Forgiveness Is Always An Option

Being told, over and over, by multiple people, that I needed to forgive was, in the end, totally counterproductive to the actual process of forgiveness.

I recently attended a six-week support group. Those brief two-hour sessions a week, and some light “homework” assignments following each session, found me freed, freed at last, from an intolerable burden that I had carried for a decade or more: unforgiveness.

Understand, it was not that I did not want to forgive the person who had, undeniably and maliciously, caused me enormous harm. Being raised in an Italian/Scottish family, I was all too familiar with the mechanics of feuding; of carrying grudges. I knew what it was to experience unforgiveness, bitterness, enmity, animosity and hostility.

Even more, I knew very well the toll these emotions took not just upon me, but upon everyone on the periphery of my life: my loved ones and family members. And I knew, as well, that not one iota, not one tiny, minute drop of the acid from those spiteful feelings in any way harmed the object of my anger. Instead, they ate away at my own soul.

Intellectually aware of all these facts, I nevertheless could not put aside the rage that scored my soul to its center. I could not forgive the individual who had wronged me.

Oh, I tried—how I tried! I prayed over and meditated on the problem. I forced myself to carefully recount all the ways in which the person who had harmed me deserved my understanding and empathy.  Each time the bitterness rose like a bile that I could taste in my mouth, I chanted to myself the words, “I forgive”. But the words were hollow and empty; the empathy a mere pretense, fleeting and unfelt. I finally created a string of beads and frequently held them in my hands, whispering my forgiveness as the circlet slipped through my fingers. The exercise did nothing but drain me. All my attempts to forgive merely induced a new anger—anger at myself—and a growing feeling of being inextricably trapped, ceaselessly beating my hands at the silken strands of a web that would not release me.

Worse yet was my reaction to those who told me what I already knew. If I had plucked a hair from my head for each time I heard someone say the words, “If you could only forgive…”, I would have been bowling pin bald!  “I’m trying,” I wanted to scream at them. “I’m trying to forgive. I want to forgive! I just can’t seem to get there.” No matter how well-intentioned, their words hindered rather than aided my healing. Rather than perceiving their concern for my emotional state, I heard them belittling my efforts. Instead of comprehending their hope that I would find healing, I heard them being sanctimonious. I shut my ears to their actual words or their intentions.  Instead, what my heart heard them saying was, “I  have been hurt and  I forgave! I am so much more evolved a soul than you!”

Being told, over and over, by multiple people, that I needed to forgive was, in the end, totally counterproductive to the actual process of forgiveness.

But what I found in those brief few weeks of spilling my guts to total strangers was the unexpected miracle that led me back to a state of grace. Finally able to speak my truth—my rage, my enduring anger, and my unforgiveness–without censure and without judgment, gave me the freedom I needed to find my way to mercy and compassion; to give pardon and grant absolution to the individual who had so grievously wounded me.

If I have learned anything on this long and twisted journey to compassion, it is that forgiveness is always an option, and one that we do not have to choose. I have learned that to tell another that they need to forgive is to stand in judgment upon them. And I have discovered that, for most of us, forgiveness can happen only after the wound we are carrying has been drained of all its poison. Then forgiveness will happen so naturally, so easily, that we will not even realize at first that it has occurred. We will simply awake one day to the knowledge that the burden of rage that we have been carrying has been lifted from our shoulders, and we are no longer enmeshed in the binding web of fury.

If I am ever faced with a friend who is suffering, trapped in the spider’s web of unforgiveness, I now know what I will say. I will tell that person only, “It’s okay. Everything you are feeling is okay. And when you are ready to forgive, it will happen. It will just happen. And that will be a wonderful day.”

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

What struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, was at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

Years ago, I was watching an educational TV show, and the narrator discussed plants that were not native to the Americas but which were now common. As an example, the script mentioned Queen Anne’s Lace, stating that the seeds were carried to the Americas caught in blankets and clothing of the European settlers.

I could not stop laughing. I was well aware that the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace, taken as a morning-after tea, were the most effective of all the early forms of birth control–at least since silphium was hunted to extinction by Roman and Egyptian women desperate to prevent conception. The seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace weren’t ferried to the Americas accidentally, hitchhiking on property, but quite purposefully, by women who preferred not to be worn out or die due to too-frequent childbearing.

