For those of you who missed the announcements online, there has been a major shift in my life. Easter Sunday afternoon at a Red Lobster in Mesquite, Texas, Jean Barnes (the beautiful lady I mentioned last week) and I became engaged to be married. This relationship is truly amazing.
This weekend she drove to Mineral Wells to see our town (she loves it) and to see what Frannie and I have already so she knows what she doesn’t need to move here from Mesquite. Tip: if you live in the Dallas area, a big garage sale will be announced in the near future!
As I write this (very early Saturday morning) Jean and Frannie are having a “girl’s sleep-over” at the Super 8 hotel down the street. I insisted that she have a hotel room. Despite what many of my peers seem to think, getting old doesn’t miraculously make wrong things right.
Finally, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this relationship is healing for everyone involved – even Frannie. And maybe that is one of the biggest takeaways from Jean’s and my experience of recovery. Just as no one goes through the trauma of loss alone, no one heals alone either.
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When starting the process of picking up the pieces of a shattered life and all its contingent aspects, we are often advised to learn to make peace with our past. The goal is to lessen the amount of emotional baggage we carry with us into future endeavors. That is, in theory at least, the point of the process. But in a practical sense, it can be difficult understanding what it actually means to “make peace with our past.”
Not surprisingly, forgiveness plays a huge role – in terms of both receiving and granting forgiveness. Unresolved wrong can be an anchor that holds you back from moving on in life. But forgiveness can also be tricky. Just for starters, we all know “wonderful” people who deliberately withhold forgiveness so they can use the past wrong as a weapon against us. And then there’s the question of how do you forgive someone who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any culpability in the matter – let alone show any contrition?
Note here that contrition is not the same thing as feeling sorry for something. For example, I can feel sorry that I stepped on your toe, and I can feel sorry that someone was killed in an automobile accident. The difference in the two scenarios is a question of responsibility. I am responsible for stepping on your toe, and if I accept that responsibility, being sorry in that case is an expression of true contrition.
In the second situation, I have no responsibility so there is no need for contrition and “I’m sorry” becomes a statement about regret, which in some cases can spur us into action to correct a problem.
In addition, we should look at that last point of people not showing contrition when it is due, from the other way around. How are we to faithfully respond to people who try to make us feel contrite and apologize for doing something nice for them? Sometimes people can use forgiveness as a tool of manipulation in that way too. Maybe there is a maxim to be found there: Don’t ever apologize or let yourself be manipulated into seeking forgiveness for doing something right. Of course if you use words that are unnecessarily hurtful, that is another matter, you can and should apologize for that.
However, even that last point is complicated by the fact that today people often find a simple dispassionate recitation of a fact – like 1+1=2 – offensive and hurtful. Emerson once said,
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
A point to which I would quickly add:
“…and the ultimate act of subversion against Society’s one-size-fits-all standards.”
Forgiveness is also an active process. In Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 9 in the 12-Step Program is, “Make Amends.” This step means to actively go and diligently search out things that you have done to wrong others.
Forgiveness is a complicated, messy business, which is perhaps why there have been so many books written about it. But we can’t let the complications prevent us from tackling the problem. And also please know that giving and receiving forgiveness are equally important. In many churches, we even pray that every Sunday using the words:
…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
In this prayer asking God for forgiveness, we see that it is inextricably linked to our willingness to forgive our fellows.
Another aspect of making peace with my past can sometimes be a matter of recognizing that there was a lesson to be learned and I need to understand and internalize that lesson.
When I was in the Air Force going through my basic technical training for radio maintenance, I turned 18 – which, at the time, was a big deal because in Mississippi, 18 was the legal drinking age. Consequently, I decided to celebrate my new-found maturity by “tying one on.” We can bypass all the (very) messy details and cut to the chase: things did not go well. I ended up that night sitting in the barracks shower with water pouring down over me while I hugged a big gray GI trash can vomiting up everything I had eaten since I was weaned from mother’s milk.
And then there was the next morning! Even after I sobered up, the “fun” continued because merely looking at food made me violently ill.
Obviously, there were many lessons that I could have learned from that experience – like the dangers of mixing sloe gin (a plum-flavored liqueur) and coke. Or the dangers of listening to a “buddy” who tells you sloe gin and coke is a good drink…
But the important lesson that I needed to learn was that getting drunk was not nearly as much fun as it looked like on television. Consequently, I never again got drunk and, in fact, became one of the guys who helped hapless fellow airmen get home after getting so drunk that in some cases they couldn’t even remember their own name.
More recently, the very act of caregiving has been all about “learning the lesson” – learning some skill like how to change the sheets on a bed while it is occupied, or learning not to take it personally when in the midst of a dementia-induced fog, your spouse yells at you how much she hates you.
And sometimes, learning the lesson turns a bad past into a future direction for life – even if just for a bit.
And lastly, a big part of learning to make peace with your past is to, quite simply, let the past be the past. Too often I tend to disrupt my own recovery by continually dragging past issues into the present – long after the issues have been resolved, lessons learned and forgiveness sought and received.
Why do I do that? Well, there can be a lot of reasons but many of them boil down to the simple fact that sometimes I have trouble letting go of some secret public or private pain because I feel unsure about the future and where my life is heading. In those sorts of situations many of us will cling to negative things in our past as though they were cherished security blankets and not the filthy rags that they sometimes are.
Sometimes I am tormented by thoughts and memories of things that I had done in the past, while other past moments – even grievous mistakes – are viewed with detachment. So, what makes the difference? Well for me, many times the view that I have of a given event depends on the scope of what the event says about me.
Some events simply point to things that I have done wrong, and those tend to be easier to move beyond. But others, the ones that really cause problems, are the ones that I believe reflect on, or even define, who I am. For instance in High School there were (lots of) things that I messed up. But there were a few others that, though small and even laughable, for me delivered the message loud and clear that I was awkward and unlovable. Which, in turn, led to a life that was defined by long periods of inner, silent desperation. I used to say that I would give up working and retire when they, “…pried the mouse out of my cold dead fingers!” Which is sort of the geek version of dying with your boots on.
Of course, thank God, that is all now changing and past emptiness and fear is being replaced by feelings of hope and eagerness for the future. And with that renewed optimism for the future, I am slowly discovering a new purpose for living that goes beyond writing software for the rest of my life.
In Christ, Amen ☩
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A prayer for when your past is a burden…
“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for being the Light of the World. But today I want to bless You especially for the light that You bring into my life, and the joy that I find even when it took me far too long to stop talking and to listen to You. Thank you for the future and opportunities that lay ahead – both those that I can see, and the ones that are invisible. Amen.”