Three Things

§   I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude.  §

I was experiencing a fully-justifiable meltdown not long ago, and turned to a trusted friend for advice.  Her reply was not the one I anticipated, and at first I was taken aback: Right this minute, she told me, right now, name three things for which you’re grateful.  Write them down, she advised.

My initial response was resentment.  Was she minimizing my feelings?  Did she believe my depression and fears weren’t warranted?  But I know this woman very well, and trust her even more, so I had to conclude that minimizing or belittling my feelings was in no way part of her agenda.

So I took a deep breath, settled myself down, and picked up a pen and paper.  Three things.  Just three things.

It was hard…and then it wasn’t hard at all.

I was grateful for my family.  Once–for many years, in fact—sundered, we were now united once more.  I was grateful for my toddler granddaughter, whom I love beyond life itself.  I was grateful for my dear little condo, the home I had never thought I would have.  I was grateful for my four porch-rescue cats.  I might have saved them from a life as ferals, but they daily saved me with their love and attention.  I was grateful that my Dad, age 91, was still with us.  Few people get to have a parent in their life that long, and even at the times when he drove me nuts, I still loved him.  I was grateful to have survived cancer, to have had two years cancer-free.

I was grateful, I was grateful….  I filled an entire page with statements of gratitude, and possibly could have kept on going.  But when I put my pen down, I realized that, although nothing that had caused my meltdown had actually changed, I  had changed.  Oh, I was still distressed over a very dreadful situation, but at the core and center of my being, I felt calmer—not relaxed, not at ease, but calmer, and better able to deal with my problems.

I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude when what I really wanted to do was write out a list of people whose noses I wanted to punch!  I learned that, as a result of early childhood abuse, ‘fight or flight’ was always my go-to response, even when it was not really warranted; that I felt constantly beleaguered.  I learned that there is a difference between a healthy, justifiable anger, and simple rage.  I learned that my feelings were, actually, under my control.  No one could “make” me feel anything; I chose my responses.

I’d like to say that this exercise taught me a lesson, and that it’s a strategy I now always employ.  I’d like to say that, but it would be a big, fat lie.  Three Things is usually the last thing I remember to do when I’m caught in a distressing situation.

But when I do settle down and remember to do it, it opens a gateway to an entirely new perspective on any situation.

Oddly enough, there had been a time in my life when I spent a few minutes every morning writing out a sentence—or sometimes four or six or more–of gratitude.  I usually chose to do this as I rode the bus into work each morning, putting that empty time to good use.  And then, when I had been engaged in this process for several months, my entire world collapsed around me.  My husband walked out to live with his “true love”, and I became at the stroke of a pen a divorcee and single parent.  I recall now the rage I felt, asking the Universe exactly why, WHY, when I had been practicing daily gratitude, such a load of total crap had fallen upon my head.  Emotional anguish, not just for me, but for our child.  Financial distress times ten, as I paid for the divorce, found us a place to live, acquired used furnishings, moved.  Physical suffering, as the stress I was experiencing led me to fall ill one time after another, so that for over a year, I was constantly sick.  Depression so severe that suicide began to seem a viable option.  Why, when I had been practicing gratitude so unfailingly?  Why did all this evil befall me when I had been doing the right thing?

I don’t recall that the Universe ever answered my questions, but I do remember that, perhaps a year later, I came to the realization that, had I not been making a daily practice of gratitude when my safe and familiar world collapsed around me, I would have been in a far worse mental state than I actually endured. I had not seen at that time—perhaps had not wanted to see—that my practice of gratitude had acted as a shield around my emotional state, buoying me so that I did not completely drown in my own misery.

Three things.  Just three things, on the worst of days, in the most dreadful of situations.  It is hard, sometimes even painful.  But it makes all the difference in the world.

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.”

Anger and Loss

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance passed away. We weren’t particularly close, but she was very dear to another friend of mine, the woman who’d introduced us, and so the feelings I experienced at her loss extended to my grieving friend, as well.

Debbe died, though, unnecessarily, wastefully, of medical error. So when I found myself in a blue funk on the day after her death, it took me nearly another 24 hours to comprehend why I was so upset.  I was sad that she was gone, yes; sadder still for the grandchildren whom she had been raising, and concerned for their futures, too.  I longed to comfort the friend who was most deeply feeling her loss.  But despite all these tumultuous emotions, I hadn’t known Debbe very well. I wasn’t mourning intensely.  Why, then, I wondered, was I so terribly sad?

I discussed the problem with that “other self” in my own mind (I’ve often wondered, when I’m asking myself a question, who precisely it is that I’m talking to?) Was the real cause of my distress the fact that Debbe was a couple of years younger than I?  Had her passing brought home to me the truth of my own mortality?  I didn’t think so.  I’d lost a good many acquaintances of my own age or younger in my lifetime, and had, in fact, recently spent quite a bit of time making my own end-of-life plans.  I didn’t believe that Debbe’s passing was a sudden and jarring reminder of my own mortality.

I was saddened for others, but that didn’t explain the intensity of my feelings.

Finally, after almost a day of puzzling through my feelings, I was able to put a name to them: anger. I was angry – bitterly, desperately, furiously angry, that Debbe had died due to mistakes by the medical professionals involved in her care.  She was dead due to their blithe prescribing of more and more antibiotics for longer and longer terms, until the very medications meant to heal her had turned on her immune system and destroyed it, shutting down her kidneys and killing her.

I was so bitterly, furiously angry at the wrongness of it, of a life wasted and other lives turned topsy-turvy, due to straightforward carelessness. I was outraged at negligence, at sloppiness, at inattention, in a profession in which a failure of precision literally makes the difference between life and death.

I am still angry and sad over her needless death. But my takeaway from this situation is the discovery of just how often I am so disassociated from my own feelings that I can sometimes identify them only with enormous effort.  How is it, I later asked myself, that it took me more than a day to recognize my own fury?

Naming my emotion was difficult; why it took so long is easier for me to answer: early training.  My youth was spent in a household where fury and rage were constant.  Screaming, shouting quarrels were a common occurrence.  Precious things were thrown and broken, doors were slammed until they bounced off  hinges.  Faces were slapped; punches were thrown.  Obscenities were shrieked.

But not by me. Not by my siblings.

No matter what was happening in our household, we children dared not express our anger at the situation–neither verbally or physically. Even as teenagers, with the usual adolescent tendency to smart-aleck remarks and snappishness, we were carefully restrained in our behavior.  And when I vented my fury on paper, my diary was sought out and read, and then used against me.

I learned to be very cautious of anger: to tuck it away, hidden within burning resentment; to avoid confrontation. I learned to bark in irritation over things that didn’t really matter rather than to say what had truly upset me; to fume silently.  Even through the crumbling of my 19-year marriage, I can recall only two occasions where I  was driven to shouting at my husband.

None of this is healthy or conducive to good relationships, but unlearning such early training is difficult. Just how difficult was driven home to me when I found myself unable to identify my anger over a friend’s needless death.

Anger will always frighten me, will always be a specter to be carefully controlled. Yet perhaps that is not entirely a bad thing.  The world might well be a safer place if more children were, from an early age, taught techniques to identify and properly deal with anger–to control its expression; to find healthy ways to express rage.

But not to learn, as I learned, to entirely deny it. Not to spend a lifetime hiding from their own rage and negating it.

I am angry over Debbe’s wasteful, needless death. And I am proud of that just and righteous anger.