For centuries, knowledgeable midwives instructed the women they served in the lore of birth control—difficult, and not totally reliable, but not completely impossible in the centuries before the development of the diaphragm and the contraceptive pill. And, yes, their knowledge also included methods of abortion, customarily using herbs. Compounded from celery root and seed, hedge hyssop, cotton root, Cretan dittany and spruce hemlock, mistletoe leaves and horseradish, cinchona bark, ashwagandha and saffron, wooly ragwort, castor oil, blue and black cohosh, evening primrose, and even the remarkably dangerous pennyroyal and tansy and ergot of rye, herbal abortions were common when contraception failed.  The concoctions were so prevalent that ads for patent medicines to cure “delayed menstruation” were common in women’s magazines throughout the 1800s—that is, until the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873 criminalized even the possession of information on birth control.

The world has turned many times since the Comstock Act, through the invention of the contraceptive pill, to the self-help clinics of the late 1960s that instructed women in the practice of menstrual extraction, through Roe vs. Wade. The morning-after pill was introduced, a chemical solution at last replacing that centuries-old use of abortifacient herbs.

I absolutely do not, will not, debate the wrongness or rightness of any of this, from Queen Anne’s Lace to the present day. To me, decisions regarding birth control and abortion remain always a choice best made by the woman involved, in accordance with her conscience and personal situation. But what struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, was at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time of great ignorance, yet it was then that midwives—wisewomen–practiced, sharing their expertise and knowledge with the female population at large, easing the pain of childbirth and preventing many maternal deaths by their skill. And it was then, too, that such women were hunted down, burned and tortured and hung as witches, effectively silencing their knowledge for generations. Women were left in the hands of male doctors who, shrugging, pronounced, “Maternity is eternity”, reconciling countless numbers of women and infants to death as babies were delivered in filthy conditions with unwashed hands.

Circle the world a few times on its axis, and enter the 1900s, when horrific deaths by botched back alley abortions were common. Young and desperate women bled to death or died horribly of septicemia. Circle again, and information on contraception was readily available, along with new forms of birth control. Contraceptive creams and condoms were sold over the counter. Legal abortion gave a measure of safety to the procedure. The morning after pill became available for those who had either been careless or experienced the horrors of rape.

History, they say, always repeats itself. And so as society swings perilously close once more to the era of illegal and back alley abortions, so it may also oscillate to women who reclaim the ancient knowledge that gave them power over their own reproductive processes: to the natural methods that provided women a way to make their decisions in accordance with their conscience.

The morality of these decisions is not truly the question, for no matter what is legislated, women will continue to fight for and gain absolute control over their own bodies.  They will continue to make their personal choices regarding reproduction. The Pendulum of Queen Anne’s Lace, you might call it. History will, genuinely, always repeat itself.

How Ego Became a Dirty Word

Kept in check, regularly examined through conscience, and recognized as a personal identity having nothing to do with one’s possessions or achievements, the ego is a marvelous thing…

When did “ego” become a dirty word?

To the best of my understanding, in its original concept, ego meant simply that part of human consciousness which indicates “I”. It was understood to be the ability to distinguish one’s self from others; the awareness that comprehends personal experience. Over time, that original concept enlarged to include egotism—that is, conceit, vanity, or an inflated sense of self-importance. But, at its inception, the idea of the ego was simply that of self-awareness, and of personal identity–an ability which small children begin to develop at about age two.

Yet, somehow that harmless perception of a consciousness which distinguishes the self from others has mutated into a appalling concept; shameful at best, destructive at worst.

While I cannot lay all the blame for this divisive idea on a slew of philosophical books of recent vintage, I do believe they are responsible for perpetuating the concept that there is something inherently reprehensible about the normal human ego. Frankly, that makes little sense to me. Without a sense of separateness, of individuality, we cannot function in the world.

A healthy ego protects. It tells me unequivocally that, no matter what some nitwit says of me, I can make the decision to not believe their words. A well-regulated ego says to one, “Just because I am requested, ordered, to do this by a superior, I need not necessarily do it. I am an individual. I can make my own decisions regarding the rightness or wrongness of the order.” A wholesome, balanced ego is a shield against poor decision and immorality.

Nor, despite the best arguments pondered by those who despise the term, is a normal ego an obstruction to empathy. To the contrary, knowing that I have endured a difficult, painful or troubling experience allows me to look with compassion on others who are undergoing something similar. The “I” that identifies as an separate entity recognizes and therefore empathizes with all the other “I” individuals who are enduring anguish.

