Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Forgiveness, gratitude and joy

I'm having some seriously entangled thoughts about gratitude, joy and forgiveness.

The first of these is that I find myself longing for the joy that comes with wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. Descriptions of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu (I love titles) almost always involve descriptions of embodied joy, often in the form of giggling. I find myself longing for that. I'm tired of being offended and upset and brittle. I want the freedom of living out joy.

But wait, Rebecca, didn't you just marry the man you never thought you'd find? Aren't you getting an extended vacation to quilt and bake while you look for a job? Don't you have a great spiritual community that values you? Isn't your family healthy?


And still, I find myself offended and upset and brittle more often than I would like to admit.

Meg, over at A Practical Wedding keeps talking about wanting to have a Brave Marriage and go traveling and having adventures and I love her spirit. It's made me think about what I do not want to regret about our marriage and I find that I'm not all that concerned about travel and adventure. I had a lot of that as a single person. As my friend Jess put it, "It about roots and investments for me now." Will that possibly involve a certain amount of radicality for Jacob and I? Probably. But new experiences for the sake of being new aren't what I'm looking for. I want to find joy in the life that I'm living at home. I want sustainability for that joy. Everything has been in such upheaval over the last year (finishing school, meeting Jacob, moving, marrying Jacob) that I want to spread my toes into the carpet and take root so that I can keep spreading my arms up into the sky and stretching my sideribs into growth. (On a side note, I want to keep practicing yoga, as well.)

I find that it is hard to live this out when so much of my energy is spent being offended and upset and brittle.

On the surface, it seems like these are reactionary emotions. People in my life are offensive. People in my life are upsetting. I rightly need to protect myself from some people in my life.

These people can be found in two different areas right now: my in-laws and friends of my ex-husband.

Let me explain. I have never been more thoroughly disapproved of than I have by my in-laws in the last year. High school was a cake walk compared to this family. Five out of the eight family member have told my husband at some point or another that they were upset by something I did. An email I sent, a voicemail I left, a decision I made, a story I told. Additionally, even though I have asked them to come to me directly, they still communicate their disapproval through my husband, so I have no recourse except confrontation, which has felt inappropriate.

I am not used to being disapproved of. My friends think I'm great and tend to know me well enough to forgive me if I'm insensitive. My family doesn't generally practice disapproving either. My parents have always said explicitly, "There is nothing you can do that can make us love you any less." And living that out has generally taken the form of live and let live. Sometimes my parents aren't happy about choices we've made but they believe their job is to love us, not to judge us, so it doesn't affect how we interact. So, it is a completely new sensation to find myself on the receiving end of disapproval from people whose opinion I care about. I'm just not used to people thinking I should be anything other than who I am and expressing it (however indirectly). Although I know with my head that their behavior probably has very little to do with me and very much to do with a pre-existing dynamic, I can't seem to help myself from feeling wounded by it. As a result of those wounds, I find myself offended, upset and brittle a lot of the time.

On the other side, I went to my friends' wedding last weekend and it was one of the loveliest weddings I have ever attended. It was full of laughter and funk music and a general sense of gratitude on the part of the guests that two people who are loved so well would take this step and make each other even happier.

However lovely the event itself was, it has had a certain amount of emotional upheaval on either side because so many of the guests know my ex-husband. Everyone was very polite and glad to see me and one woman even made vague apologies for how weird everything was, which I very much appreciated. I had a great time immersing myself in their particular brand of humor. But I learned that some of the people whom I really like, who never told me I was a bad person, who indicated that they knew he was lying, whom I would love to rekindle friendships with, are still actively friends with my ex-husband and his new wife. They have monthly dinners together and invite each other to parties. I am surprised by how angry this makes me. I feel like if someone knows how absolutely rotten he was to me, how could they keep being his friend? Who could trust someone capable of such atrocities? How could they reward his affair by letting their babies play with the child of his mistress? It hurts me that they would choose him over me. This hurt leads me to feel offended, upset and brittle a lot of the time.

This is very far from the joy that I would like to be living in.

As luck would have it, a perfect storm of commentaries has come into my sphere of attention to remind me about forgiveness and gratitude.

For the last three days, I have been confined to the couch with a raging head cold. Most of the time, I have not been able to open my eyes because they were so swollen. During this time, I listened to the backlog of podcasts in my iTunes. Randomly, the first three were sermons on forgiveness by Rob Bell.

He started each sermon with a caveat of sorts. He made sure to say that forgiveness is about the state of our owns hearts. It is a personal things. It is about setting ourselves free from the feelings of bitterness that can own us if we let them.

This is not new to me. Certainly, I have dealt with my feelings about my ex-husband with this understanding. But I've not done a very good job of applying it to the rest of my life. When looking for that last link, I found this post, which shows that I haven't grown much in the last seven months.

Anyway, to make his point clear, Rob says that forgiveness is not condoning the behavior. Forgiveness does not require forgetting. In fact, we should set boundaries to protect ourselves in the future. Forgiveness does not necessarily involve interrupting the natural consequences for someone's actions or forgoing justice. Finally, forgiveness is separate from reconciliation, which is a process that requires two people.

In his sermons, Rob speaks about the destructive nature of revenge. How when someone hands us a hurt, we want to hand it right back and that this can be a passive response, as well as an active one. I fear that this is how I feel about Jacob's family. I certainly repeat the litany of offenses in my head as I swim or fall asleep or wash the dishes. I form the words in my head of what I would say to them if I got the chance. And no matter how graceful those words are, no mater how well they utilize reconciliatory language, I mean for those words to hurt them as much as I have been hurt.

