Te Ching
That which I am, I would not; that which I would, I do not. St. Paul, Romans 7:13.
Forgiving ourselves is the wellspring of all true forgiveness. It is the deep work of the heart that allows us to grow toward the light instead of struggling constantly with the darkness. Yet, it is also one of the most difficult tasks we face, because we very often are unaware of the thorns and brambles that hold our heart captive.
But what does this really mean? Let me tell you a story.
When I was a child, my father served as the director of disaster services for the local chapter of the American Red Cross. His job was to provide food and clothing to those whose lives had been ravaged by fires, tornadoes, floods, and those events insurance companies darkly call "acts of God."
It was a job with no politics and no agenda. The same radio calls that alerted the police and fire departments alerted my father. The same sense of immediacy was at the heart of his mission. He arrived at the scenes of death and destruction almost simultaneously with those whose job it was to quell the flames, stanch the flow of blood, fight back the waters, pick up the pieces.
And from an early time in my life, I went with him. Late at night, from deep in my sleep, I would hear the distant sound of a ringing telephone, and soon I would see the light in the hallway come on. My father would open my door a crack and say, "There's a four alarm on the northside." He never asked me if I wanted to come along, but we both knew what he meant.
Often I was too tired, or simply disinterested. But usually I forced myself to get out of bed and tag along. I wanted him to be proud of me, and I wanted to be with him, though often we would barely speak as we made our way through the empty, late-night city streets. My eyes would be heavy, and I would be tempted to sleep. But the sense of anticipation, the curiosity about what we would confront, kept me awake. Usually, my father would give me small tasks, like writing down the time of the phone call or making sure his clipboard contained the correct forms and disbursing orders. I would struggle with the bumps and bounces of the speeding car as I tried to mimic the almost uncanny neatness of his script. And when we arrived, I would walk around carrying his clipboard or some other bit of equipment, trying to seem important and involved.
Often we would arrive to find a smoldering pile of rubble. The family would already have gone to stay with relatives, and all that was left was the acrid smell of wet ash and smoke, and the weary banter of exhausted firemen as they wound up hoses and departed for the firehouse to grab a few hours sleep before the next alarm.
But other times we would walk into a cataclysm of human suffering. A plane crash where a small body was carried past on a stretcher with one charred and almost unrecognizable foot sticking out from under the sheet; a fire in a tenement where an old woman sat next to me sobbing and begging the beleaguered firemen to go back into the burning building to save her seventeen year-old cat, her only friend and companion in the world — these are the memories that filled my nights.
It is hard to explain the disorientation that took place in my heart as I followed my father's footsteps. I would go to bed in a warm and protected house, then, in the middle of the night, be yanked from my sleep and transported to some scene of unspeakable tragedy, then wake the next morning back in the comfortable bed I had snuggled into the night before.
Was it all a dream? Did it really happen? My mind told me it did — the images of emergency lights and sirens and flames rising a hundred feet into the sky were burned like scars into my memory. But the smell of breakfast cooking downstairs and the bustlings of two little sisters getting ready for school made it all seem distant, inconceivable. It was almost too much for my young spirit to fathom.
Year after year this strange emotional bifurcation was a central part of my life. By day, I was a young boy, worried about my complexion, whether I would make the basketball team, or if some girl liked me. By night I was intimate witness to all manner of human tragedy and suffering.
On first consideration, this breadth of experience would seem to have been beneficial to my development. It increased my sense of compassion and social responsibility, and made me aware of the small and protected world in which most of us live our lives.
But underneath, deep in my spirit, something else was going on. Slowly, inexorably, I was developing a kind of self-loathing that was running to the very core of my being. How could I possibly be concerned with my own happiness when all around me people were dying, losing loved ones, and having their lives shattered by the most horrifying and disastrous events?
How could I possibly think it was important whether my hair looked good when the night before I had seen the bloated body of a boy my age pulled from a lake skewered on the end of a grappling hook?
The legitimacy of my entire notion of self was being called into question. Even the most humble and natural aspirations I had for myself: love, family, any dream of achievement, became to me symptoms of self-absorption and my own spiritual deficiency.
Without knowing it, I became a monk in my heart. I would go out every evening after supper and walk for hours with only my old dog for companionship. Fields, darkened golf courses, marshes, became my monastery. I would wander alone through the night, wrestling with the demons of adolescence and trying to fight off my desperate yearnings for love and comfort.