Sadly, the concept of a healthy, balanced ego has somehow become almost inextricably confused with egotism. But the two are not the same. “Nothing in excess”, the Greeks are reputed to have carved on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the advice is as apt now as it was those thousands of years ago. An overweening or inflated ego is an excess. It is narcissism, selfishness, and self-absorption. It is a bane and antipathy to sympathy and concern. It does, as those self-same philosophical books decry, express itself in the attachment to things; it warps the personal identity into a mere exponent of possessions or achievements.

Those who lambast the idea of a personal ego seem to maintain the position that our very separateness also separates—separates us from each other, and from the divine within both ourselves and others. Again, that concept makes little sense to me. If I am I, then I am the Divine expressing as this wondrous, personal, individual being: myself. I am a perfect creation from the hand and mind of the Creator. To be in any way separate from my divine self is simply not possible; to think so is total hubris.

And if I recognize that divine and spiritual center within myself, then I must recognize it in all others, who are all also perfect creations of a perfect Creator.

I believe we came, were sent, into this world to experience life as individuals. In doing so, I recall that, in some versions of the myth of Hercules, Zeus desired to know what it was to live as a mortal. And so he fathered a son, Hercules, who would be both god and human. As the creator, Zeus was inextricably interwoven to everything; he was all he had created. But, through his son, he could comprehend what it was to be separate and apart from all he had created; to live as an individual; to be mortal.

Kept in check, regularly examined through conscience, and recognized as a personal identity having nothing to do with one’s possessions or achievements, the ego is a marvelous thing, leading us through a lifetime of personal awareness in conjunction with our spiritual core. Far from being undesirable, it is yet another impeccable creation bequeathed us by our Creator.

My Be-Attitude

When I am doing housework, I usually wear my glasses, not my contacts. This is a self-defense measure: I’m a lot less likely to end up with stirred-up dust or other particles irritating my eyes if I’m wearing eyeglasses.

However, due to those very eyeglasses, for a number of years I found myself regularly fussing—essentially, throwing a mini-tantrum—each time I opened the dishwasher. This despite the fact that I rarely run the dishwasher more than once weekly, since, living alone, it takes me days to fill it. But it’s also my habit to open the dishwasher the very minute it stops running, in order to check that none of the dishes (especially the small bowls I used for serving canned cat food to my pets, or the concave bottoms of some of my cups) have been positioned so that they are holding water.  I know from sad experience that the drying cycle won’t remove water from a pet food bowl that’s flipped upright during the washing.

Unfortunately, opening the dishwasher at this point sends clouds of steam rising. And that, inevitably, means that my eyeglasses completely fog up, making vision impossible.  I couldn’t see a water-filled bowl unless it jumped up and slapped me in the face.

And so, for perhaps three years, I struggled to remember to pull my glasses off my face before I opened that dishwasher door.  Struggled, and inevitably forgot, resulting in stream of (Bad Word Deleted) language, followed by roughly yanking the glasses from my eyes and scrabbling for a tissue to wipe them.

As I say, this unfortunate behavior continued for almost three years, before one day it occurred to me that, after encountering the rising steam and being thoroughly wiped, my eyeglasses were much cleaner–the lenses, of course, but I also wiped the hot steam from the frames and earpieces, cleansing them, as well. And with this realization was coupled the sudden understanding that my repeated irritation was totally unnecessary.  In fact, it was contrary to good sense.

The following week when I opened the steaming dishwasher, I was prepared. I took off my eyeglasses and carefully held them into the rising steam, making sure that it coated and heated every part of the frame and lenses.  Then I carefully and slowly polished them stem to stern before placing the glasses back on my face.  By that time, the dishwasher had stopped emitting steam, and I could see and empty any dishes which were holding water before closing the door and allowing the drying cycle to run.

Instead of a rumpled spirit, I had sparkling clean eyeglasses. Instead of fussing and irritation, I was relaxed.

And all it took was a change of attitude and perspective.

It’s strange, sometimes, the small and mundane ways that major lessons arrive in this life. Something as simple as opening a hot dishwasher door can inform us of just how often we view things askew, making our lives much more difficult and uncomfortable than they need to be.

I sometimes now stop, when I am irritated beyond measure by some minor event, and attempt to apply the lesson I learned from my steamed-up eyeglasses and the dishwasher door. And instead of steaming up within my spirit, I often find a way through to peace and courtesy and calm.

It might not be on par with sitting on that hillside listening to a master teacher speak the beatitudes, but I’ll take my lessons where I can find them. I am teachable; I can learn to be the master of my own attitude.

 

 

A Plague of Kittens

I just read another of those articles explaining that an unspayed feline can produce (blah-blah-blah) kittens in (blah-blah) generations, and I had to laugh.

