Thanksgiving is a few days away, and for many of us this can be a time of intense emotions and feelings: happiness, anxiety, joy, sadness, contentment, loneliness, inner peace, anger and resentment, compassion, disappointment, belonging, rejection, anticipation…and at least for me, the “negative” emotions are doubly charged because I don’t think that I should be feeling these…especially around the holidays. But I’ve come to know that part, if not all, of the pain is the result of me resisting what is happening or what I am feeling in the moment…thinking that things/people should be different than they are/were, or that I should be different than I am/was.
When I find myself in the middle of this negative thought, I try first of all to acknowledge the feelings…not fight with them…and then, if I can, I try to find a different/new way of seeing.
This isn’t easy with old wounds. If I can catch myself in a new situation that is challenging, and I don’t let it gain momentum, often times it transforms…but with those old experiences that I didn’t have the tools or the desire to handle in a higher way, I unconsciously built up a stories and told them (even if just to myself) over and over until my version, my small little painful version, seemed like the only truth. There is a part of the mind that strongly balks at the idea of seeing painful situations in a new light…especially if we feel we were the ones who were “innocent”.
When my father died in February and had cut off communication with me for the last 6 months of his life, I had a pretty strong resentment against him and his wife, Jane, who didn’t let me know about his condition, and left it to her daughter to call me after he had died. During that phone call, she casually told me that my father was very important to her and that he only wanted her there during his last days. I didn’t even know this woman. It felt like the final insult from all of them, and yet, I knew a different story.
While my father was alive, and we were communicating, he would say to me, almost every time we met, “Jane is very hard but I’m too old to get a divorce. I have to go to her family functions. They don’t mean anything to me.” He was tired. He didn’t want to fight with her so he gave up and gave in. My father was a good actor and he was dishonest in so many ways, but I still loved him and I knew that he loved me.
So, several months after his death when I still felt angry and indignant, I made a decision to see things differently. I didn’t try to see a new angle, but I wanted to be out of the pain of resentment so I became willing…I became a little bit more open. Shortly after I made this decision, while on a walk, I had a huge insight and saw the last 6 months of my father’s life in a new way, “He was sick and dependent on Jane. There was no way that anyone was going to see him except they go through her. He was sparring me that! Oh my god…I knew the truth of it. Maybe it was cowardly on his part, maybe it wasn’t a healthy way of dealing with our relationship but it was his way of protecting me and it was the best he could do.” As I continued on my walk, I thanked him and I could feel his energy and smile…I heard him laugh. I got it.
But now I needed to see the situation with his wife and stepdaughter in a new way, because I didn’t feel the love with them and never had a positive history to draw upon.
I’ve watched myself over this past year with several resentments…thinking they are gone and then finding the angry thoughts back and as intense as ever. I’ve even exclaimed in exasperation, “I wish this could just be gone once and for all! I am so sick of thinking about ____”. But was I really?
Being honest with myself, I had to say no, I wasn’t. There was something that I was getting out of these resentments and the rehashing of the past. In the AA literature, there is a line that has always stayed with me,
“In a perverse way we can actually take satisfaction from the fact that many people annoy us, for it brings a comfortable feeling of superiority.” (The Twelve and Twelve, page 67)
Did I feel superior to Jane and her daughter? When I asked this question, I had to say that yes I did. I knew their history…I also knew how Jane and my father had met and it was extremely embarrassing for him.
Had I forgiven her? No. I’d only given it lip service.
Ouch. Now I could see it clearly. Forgiveness is a spiritual law…if I don’t do it, then I don’t feel it. Period. I could hold onto these resentments forever and not allow myself to grow or I could do the very big work of allowing a new way of seeing. This is where my immature adolescent girl rears her head. She would rather say, “F you. You hurt me and now I hope that you are miserable. No way I want you to feel happy and blessed. I want you to suffer!”
But my higher self says, “You are the one who is suffering, Mary. It is time to let go. It is time to forgive so you can be free. The choice is yours. You want it to be easy but maybe it isn’t. Is that OK with you? Are you willing to go through the fire as the petty, vengeful, thoughts burn away?”
And I answered, “Yes I am. Help!” A few days later I was helping Jack clean out an old trunk at his store and he handed me a book, The Gentle Art of Blessing, that I’d given him a few years back. I opened it and read the following passage,
“What is appealing about the spiritual path, as the American spiritual teacher Ram Dass has stressed, is that everything is ‘grist for the mill.’ Absolutely everything—a traffic jam, an illness, a theft, a noisy neighbor, a flat tire—becomes an opportunity to learn, discover, progress, repent, rejoice, unveil, awaken, love more, and wonder. The smallest detail of life, every single encounter—be it with a saint or a snail—can sparkle with tender interest and become aglow with enchantment.”*
These few words helped me to reframe my resentments…why not simply call them “grist”. I loved that thought. If the grinding feelings inside can be redirected from telling the same old painful story to a feeling of productive energy then why not give this a try…and I did. Instantly I felt lighter and more open. Who doesn’t want to “sparkle with tender interest and become aglow with enchantment”?
This lovely little book opened a door for me…a door that I was ready and willing to walk through…what a relief…. not that I’m done with this work…maybe it will go on for as long as I am alive. Fine. I’m human too. Sometimes I feel so inadequate to the task…but sometimes not.
So, as this season of Light approaches, I wish for you all open hearts and open doors…and if you’re not ready to walk through them yet, fine…I love you anyway, just as I am loved as I walk, and sometimes stumble, on this path of awakening. I love you as I love myself because you are human too and you and I have egos that sometimes act like spoiled kids…and sometimes we can just laugh at this…but we keep walking.
*The Gentle Art of Blessing by Pierre Pradervand