It is a form of revenge. And I know it won't work. I know it will escalate the situation, like the story of Sampson.No, not that one. The other one. In addition to escalating, it probably wouldn't hurt them anyway since my retorts all work on the assumption that they care how their behavior affects me.

So what do I do?

I will not act on these feelings. I have come that far in my spiritual journey. I have learned to stay quiet until I can speak from a place of tranquility and stable self-esteem. But if I can't hand the hurt back to them, what do I do with it? How do I keep it from eating me up, as it clearly has been since I feel mostly offended, upset and brittle right now?

This is where the perfect storm comes in. On Sunday, my pastor closed vespers with her usual benediction,
Let us go out into the world in peace;
Have courage;
Return no one evil for evil;
Strengthen the fainthearted;
Support the weak;
Help the suffering;
And in all these things;
Take courage in the Spirit,
Who nourishes us and makes us whole.
May the fire of God
Burn deeply within you
And shine brightly upon you,
Now and always.
There are a couple things there of note. It reaffirms the other things I have been thinking about returning evil for evil and reminds me that I am not alone in this effort. The shekinah of God will help. I probably need to pray to really access this one.

This reminds me of Alcoholics Anonymous advice that I've received: "Pray for the bastard." Of course, this goes along with Jesus's advice to pray for those who persecute you.

Also, I recently finished Eboo Patel's book, Acts of Faith, in which he describes Islam by paraphrasing Fazlur Rahman,
I learned that Islam is best understood not as a set of rigid rules and a list of required rituals but as a story that began with Adam and continues through us; as a tradition of prophets and poets who raised great civilizations by seeking to give expression to the fundamental ethos of the faith.

. . . [T]he core message of Islam is the establishment of an ethical, egalitarian order on earth. . . .The central aspect of this moral order is merciful justice . . . God . . . gives each human an inner light, which the Qur'an refers to as taqwa, the writing of God on our souls. [It] is the single most important concept in the Qur'an. It is the piece of us that innately knows the mercy of God.
I think that if I try to actively remember that God loves me and so forgives me, much like my family and she wants me to love others just as much. In other words, if I develop my taqwa, my sense of merciful justice, it might get me a little closer to forgiving my in-laws and the friends of my ex-husband. Also, I need to remind myself that God has set up a higher order of things and just because I do not see her justice does not mean that it is not being enacted. I do not need to be one more misguided vigilante for God.

I think that fostering this sense of taqwa might involve remembering the good things that I do have. Yesterday, our rabbi posted on the benefits of gratitude journals. Although it feels hokey, I'll do just about anything at this point to stop feeling so offended, upset and brittle.

Finally, I am currently reading Don Miller's new book and he writes, "And once you know what it takes to live a better story, you don't have a choice." I have been thinking a lot about volunteering during this time that I am looking for a job. My life feels so hectic and that it might even be irresponsible to take that time away from the search but I'm starting to think it might be essential. That this might be the better story that I need to be living. That it is part of the roots and investment that I crave right now. If I put my time into the children of our neighborhood at the Boys and Girls club down the street, I will make this place more of my home and find more joy here.

Rob Bell leaves me with this haunting image. When we do not hand back a hurt that has been handed to us, we are left with the agony of holding onto it. That agony is like death. But as people following the Jesus Model, that death can give us hope for a resurrection and a new life and a new world order. I am hoping that my three days are up and this Thanksgiving marks a rolling away of the stone. I am ready to be thankful for what I have and so filled with joy that I have to forgive because there is no room in my heart for bitterness.


Rachel said...

I have so many thoughts right now, but don't know which are helpful. Questions, too. And not enough coffee.

Reconciliation does require two people. I wonder if forgiveness has different levels and meanings. I was talking to one of my roommates about something that a girlfriend did that felt like a betrayal. This was almost a year ago but I was reminded of it recently by pictures of her on the Internet. My roommie asked me if she had ever asked for my forgiveness. I knew I should forgive her because that's what Jesus wants me to do, but his question stopped me in my thought process.

We know that forgiveness is right, but I'm wondering if I can only get to the first level of forgiveness, which is in me and sort of for me, though connected to what God calls us to do. It's so I don't rot or ferment or seethe with anger, so I don't get (more) bitter and become worse because of their actions. It's so I can help them if they're hurting or point them to help but not stick around for coffee afterward. Perhaps there is a second level of forgiveness that comes after they ask for it. Then reconciliation comes later with both parties opting for it and working for it.

I wonder about power in these situations.

I wonder what happened when you came to your in-laws (the ones who seem to be choosing to behave this way, more active than your wedding pals) not to hurt them back or confront them about their indirectness (or show them how @$^%&#% lame it is) but to show them how much their actions have hurt you. What happened when you asked them to care for you more? (not because you are their son's beloved, not because you will be the bearer of the grandchildren, not because what they're doing is so very wrong... but just because you have been hurt.) Maybe in that conversation they didn't see anything beyond their agendas and outcomes. Did you go in with other outcomes in mind, too?

I think (and I'm talking to myself here) we shouldn't convey our hurt because of motivations for power or right-ness or self-righteousness. It's hard because we know we have been wronged. We should convey it simply and solely because we want the hurt to stop. Ugh. I have failed so many times at this.

How often are you in touch with your friends who are friends with your ex-husband?

Let's talk sometime. I'm going to ponder more.

Jessica Young said...

my inside voice is pretty quiet right now. this makes me thoughtful. thank you.