Years ago, when TNR programs were non-existent, I casually fed a colony of feral cats on my doorstep, giving them kitchen scraps and the food left over from my indoor pets. And, yes, they produced massive amounts of kittens. But here is the salient fact: those kittens did not live. Over all the years—about a decade—that I (and countless mice, moles and birds) provided nourishment for those stray animals, only one of them, the colony matriarch, lived. A lovely little calico who resisted being brought indoors, despite my best efforts to provide her a home, CallieCoCo produced an endless stream of both her own kittens and daughters who provided more youngsters for the clowder. Usually born at the start of each spring, and despite having a steady source of food outside of their own hunting, each year by the autumn no more than one or two of the youngsters survived. They fell victim to cars, to hawks and owls, to illness, and (horribly) to the neighborhood’s future serial killers practicing their skills. And those who survived the summer usually perished in the winter.

Finally, when the venerable matriarch herself passed, the clowder died off within a few months. Without her guidance, the colony could not survive. To the dismay of the local homeowners, the moles and mice returned to the area in droves. But the predicted plague of kittens never happened.

I had much the same Spockian “Where’s the logic?” reaction another time, in the 1980s when AIDS was at its height worldwide, as I read about the poorest regions of India. On two different pages of our local Sunday paper, two separate articles had been printed: one discussing the high birth rate of the poor throughout India (at the time, a totally destitute country, with years yet to come before technology brought pockets of prosperity) and the shocking implications for overpopulation; the other just as earnestly delineating the horrific ravages of AIDS upon the area, and the resulting gruesomely high death rate among the neediest population. Now look, I thought, switching back and forth between the pages of the newspaper, comparing the two articles, you can’t have it both ways. Either the poor will reproduce without limit, until the population is stacked up like cordwood—or they will die off in an uncountable numbers as a result of AIDS. Each a dreadful and agonizing possibility, I thought, but one or the other; you can’t have it both ways.

Or, more likely, the high death rate from the plague of AIDS among the poor would counter the exceptionally high birth rate, balancing the two—because that is the way that Nature has, cruelly but effectively, kept things in check for uncounted millennia. High population—enter bubonic plague. High population—enter typhus and typhoid, war, natural disaster, famine, pneumonic plague, anthrax, ebola.

I sometimes try apply this logical thought process to the science of global warming. Don’t misunderstand me: I absolutely do believe that the human race has added disproportionately and frighteningly to the earth’s overall temperature, and, if unchecked, will continue to do so, with unspeakable results. But I also know that we have measured the earth’s temperature for only a few hundred years out of countless millennia, and that there have been cycles of warmth/coolness throughout; i.e., the mini-Ice Age of medieval times.  I know that it is these cycles to which those who resist a belief in global warming refer.  Then, however–logically–I remind myself that all of these previous cycles were the result of natural phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions and comet strikes, or perhaps even dinosaur farts, and that those cycles did totally destroy existing fauna and flora, completely revamping the face of the Earth.  I wonder then—logically—how much we really know about the earth’s temperature cycles, and the damage we are doing, have already done, to the ecosystem…if it can even be corrected, or if we have pushed matters so far that we now must let the chips fall where they may and, like the dinosaurs,  watch as the very environment that once nurtured our evolution perishes, and us along with it. And, in terror, I very much fear that this latter scenario is true.

I think back to the vision of myself, watching playful kittens who never quite managed to survive, let alone overrun the neighborhood—switching back and forth between the pages of a newspaper with two contradictory articles—sitting through school lessons, learning about both the sweltering heat of Mesozoic mornings and the vast fields of ice that once lay across the Great Plains…and I wonder, really wonder, how much we, sure and certain in our superiority and our reliance upon self-proclaimed “leaders” who really need to pull their heads out of their behinds—well, I wonder how much we actually know of all that we think we know.

Spirituality is Big Business

When I was in my early twenties, I picked up a slim paperbound booklet that discussed a technique called Treasure Mapping. I think I paid about $1.50 for it. (I was not very affluent in those days, so I certainly couldn’t have paid much more.) The technique illustrated in the booklet would today be understood as making a vision board, and I found it fascinating. “Pictured Prayer”, the booklet explained, was simple and produced excellent results.

I gathered together the necessary accessories, all of them easy to obtain and inexpensive: photos clipped from magazines, glue, pens, construction paper — and created my first vision board. I’ve used the technique many times in the intervening years, often with surprising success. I have sometimes come across my old, discarded vision boards and realized with satisfaction that nearly everything I pictured on them had come to pass.