Gradually, on those evening walks, I evolved an entire philosophy of spiritual asceticism on which to base my life. I came to believe that the only way to truly enter another's feelings was to have no attachments or desires of my own. In that way I could become transparent to the circumstances of others. I could enter their emotional reality without the intrusion of my own desires and good fortune.
It made sense. If I had no emotional home where I could feel warm and protected, I wouldn't be able to retreat there, in my own spirit, when I confronted the sadness and tragedy of another person with no home. If I had no self to protect, I could empathize completely with another's pain and suffering.
I was a shaman of the spirit, emptying myself so that I could take the pain and suffering of another into me, so that they might not be alone in their moment of tragedy.
Unfortunately, unlike the real shaman, I had no way to spit out the poison of that tragedy. It lodged inside of me and filled me with shame for every happiness or desire I experienced.
It wasn't until years later that the simplest realization came to me. I was sitting alone in a cafe watching a couple at another table. They were in the full blush of fresh love, leaning close to each other, touching each other's hair, looking longingly into each other's eyes. My heart ached for what they had, but I steeled myself against my own desires, and comforted myself with the thought that my heart was better able to feel the emotions of others because I was free of the limited and self-referential warmth of a private and personal love.
As I got up to leave, and cast one final glance at the couple, I was struck by something that I should have realized years before. Their emotional reality was every bit as real as that of those suffering in the world, yet I was not trying to enter their reality; instead, I was demeaning it and defending against it.
In that instant I had this overwhelming realization that my self-abnegation and denial did not allow me to embrace and enter into the happiness and joys of others, but only into their loneliness and suffering. Unconsciously, and very likely as a response to the traumatic events that had unfolded before me as a child, I had convinced myself that happiness was transience and illusion, an unworthy aspiration for anyone seeking meaningful spiritual growth. Sadness and tragedy were, for me, the baseline human reality — the undeniable truth that lay beneath each moment of brightness and light. The great ascetic edifice I was building was really a philosophical house of cards that kept me from accepting and embracing any of my own desire for warmth and happiness.
I'm sure I could have taken this hard-won vehicle of self-denial and fine-tuned it into a lifelong pursuit of an ascetic ideal. But, at heart, I didn't want that for myself. I wanted home, I wanted family, I wanted love. I wanted all the messy clutter of human reality. The calm clarity of emotional disengagement was not the spiritual path I truly wanted to travel.
I have now spent the better part of my adult life working through this issue, and I am gradually allowing myself to seek happiness and satisfaction in my own life. I am still too quick to see the darkness, too willing to see the good in the world as illusion and to look upon moments of peace and tranquility as small islands of respite in a sea of tragedy. But I now know this about myself, and I can guard against it.
I now look back in wonder at all the pain I caused myself and others as I constructed this artful self-justification around my worldview and actions. I was convinced it was not only legitimate, but noble. But behind it lay a heart that could not forgive itself.
Most of us have some corner where we cannot forgive ourselves. Sometimes it is obvious: the mother who leaves her child unattended for a moment and the child wanders into the street and a terrible death, the son who refuses to speak to his parents for years and realizes his errors only after they are gone.
But sometimes it is more subtle, and well buttressed with explanations and rationalizations: The abortion was necessary because we had neither the financial nor the emotional resources to bring another child into the world. The divorce was the only way to free two hearts from a destructive downward spiral. The harsh words we said to our children were for their own good. The time we spent at our job rather than with our family was necessary to provide them with the quality of life they deserved.
Perhaps our decisions were right, or necessary, or inevitable. Perhaps they were capricious and unwarranted. But we made them, and they are now and forever part of our lives. Still, our hearts ache for the choices made or denied, and we bury that ache beneath a blanket of guilt or high-minded justifications.
We need to find the hidden corners of our lives where we have not forgiven ourselves — for who we are, for who we are not. And it is not always easy. Sometimes we have to dig through tragic emotional wreckage. Sometimes we have to rip open scars we think have long been healed. Sometimes we have to tear down beautifully crafted psychological edifices. But to live with a pure heart and open spirit, we must have the courage to face these challenges.
Human beings are strange and miraculous creations. From our first moment on earth we are hurtling toward uniqueness and individuation. We revel in that uniqueness, find our identity in that individuation. But this sense of our own uniqueness and singularity comes at a price. For, with every door of understanding that is opened by the circumstances or choices of our lives, a wealth of others are closed. The child surrounded by joy does not learn the same world as the child surrounded with sadness. The child filled with fear does not discover the same world as the child filled with curiosity. I didn't know the same world as a child whose father went out every day to officiate at weddings, or the same world as the child with no father present at all. Every nuance of character and circumstance shuts out possibility even as it reveals the world in growing clarity and fullness. We become who we are at the expense of who we are not.
