Post script. I am twenty-five a little longer than usual. The same will happen when I am twenty nine. The sun’s setting on my current age and it feels as though it went so fast. They say time only speeds up as you age…
This occurred to me when I realized that my life reads like a novel, with parallel story lines, symbolism and foreshadowing. Stories seem to repeat themselves around me. Granted, human experiences are not that diverse. We often make the same mistakes and have the same successes. Similar things bring joys and sorrows; we truly are in an interdependent web. I find myself lost when the plot of my life goes onto new territory. A grudge was not new territory, if the story surrounding its inception was.
I can write about grudges in vague terms because while the origin of one is kind of a crazy, ugly story, and the origin of another a trite and banal one, the broader elements are the same. I am writing about a particular situation, but this grudge was just like all the other ones I have had.
Awhile ago, I was corresponding with a former acquaintance via email. He was describing some bad blood he had with a close family member. This was someone who repeatedly had tried to reach out to him, but he always pushed them away. He was hurt and angry with this person for a lot of reasons, and could not, did not want to, or even saw the use in forgiving them. It seemed like it was really eating away at him, and having a harmful effect on his life in other ways. I argued that he should just let it go.
I wrote, among other things,
My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. (I probed for the meaning, because I felt his phrasing was confusing. Essentially, he was arguing that if hate will eat him alive, then he would rather facilitate this than let the grudge go.)
His active resistance stunned me. On some levels, I should not have been so surprised: it is foolish to presume a world view that makes so much sense to me would be shared by others. Particularly considering that his view of the world was notoriously different than mine, and his ways of being and functioning in it were also quite dissimilar to me. The same could be said for anyone else: we are coming from different places. Even so, I remember feeling shocked that someone could, and would even want to, continue to hold onto something that was (so obviously, it seemed) causing them harm.
In my mind’s eye, he was tightly clutching ninja-stars, the sharp edges continually and deeply cutting into his hands. The defense he had developed in response to the initial wound was injuring him further. Dropping them, it seemed, would be the only way to allow healing to start. He did not see it this way. This was a part of him, the pain was a part of him. Why let that go?
Cue the irony…
He would become the person that I begrudged. In the interest of repeating story lines, we, like he and his family member, are not speaking. Perhaps the silence is for the best with his family. It certainly was, and is, for me. I suspect it is for him.
All grudges are the same. They involve expectations unmet. Maybe the expectation was help, trust, non-harming, showing up to a birthday party, recognition, keeping your city/product safe, not hurting a loved one or keeping in contact with your mother. The details do not matter for this discussion. I had an expectation. Several, in fact. The important ones were unmet.
I felt so justified in my anger. Maybe I was. Maybe I was not. A grudge’s existence is not necessarily based on any objective reality, just the emotional logic of the bearer. I do not think that any justification or lack thereof matters much these days. It is not my reasoning which is on trial here. The point is that my bitterness did not alter anything about the grudge’s origin. My indignation will not change the past.
“Hate is drinking poison, expecting the other person to die.”
There I was, clenching the ninja-stars in my fists, feeling them cutting into my flesh, but afraid to let go. It felt like this grudge was protecting me somehow, like I thought these weapons that were doing me quite a bit of harm were necessary for my safety. Protecting me from going back, protecting me from inviting further harm from these unmet expectations and the harm done to my loved ones. Meanwhile, this grudge was devouring me and digesting me ever so slowly. I cannot say I did not know better: I had given the advice I was struggling so much to take!
A book I read suggested that if you cannot forgive a person, or let go of a grudge, then release them and it to God. Thanks, self-help book. Now I need to go find God. I settled on my faith instead, and sought out some wisdom. Rev. Nate Walker refers to clutching an “ever fashionable grudge bag” in his argument of Unitarian Universalism’s need to be a saving faith through an innovative morality. OK. Lynn Cox refers to forgiveness as “The Final Form of Love”. If you are bitter, you are not really interested in love, but she makes some good points -
“Forgiveness does not mean allowing a harmful situation to continue. Forgiveness does not mean pretending that an act caused less harm than it actually did. Forgiveness does not mean continuing a relationship as if a harmful incident never happened. Relationships continue, but they are changed in the process of hurting and healing.”
In my case, the relationship “change” became “termination”. Rev. Cox goes on to argue that’s not the way to go. That throwing someone back to the universe means I am denying their humanity. Um, no. I can owe up to our human commonalities, which there were many, including my heavy contribution to fault, and decide that coexisting in the world without contact is the best for everyone. I can apologize (as I did), I can forgive (as I have been trying) and still need to keep my distance if that is what is best for me and my family. So when Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland argued that, ”Forgiveness need not result in reconciliation in which the relationship is restored,” I nodded my head.
Rev. Loadman-Copeland paraphrases Marilynne Robinson’s quote that understanding is a form of forgiveness. This makes sense, considering so many things are the result of misunderstanding. I was in a place where I knew this person well enough to get it – to give him very charitable interpretations of his actions, and I was privy to a lot of his pain. We were close. So, I can say that everything makes sense. Understanding made it more painful. Understanding does not undo the damage done.
It took me awhile to realize that the “making sense” on the path to forgiveness was a reliance on logic. Forgiveness is not a rational act. It is something you do for your health, your sanity, for the sake of the world, not because you “should” or are obligated to.
Slowly, my grip on my ninja-star-like grudge relaxed. I had help. My husband is a saint. My friends and family are loving, understanding, grace-giving people. Will and I moved to Seattle. We acquired new, more pressing problems, ever-more unrelated to this one as time passed. We learned to cope with them. We acquired new friends, new experiences, and dare I say it? New frustrations and new ways of being wronged. Fortunately, these are easier ones to forgive. Some problems got solved. Others felt more tolerable. Time went on, and it became clear that life does too. My heart began to acknowledge what my mind already knew: my white-knuckle grip on the past bleeds on my otherwise fine present. Being present became easier. I am starting to find my old self again, the one who is spiritually unencumbered and the one that feels effective and happy.