But recently I saw an announcement for a class in vision board making. The cost for the two-hour course, which included all materials, was $150.00.  I thought back to my $1.50 booklet, and the years of photos clipped from magazines or downloaded on the computer, the poster boards, glue sticks, glitter, stickers, or occasional scrapbooking supplies – and realized that I probably hadn’t spent $150 on all my Treasure Maps in the 40 intervening years.

In that distant era, even as I learned vision boarding, I learned to meditate by selecting library books to read about meditation techniques, listening to tapes borrowed at the library, and asking advice of those who meditated regularly. After hours of dedicated practice I found the method that seemed best for me and made meditation a lifelong practice. Today, though, I could chose to spend anywhere from $10 weekly for an hour’s guided meditation at a local new age shop, or up to $60 for an on-line course complete with an instruction manual, interactive forums, and (this one still puzzles me) a certificate of completion. I could purportedly learn the hands-on energy healing system of Reiki entirely on-line, without ever setting foot in a master teacher’s office. I could pay $10,000 for a spiritual retreat with a self-professed guru. I could complete an on-line course to become a “spiritual master” in any one of a half-dozen different disciplines – and, having completed the course, be surprised with the information that there is yet another, higher level available that could not be revealed to a mere novice, but only to a seasoned acolyte. And, of course, that newly-revealed level could be mine for only an additional $59.95!

Americans, it seems, do not believe that anything, even spirituality, has value unless it is paid for – by cash, check or charge, rather than blood, sweat and tears. You need not put real effort into learning as long as you are willing to sit at the feet of a “master” and fork over money – and plenty of it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate costs connected with teaching classes or holding retreats! Retreat attendees have to be fed and housed, and the teacher’s time has to be compensated. A class venue doubtless has costs attached – rent to be paid, utilities to be provided, class materials to be printed. But the hubris of charging $150 for an hour spent “instructing” students how to paste pictures on poster board, or to chant, hold crystals, or meditate, veers (at least to my way of thinking) about 180 degrees north of genuine spirituality.

Once the provenance of moguls of big religion, spirituality, too, has become big business, and a lucrative business, at that. Native American spirituality is taught by those who have not one iota of genetic material from the original inhabitants of North America, and their students pay the sun, moon and stars for the privilege. Instructors with no passion except that for feathering their nests promise to incite a passion for life in their unwitting students, and coin money as they do so.

My personal advice to anyone seeking a spiritual teacher is simply this: remember, first, that you are your own best teacher. There has never been a better or easier time for self-learning. Explore cautiously, keeping both an open mind and a weather eye, but explore. Read, watch videos, learn, practice. And if you find you need assistance to progress on your chosen path, or feel ready for that retreat, or believe a class with others might help – do your homework. Seek out a teacher who is validly a master teacher in her or his discipline, who is passionate about passing knowledge on to others, and who, mostly importantly, lives in such as manner as to demonstrate the value of the subject in which they will instruct you. If a cost is associated with the instruction, investigate what the payment covers, and decide if it seems reasonable, reimbursing the instructor’s costs and time and other essentials, or keeping a center in the black, but not intentionally generating massive profit.  And only then decide if the price is genuinely worth paying, or if you can find methods less financial and more truly spiritual to gain instruction in your chosen discipline.

But the finest spiritual instructor will always be the one you find in two places: your own mind, and your own heart.

And if all else fails, you can always make a Treasure Map.

I Want to Know the End of My Story

Shortly after my brush with cancer, the mother of one of my daughter’s oldest friends passed away, dying in her sleep. Marilyn had gone through surgery a few months earlier, but was recovering, so her unexpected death was shocking to everyone–not in the least to me, for she was seven years younger than I.

That event, combined with my own experience of a potentially terminal illness, has left an indelible impression on me.

I’ve never been one of those people who go blithely through adult life, never once considering the reality of their own mortality. As a new mother, one of my first actions was to write a will and name both a  guardian and trustee for my child, should she lose both her father and me.  As the newly-divorced mother of a young teenager, purchasing a new car, I was easily persuaded to add the extra few dollars to my monthly payment for insurance that would pay off the car if I died, reducing any debt that might be left to my daughter. Throughout my working years, for much the same reason, I carried all the additional life insurance my employer offered,  because I might die at any time, and my child would need the money.

