I hold grudges. Twenty-five year-long grudges. I’m still angry about things that happened in elementary school. My resentments are lengthy and bitter. I never forget a slight, real or imagined.
Any hurt feelings I have linger, the behavior of assholes still irritates even though I have no interaction with those assholes, and any anger I feel over perceived unfair treatment, any display of bad form, or constantly being disappointed burns hot years later. Maybe not with the same intensity, but I feel the heat inside me all the same.
I have a long memory for the mistakes I’ve made and any feelings I may have hurt as well.
I should forgive other people and myself. But I don’t. I don’t forgive easily.
I guess I’m spiritually unhealthy because the ability to forgive is the height of spiritual health as I’m reminded constantly (or seemingly constantly) online. Some examples:
Pretty words and sentiments with a pretty design that are pretty hollow and meaningless. People act like forgiveness “sits there like a pretty boy in a bar” as Cheryl Strayed wrote in Tiny Beautiful Things*, and all you have to do is wave him over.
What forgiveness really is, according to Strayed, is “the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.”
And what are you hauling? A heavy load of legitimate hate, rage, bitterness, resentment, pain, hurt feelings, suffering, sadness. I haul this stuff because I think I’m right. I have righteous anger. I feel justified in holding on and I pull and pull and pull it all up the hill until one day it’s over. I let go of my twenty-five year-long grudge. Or it lets go of me.
How? That’s another thing no one ever tells you: how to forgive.
It happens in the way Barry Lyga describes it in Boy Toy:
…Forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once. It’s not an event — it’s a process. Forgiveness happens while you’re asleep, while you’re dreaming, while you’re inline at the coffee shop, while you’re showering, eating… It happens in the back of your mind, and then one day you realize that you don’t hate the person anymore, that your anger has gone away somewhere. And you understand. You’ve forgiven them. You don’t know how or why. It sneaked up on you. It happened in the small spaces between thoughts and in the seconds between ideas and blinks. That’s where forgiveness happens. Because anger and hatred, when left unfed, bleed away like air from a punctured tire, over time and days and years. Forgiveness is stealth.
Forgiveness isn’t something you do or choose. Forgiveness is an undoing. It’s an understanding, a place of understanding you reach. You get there by not trying to get there. I don’t believe you can get there by wishing, praying, positive thinking your anger or pain away. Suppressing and ignoring how you feel isn’t they way. To author Karla McLaren, real forgiveness
is an intense healing journey with no shortcuts, no magical techniques, and no road map. Real forgiveness can’t exist without true anger, true despair, true fear, and true emotional intensity.
In other words, hauling an old fat guy up a hill. Forgiveness isn’t like pushing a button or popping a pill and suddenly feeling instant relief. You get there by going through shit. Not around, but through. When you let yourself go through it, pulling and pulling, at the top of the hill is a realization. What do you realize? What the Buddha realizes or knows in this story:
The Buddha was sitting under a tree talking to his disciples when a man came and spit on his face. He wiped it off, and he asked the man, “What next? What do you want to say next?” The man was a little puzzled because he himself never expected that when you spit on somebody’s face, he will ask, “What next?” He had no such experience in his past. He had insulted people and they had become angry and they had reacted. Or if they were cowards and weaklings, they had smiled, trying to bribe the man. But Buddha was like neither, he was not angry nor in any way offended, nor in any way cowardly. But just matter-of-factly he said, “What next?” There was no reaction on his part. Buddha’s disciples became angry, they reacted. His closest disciple, Ananda, said, “This is too much, and we cannot tolerate it. He has to be punished for it. Otherwise everybody will start doing things like this.”
Buddha said, “You keep silent. He has not offended me, but you are offending me. He is new, a stranger. He must have heard from people something about me, that this man is an atheist, a dangerous man who is throwing people off their track, a revolutionary, a corrupter. And he may have formed some idea, a notion of me. He has not spit on me, he has spit on his notion. He has spit on his idea of me because he does not know me at all, so how can he spit on me?
“If you think on it deeply,” Buddha said, “he has spit on his own mind.”
Puzzled, confused, the man returned home. He could not sleep the whole night. When you see a Buddha, it is difficult, impossible to sleep again the way you used to sleep before. Again and again he was haunted by the experience. He could not explain it to himself, what had happened. He was trembling all over and perspiring. He had never come across such a man; he shattered his whole mind and his whole pattern, his whole past.
The next morning he was back there. He threw himself at Buddha’s feet. Buddha asked him again, “What next?
The man looked at Buddha and said, “Forgive me for what I did yesterday.”
Buddha said, “Forgive? But I am not the same man to whom you did it. The Ganges goes on flowing, it is never the same Ganges again. Every man is a river. The man you spit upon is no longer here. I look just like him, but I am not the same, much has happened in these twenty-four hours! The river has flowed so much. So I cannot forgive you because I have no grudge against you.”
“And you also are new. I can see you are not the same man who came yesterday because that man was angry and he spit, whereas you are bowing at my feet, touching my feet. How can you be the same man? You are not the same man, so let us forget about it. Those two people, the man who spit and the man on whom he spit, both are no more. Come closer. Let us talk of something else.”
The Buddha knew that forgiveness meant realizing that people don’t “spit on” you. They “spit on” their story about who they think you are. And your story about being “spit on” is what causes you distress. The Buddha forgave this man, but The Buddha didn’t do anything. He saw the man clearly. Forgiveness is seeing things clearly. The man who spit had changed and the Buddha had changed since being spit on, so who had been hurt?
I let go of my twenty-five year old grudge in the same way. I felt someone had “spit on” me and then in a new situation similar to the one I was angry about, I was the “spitter” and I realized I had intended no harm on the person I had hurt and I realized the person who I was angry at intended me no harm. Nothing changed. I just realized that I am a “spitter”, I have been “spit on”, and I have the ability to be The Buddha and see the situation the way it really is. Nothing changed except my story about it.
Real forgiveness is realizing that you were not injured in any way and the Truth is, with a capital T, that you never really can be. Because there is no separation between people. We are all one.
It takes time and honesty to get there. Or maybe it’s just me. I move slowly on most things. But it’s worth it. I don’t think there’s any other way to get there.
Byron Katie** said it best: “Forgiveness is the realization that what you thought happened, didn’t.”
It’s that place inside you that realizes there is nothing to forgive.
*I highly recommend Tiny Beautiful Things if you want to read the best written advice on how to get through life.
**If you feel stuck in any way or you’re a chronic overthinker and overanalyzer like me, Byron Katie’s The Work may help you get unstuck.