Emotionally healthy people accept this individuation with a sense of humility. They know that we are children of chance, and that we must develop our lives and give thanks for the miracle of life as it has been handed to us. They celebrate their uniqueness — with all its possibilities and limitations — build upon it, and use it as a way to contribute to the rich tapestry of humanity.
Emotionally unhealthy people, on the other hand, do not so readily give thanks for the shape life takes. They turn against themselves, refusing to embrace who they are, and go through life with the sense that their world is not enough. They are not rich enough, they are not smart enough, they are not pretty enough; they haven't gotten the right chances, the breaks have all gone someone else's way. Quick to see any deficiency in their own situation, they are slow to celebrate the gifts life has given them. The miracle of their uniqueness becomes instead the prison of their limitations. They define themselves by what they are not.
Most of us, however, lie somewhere in between. We're reasonably happy with our lives, but look with longing at the road not taken. We retain a lifelong ambivalence about who we are, and never fully grasp the potential that our unique life experiences offer us. We see the smallness of our lives, not the greatness of our gifts, and feel deficient in relation to those we hold as models of success and accomplishment.
We must learn to resist this. Until we can embrace our lives wholeheartedly, aware of our limitations and committed to making the most of our unique circumstances and gifts, we have not fully accepted ourselves for the people we are, or fully forgiven ourselves for the people we are not.
I will never be Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi, or even the gentle, soft-spoken man down the street. I will never be as hardworking as my father. I will never be a mountain climber or a buddha or someone who bikes across the United States. I will never be a saint.
But I will always be a good listener, a faithful friend, a person whose word can be trusted. I will always stand by the weak and protect the innocent. But I will also be a person filled with righteous indignation at the injustices in the universe, a person prone to deep solitudes and possessed of a dark cast of spirit and perhaps overly aware that tragedy can strike in the middle of the night.
In short, I will be a person like everybody else — a unique and fallible human being, possessed of conflicting and sometimes contradictory characteristics, whose life is full of moments of brightness and moments of dark impenetrable shadow; a person at once more than I had hoped but less than I had dreamed.
I must learn to accept this person and to embrace him. I must learn to look at the unique constellation of skills and attributes I have, the strange character twists and quirks I've developed, the quality of my own passions and the subtlety of my own deceptions. I must learn to acknowledge my fears, respect my own dreams, and measure them only against the simple standard of how they help make this a better world for the people around me and the generations that come after me.
If I am able to do this, I will not try to be what I am not, but I will try to make the most of what I am. And, in doing this, I will forgive myself for all the possibilities that didn't take flower in me, and will honor them whenever I see them present in others.
This is the first and most necessary step upon the path of forgiveness. If I am not accepting of myself, all that is good in others will either be a mirror of my own deficiencies, or a cause of envy, or a way of life against which I must protect myself with cynicism or contempt.
Life cannot be lived this way. It is too short, too precious, too important. There are children out there who need my help; there is a family that relies on me for love. There are people I meet on the street and in chance encounters whose lives can be either better or worse for the moment's contact we share.
I must measure myself in these moments, not in some abstract valuation of my own spiritual accomplishments or against the accomplishments of others. I am who I am, and I must honor the vision of life I have been given. If that vision shuts out other people, I must work to change it. If it allows me to give and to open myself to others, I must foster it.
We are, to the best of our knowledge, given only one go-round on this earth. We are thrown together with a group of strangers who share our passage through time, and, together, we leave as a generation and become, both literally and figuratively, the soil on which future generations walk.
It is our responsibility, both singly and together, to prepare this earth for those who follow. The moments we confront in our lives will never be confronted by anyone else. The encounters we have are unique in this universe. All that we can do is meet the moments we have been granted with a humble and caring heart, and share the gifts we have been given with those whose lives brush against ours.
In this way — in this active claiming of our own fallible self, and shaping it for a life of service — we open our hearts to the possibility of forgiveness. Rather than railing against our deficiencies, or constructing justifications for them, we see them as part of our unique life and circumstances, and look for the moment when the unique person we are is needed, and offer ourselves in service, humbly, and like a prayer.
Excerpted from Calm Surrender by Kent Nerburn. Copyright © 2000 Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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