Shortly after retiring, having researched the laws concerning the subject in the state where I live, I purchased an urn for my own ashes, finding a lovely, large lidded vase at (of all places) a flea market. Although I’ve made it clear to all and sundry that I’d prefer my ashes be scattered, I’d seen the “temporary urn” provided for  my mother’s cremation, and was appalled; it looked like a Hershey’s cocoa box!  One way or another, I decided, I was going out in style. Still, I wasn’t about to have my family paying the inflated prices of a mortuary urn. And so my crackle-glazed, bird of paradise-decorated ceramic vase reposes on my closet shelf, carefully marked as to its future use.

And then there was the wracking asthma attack in the middle of the night that had, just a few months prior to my cancer diagnosis, come close to taking me across the Veil. The realization that night that, “I might not make it out of this one!” had dismayed but not shocked me; nor did the tumble down my stairwell a few months later, which might have had such terrible results.

However much I may want to stick around for awhile yet, I am completely comfortable with the knowledge of my own mortality.

But, as I said in a previous post (I Want to Know the End of the Story, 07/06/18), I do want to know.  I want to know the end of my story.

I am the person who often flips to the final pages of my mystery novel to read the dénouement.   I can’t stand waiting to see if I’ve actually fingered the murderer.  During Downtown Abbey’s first run, I knew about the upcoming death of character Matthew because I’d sneakily read a British website describing the episode long before the show aired in America. I always want to know the end of the story.

I once attended a lecture by a Buddhist monk who explained that we should choose the manner of our going—to meditate upon it, and to announce our choice to the universe. I found this an interesting concept, and gave it a good deal of thought, but made no decision.  Later, a friend explained that she plans to die in her sleep when she is age 85.  I admired her resolution, but I don’t want to give myself an expiration date; the Divine might have plans for me beyond what I consider a reasonable life span.

But I am incredibly well-organized and orderly, and it bothers me that so much of life, and death, is not. I do not like chaos.  I don’t like surprises.  I dislike bedlam and confusion.

And so I am finally meditating upon the manner of my own passing, as that Buddhist monk once taught that we should do. I won’t, as my friend has done, accord myself an expiration date. But if that monk was right, and it is possible, then I want to decide what my going will someday be.

After all, as I have said once before: I want to know the end of my own story.

 

Being THAT Person

We all know one: the person who is incredibly thin-skinned. Whose feelings brim close to the surface and who is constantly, easily hurt. Who almost seeks out reasons for offense.

And, of course, at one point or another during our lives, many (most?) of us have been that person.

Thoughts of this behavior hovered in my mind recently when the Universe seemed to have declared a “pick on Beckett” day. One friend, not at all meaning to be unkind (and specifically saying so), pointed out a physical flaw that was likely to worsen due to a minor medical problem I was experiencing. While making this point only with the intention of providing helpful advice, it was, nevertheless, said in front of others, and so embarrassed me slightly.  I said nothing, allowing the feeling to slide off, but it arose like a buried demon and came back to haunt me when I woke in the middle of the night, hovering before me and forcing me to deal with the unpleasant emotions evoked by my friend’s comment.

Later that same day, another acquaintance used a pair of topics from this very blog to press a point in a very negative manner. Once again, the words were said in front of others; this time, I was both startled and taken aback, hardly knowing how to respond. And, once more, I let those feelings slide off, telling myself sternly that no harm was actually intended, and saying nothing. But that memory, coupled with the other incident, haunted me in wakeful moments in the small hours of the night, robbing me of sleep and causing self-doubt and unhappiness.

In the morning, I took time to fully consider my reaction, shining the light of day into my wounded places. Was I really reacting just to my friends’ words, I wondered?  Or was I actually responding to past events of intentional bullying–situations that wrought havoc in my life and left emotional scars. Should I have spoken up at the time to each of these people? By keeping silent, was I behaving masochistically? Would the memory of these events cause difficulty in my future relationships with these friends, resentment casting a pall over our interactions? Was I actually even doing each of my acquaintances no favor by failing to point out that they had distressed me? For if they did not realize they had unintentionally offended, I reasoned, they might easily do this again, to someone else—someone perhaps less prepared to deal with the resultant emotional turmoil.

Or (and this was the hardest thing to consider) was I simply being too thin-skinned, seeking out reason to feel hurt feelings; seeking out cause for offense?

My thoughts ping-ponged in this manner for the better part of a day, until I finally decided that I had wasted enough valuable time thinking through a very minor set of events. In the end, I decided, because no offense had been intended—in the first case, quite the opposite, in fact—I needed to take no offense. To do otherwise would place me in the category of being that person: the one who is always offended, always upset, always drowning in a welter of hurt feelings, always affronted and angry and miserable.