There is another piece to this, too big to fully describe here: self-forgiveness. I have a lot of culpability, and thinking of my contributions to it is painful. I described this to a Christian writer that I admire, who replied with, “Don’t you know that you have been forgiven?” She was referring to the grace of Jesus Christ. She could have been talking about the people in my life. My husband, friends, family, and so forth. Like usual, they are better people than me. My inability to forgive myself for my role has served as extra knots in rope tying this grudge against the other to me. The struggle to extend that human compassion to this other person has also been a fight to give some to myself, and my own high standards. I wonder if this is a piece of all grudges, a piece of self-blame towards one self for a failure to prevent or foresee an event, or simply wishing they had behaved better in face of it. Letting anger against the other go means that I have to cope with the anger I have towards myself.
I am a work in progress. Part of the progress is dropping the grudge, forgiving those who wrong me, and moving on in the world. Life tests you before it teaches you, and even when you knew better sometimes you still learn the hard way.
And so I learned the lesson of how heavy the weight of carrying a grudge really is, even though I already knew it.
Today was shadowed by melancholy for me, so I decided to try an old resolution to brighten it: go for a walk. I borrowed Will’s mp3 player (my mind could use some distraction from sociology and ruminating) and went out. I walked through the Denny Triangle to Belltown, into Downtown and back into Capital Hill. It’s a route I frequently take, though not the only one.
In Belltown, on 2nd Street, I saw a woman sitting on the sidewalk, her legs covered with a blanket. She was about 80 years old. My heart broke instantly. Women on the street, old ones, ones my age, doesn’t matter their race, they get to me. The men? Not so much. Younger women could be me and I am not oblivious to that. The older women especially get to me, from a habit of respect for my elders (I mean, they did SOMETHING right to get to their advanced age that I haven’t yet) and knowledge of vulnerability that comes with aging. But I walked on by, in the same manner that a couple of women holding hands did, as they passed from the opposite direction.
This decision haunted me for blocks. I had no money, only my credit card, and IDs (state of Washington and University IDs). Had I been in Buffalo, I could have called Crisis Services for her. I know that number by heart, thanks to a slew of former jobs which entailed being there for others. Those jobs always appealed to me, stemming from a love of humanity and a need to be needed. But this wasn’t about my needs, it was about my responsibility, and I tossed over in my head what I should do. What I could do. Powerlessness washed over me. I am human and so is she. I have few resources materially and of knowledge. What is my moral obligation? What is my duty? A lack of solutions flooded my head. Has your mind ever drowned in stagnant emptiness? Mine was here, though compassion was telling me to try to think it over.
I did not know what to do.
She seemed OK. She seemed clean and such, which is unusual for the homeless. I turned around from my route at one point, 12 blocks after the rendezvous, for a few blocks thinking maybe I should at least ask her if she’s OK. But then what do I do if she says no? If she says yes? I can’t give her money: I have none on me. A better thing to do would be to direct her to where you could food or shelter.. again, Buffalo, I know this. Seattle I do not. There is the WHEEL organization but I can’t remember their number. I’m forty five minutes from home, so it’s not like I could run back to find out. (I do not have one of those fancy cell phones which the internet on it).
I slowly come to the awful conclusion that I am not in a position of help, despite being in a position of privilege. I’m ignorant and vulnerable. This realization, being confronted with yet another problem that I cannot solve, broke my heart. The part of me which tries to salvage something good from bad situations told myself that at least I have a heart, I have empathy, and I have compassion. I am human after all. I remember my favorite geographer, John, gently suggesting at one point during my visit in Buffalo that maybe I am too empathetic. I am thinking about that now. I remembered a gal in my cohort angry that we spent class talking about policy applications as she disdainfully said, “Yeah, everyone wants to save the world.” I thought it was a curious comment. What is wrong with that?
I am in sociology because I want to help solve social problems, and I felt my aptitudes suited me to be the mind behind them (as opposed to social work). Positions of help still attract me. I want to do what is right, what I feel I am supposed to and I want to be needed by someone. This situation, I let go not because it was hard, but because it was impossible. I am so bad at letting go of situations which are not working. The wish to fix it overpowers me, to a point that I try to for much longer than I should. Difficulty does not scare me. Unfortunately, I am a lousy judge of where that blurry line demarcates “difficult” from “impossible”, wandering on the wrong side more often than I should, to great futility and sadness. This sadness shadows me, even when I realize that repair work was impossible. When walking away is or was the best choice, I often have to re-remind myself of the reasons in order to resist the urge to run back. To resist trying to see if maybe it I just gave up too soon.
Tenacity has its weaknesses in extremes.
Sometimes you cannot fix a situation single handedly. Sometimes it needs work by someone else, because it is interpersonal and you cannot be the only one that cares about fixing it. Sometimes it is better left in the hands of others for reasons of expertise. Sometimes it is just too broken to be fixed.
I still feel badly about it. She’s not the only person on the streets I’ve walked by, and I avoid them sometimes.
I later saw two people, from a van labeled “King County Emergency Patrol Unit” helping a man next to a building. I did not know at the time that they only help substance abusers, but I hoped that if they were patrolling, that they’d see this woman and be in a better position to help. I saw another van driving by later.
Then I asked myself why I had not done any volunteer work yet.
I cannot save the world but I could make it a little better.
But what do you do?!