Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Most Selfish Wonderful Thing You Can Do for Yourself

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s latest and, as usual, brilliant, book of essays, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace.  I am always inspired by her writing and it always puts me in a contemplative mode.  One of the themes that keeps coming up in the book is forgiveness, and I remembered I’d been thinking about the very same thing recently.

I harbored anger and resentment to two people in my life for years: one of these people knew it and the other would have been surprised to hear it.  But little by little my anger and resentment have been slipping away, until all of a sudden one day I realized that I had forgiven them both.  Oh! How about that…

Now, for a long time I didn’t want to forgive them, but as I’ve proceeded slowly along my lifelong spiritual journey I have realized the benefits of forgiveness—though yes, I admit I’ve thought about this from a purely selfish, not altruistic perspective.

There’s a great Buddhist parable about two monks walking through the woods; they come across a woman who is unable to make her way across the river in front of them.  They eventually decide to carry her across, then they part and proceed through the woods.  The younger monk agonizes about having broken the rules, for the monks were not supposed to touch women, and he asks the older monk why he isn’t more bothered about this.  The older monk replies, “because I left the woman at the shore but you’re still carrying her.”

So I was sick of carrying around this burden of all the energy I was expending feeling hateful, and also remembered the saying attributed to Nelson Mandela that resentment is like drinking poison and then expecting the other person to die.  I decided to put my money where my mouth is and try some of the compassion I’m always spouting off about.  One thing that happened was I recognized that a lot of the negative emotion I had was based on wrongdoings on the two people’s parts that it’s very possible I was projecting onto them as much as they were actually responsible for.  The other wrongdoings were objectively on them, but I realized they were not done out of malice but rather were just individuals being who they are, doing what they do, oblivious to the deleterious effects on others (in the case of one person, I used to think that they had ruined my life).

Anyway, all this contemplation and these revelations began to mellow me, and I stopped engaging so angrily with these people at first, then deliberately tried to engage with them in positive ways (which admittedly started out as “fake it ‘til you make it”). Until the recent moment that I realized I had forgiven them, and in doing so released myself.

As Lamott puts it in Small Victories, “[T]he choice is whether you want to stay stuck in being right but not being free.”