That person, I realized—the hypersensitive, prickly, overly-emotional, constantly aching bundle of nerve endings, has one trait that I shared and was quickly spiraling into as I overthought the events I’d just experienced: an over-inflated sense of self-importance. A unreasonable belief that everyone around me should “just know” what might upset me, and therefore either avoid such circumstances entirely, or, having stumbled into them, immediately apologize.

I am not that important.

Neither are you.

Those around us—friends, acquaintances, coworkers, family members, neighbors—will sometimes, inevitably, inadvertently, hurt our feelings. But if these events are not malicious, nor continual and pervasive—not slyly abusive, nor subtlely cruel– then we, adults all, need to relinquish our over-inflated sense of self importance and just get over it. Shrug. Consider the source. Let it roll off. Save our high dudgeon for the really critical problems of relationships. But, most importantly, we must be certain of our genuine selves: certain of the person who we each are at our core and center, so that the thoughtless remarks of others have no ability to cast a pall over our spirit.

That sure self-knowledge is, after all, the ability that comprises a true sense of self worth: the sure center of our spirit; the Self that can never be harmed by the thoughtless, careless words or behavior of another.

Laughter in the Midst of Grief

Few people understood humor better than Mark Twain, who is said to have remarked, “The source of all humor is not laughter, but sorrow.”

I know that to be true.

Thinking on his quote, I recall a long, long day spent with friends helping one of our number pack her possessions for a cross-country move. Late afternoon found two of us, tired to the bone, but working steadily away in the kitchen.  We both sat on the floor, wrapping breakable items and putting them into boxes.  We had finished kitchenware from nearly all the drawers and cabinets when one further drawer, suddenly visible from our position on the linoleum, caught my friend’s eye.  As I was closest, she asked me to see what we had missed.  I rose to my knees to open the drawer, but it was stuck.  I tugged a bit, and then a bit more, and finally gave one walloping giant yank to the handle…which came right off in my hand, sending me tumbling backwards to the floor.

It was a false drawer.

I lay there on the floor, waving the broken handle above me, completely helpless with laughter, my bones seeming to have dissolved to jellyfish, while my partner in crime laughed until tears streaked down her face. After several minutes of hilarity, we finally composed ourselves and went on a secret mission to hunt down some glue and put the handle back in place—a undertaking that induced another round of stealthy, hysterical laughter.

Not exactly sorrow, that event, but certainly sheer slapstick comedy, accompanied by utter, laugh-until-you-ache hysterics. Later, driving home from that tiring day, I recalled a Dick Van Dyke routine about slapstick comedy, in which he proclaimed such base humor not to be amusing even as he stumbled about, tripping and smashing fingers and generally pretending clumsiness while the audience howled with laughter.  Why, I  wondered, was it funny, clowning about that way?  But it was, just as my misadventure with the drawer handle had been comical.

And then there was the incident with the mailbox post…  My Evil Neighbor (about whom the less said the better) was at that time the president of our condo owners association.  So when my mailbox post rotted one summer and crashed to the ground, I propped it up as best I could with bricks and waited for the association, whose responsibility it was, to make repairs.  The darned thing was so wobbly that it was only with extreme caution that I could ease it open each afternoon to retrieve my mail, fearful that it would topple over once more.  This situation went on for 18 months, as I grew increasingly irritated.  Then, late one afternoon, as I was weeding the flowerbed that surrounded the mailboxes, I reached about to lever my aging hips up from the ground, and grabbed at Evil Neighbor’s own mailbox post to balance myself.

It went crashing to the ground.

I’ve often wished I had a video of my own face at that moment! I swiftly scanned the area and saw no one watching—no cars going by in the street, no faces at windows—so I scurried hastily into my garage, hopped in the car, and got the hell outta Dodge!  I drove to my daughter’s home, wheezing with laughter, and I told her and my son-in-law the whole sorry tale, all to the accompaniment of gales of laughter.  (And, yes, both mailbox posts were repaired shortly thereafter.)

I’ve noticed that funerals and wakes are also bastions of hilarity. I experienced this for the first time when I was about 11 years old, and my grandfather died.  My Aunt Diana gathered several of us children around her in a corner of the room far from the casket, and began to tell us hilarious true stories.  Time has dimmed my memories of the tales she told us that evening; I don’t know if they were stories of my PopPop or just funny events from her own life.  What I do recall clearly, though, is the comfort  and protection that laughter provided us children as we dealt with incredible sorrow. I remember, too, the glares of disgust from our more staid and sedate relatives.  Obviously, Diana’s efforts to provide us children and herself a path out of pain were not appreciated by all. But I have thought many times since on what a kindness she did us, gifting us with laughter in the midst of grief.

I don’t really remember too many comical misadventures in my own life, aside from the incidents of the fake drawer and the mailbox post…oh, yes, and the Great Paint Can Head Splash, which is probably best saved for another blog post. Yet we rarely see ourselves as other see us. So I hope that at my own memorial service someday, there will be hilarious, comical tales told.  I hope people will smile, chuckle, and giggle at memories of my silliest moments.  For while the ancient Egyptians believed that, without a name, our soul could not survive,  I believe it cannot only be our name, for everything that we truly are resides in the glorious laughter limning others’ memories of us.

The Word of Your Year

(Note: This post originally appeared on December 31, 2017, under the title “Word of the Year”.  An afterword follows this re-posting.)

I stopped making New Year’s resolutions well over a decade ago. I saw no point in setting myself up for certain failure; it was simply depressing, and merely reinforced my bad opinion of myself. (I feel the same way about goals.  Goals are something I set just to prove to myself that I am a failure.  I don’t set goals anymore, either.)

For a long time prior to that decision, I’d followed Robert Fulghum’s sterling advice: On New Year’s day, I sat down and wrote a list of every good thing I’d done in the previous year, backdated it, and called it my resolutions. This was eminently satisfying for a number of years, even though I knew I was sort of missing the whole “resolution thing” point.

So, casting about for some way to set myself some type of goal-yet-not-a-goal, I was struck by an idea: I could still forego a resolution, yet choose something—some character-building, life changing something, to focus on during the coming year.  Not a goal, I decided; a focus.  With that in mind, what if I chose just one word, one meaningful word, and attempted to concentrate on it throughout the coming year?  Not to accomplish it—simply keep it at the forefront of my mind, and make it active in my life.  One word was so little.  Surely I could do that much.

I liked the concept. One word, one focus, seemed like a challenge I could meet.  The trick, I realized, would be finding a way to make myself remember to focus on that word— to keep adding it to my life.  (Well, that, and picking my word in the first place.)

Amazingly, having come up with the concept, I found that my answers came easily.  I’d recently discovered that a lack of assertiveness had caused me a number of problems; assertiveness, then, seemed like a very good first focus word.  But how to keep it at the forefront of my mind?  How not to forget, not just the word itself, but the need to concentrate upon my focus word?  Ha!  That was going to be the real challenge of my not-resolution.

During that first year, I found that tricking myself into remembering my focus word was the best way to go. I took post-its and scraps of note paper and proceeded to hide them throughout my home in places where I knew I would not find them to easily, yet was sure to look.  Since I wasn’t about to turn the heavy mattress on the bed more than once a year, one of the notes emblazoned with “My Focus This Year Is Assertiveness” was pushed into the thin hollow between the mattress and box springs.  Another went under the couch cushions—I had been known, from time to time, to actually lift them up and vacuum beneath them (or at least search for loose change).  And, yes, one note, slipped into a plastic bag, went into the bottom of the vegetable bin in the frig!

And, amazingly, it worked. I came across those notes again and again throughout that first year and was forced to remember that I was supposed to be keeping my attention on becoming more assertive.  And while I cannot now say that it changed my life, I can say with certainty that it made a difference.  By the end of the year, I knew that I still had a very long way to go on learning to be assertive, but I was no longer quite the wimp I’d been twelve months earlier, either.

I’ve used many Focus Words in the intervening years, and I’ve learned to choose them carefully. The Universe, I’ve discovered, will cooperate with me—oh, yes, will it ever!  Choose Peace as a focus word, and every possible non-peaceful situation imaginable will be tossed at me like errant baseballs.  And, for the love of heaven, never, ever, choose Patience !

But, defiant in the face of overreaching myself, the focus word I chose for 2017 was Magnificent.

And it was.

Afterword: In 2018, the Word I chose was “Kindness”.  I learned, quite amazingly, that kindness is not just something we extend to others, but also that we must, humbly and with gratitude,  receive.  It is also something we must extend to ourselves.  I learned, too, that though I may behave in a kindly manner to another, requiring of myself that I treat them with courtesy and consideration, I’m often shamed to admit that true kindness from within my heart is absent.  I will carry this knowledge with me into another year, and hope to create and extend more true loving kindness to all.

 I’d love to have you share in the Comments what you choose as your Word of the Year for the upcoming change of the calendar.