Forgiveness: The Story We Tell Ourselves

A few weeks ago, I took an all-day train and boat trip to see some Orcas in the wild. (Side note: sometimes I read the sentences I’ve written about my life and I have trouble believing how magical it is. I love Alaska.) When I wasn’t gawking at the scenery going by (mountains, glaciers, moose, bears… Oh my) I was reading. Two books, both a lot to chew on: Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey and The Emotionally Abused Woman by Beverly Engel. I kept alternating between them because each one was a lot to handle at once. They made for an interesting combination. Two kinds of empowerment, side by side.

The Emotionally Abused Woman was illumating when it comes to uncovering pain. And, as my friend and fellow traveler (physically and metaphorically) pointed out, what woman hasn’t been abused at some point? The number of women I know who haven’t is very, very low.

It’s a good thing to uncover pain, to lean into it, explore it, get angry about it. The first few chapters covered that, but then the author had this to say: “The entire healing process would likely take quite some time. During this time, you would be working on becoming more self-reliant, learning to trust your own judgment and perceptions, and raising your self-esteem…” She goes on to recommend psychotherapy, group therapy. Years of both.

Maybe I’m a dreamer, but… why does that have to take time? I don’t buy that.

Lies are the foundation of abuse. Lies that stick, lies that we start repeating to ourselves over and over. I will agree that it often takes time to realize I’ve been lied to. Abuse imprints the lies so deeply into my psyche that I confuse them for Reason, Conscience, Truth. I begin to see my world through them. If I have lived in that cloud for years, it can be difficult to learn to discern what is fog over my eyes and what is True. The world clear of fog looks unnatural and scary. It doesn’t look Real because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it. That takes time.

But there are two ways to deal with that. One is to clear the fog with a borrowed story specific to the pain. Engel follows her statement about the lengthy healing process with a recommendation for twelve-step programs, specifically Adult Children of Alcoholics and Codependents Anonymous. I have quite a few friends in recovery. Some have embraced the recovery identity, and they are amazing people who have saved countless other lives. I have nothing but respect for them. But there are others who have stepped beyond the recovery community. They feel like the constant reinforcement of the Addict identity is too limiting, that its ability to empower has a ceiling. I tend to agree with them. I don’t want my identity to be Addict/Abuse Victim/[Insert Weakness Here]. I want my identity to be Amy, Beloved Daughter of the Living God.

The power of recognizing pain is that it shows me that I need to be healed. Like the blind man in the Bible, I need to recognize the pain and WANT healing before it can happen. But borrowed identity that focuses on the pain point only addresses one wound at a time (or several). If I build my armor for each flaming dart that comes at me, I will spend my life constantly building new defenses. “My name is Amy and I’m a…[fill in the blank]” only battles the [fill in the blank].

It’s a mentality that builds an artifice around each wound. It comes up with rules that help us battle the thing that hurt us before. “Never again!” I won’t belittle myself again by repeating insults in my head, and here’s how. I won’t marry someone like that again, and here’s how. It acknowledges the power of the thing without overcoming it. If I don’t transcend the fog—if I only borrow some lenses that help me see through it —it has limited effectiveness.

I want to learn to shine in the fog instead of waiting for the light to come to me. I want to be the lighthouse instead of listening for the foghorn. Could it be that this is what Jesus meant when He called us the light of the world?

That is the second way, to BE the thing rather than to borrow it, to tell myself a big story instead of small one that’s pain-specific. I recently told a story at a local story-telling forum about a necklace my ex-husband bought me. As I put it on for a date, I remembered some odd things about when he gave it to me. The past took on a new meaning, and as I unpacked the new story, the necklace became something different for me. I sat in that for awhile, feeling bad for myself. And then I decided enough was enough. And I rewrote the story—the meaning of the past—with the Truth that I know deep in the core of my being.

The thing is, the past doesn’t change. What has happened to us doesn’t change. How it affects us does change, and we have a tremendous amount of power over that. Forgiveness is an incredibly powerful thing for everyone concerned. Lifechanging.

I’m not recommending glossing over the bad things that have been done to us. Forgiveness is not saying, “It’s okay,” or “they didn’t mean it.” It’s not swallowing the bad things others have done to us. It’s not keeping quiet about them, either. I think real forgiveness requires feeling the pain—REALLY feeling it. We have to see and feel the pain before we can look it square in the eye and decide that it will not define us.

The best definition of forgiveness I’ve heard is that it is deciding that the sin done against you will no longer affect you. That you will not try to compensate for the loss by hurting others OR YOURSELF. There may be layers of things to uncover that we need to forgive, but as we do, the decision to forgive at each step in the process can be a quick one. It’s deciding that who I am is not about what has been done to me. It’s a decision that may need to be made over and over, but every time it comes up it can be a quick one if I learn to tell myself the right story.

Isn’t that what Christ taught us? His blood paid the price and we are now God’s children, no matter what we’ve done or will do? I can forgive because I’m forgiven. My identity no longer depends on what I—or others—do. I can suspend my “right” to judge because there is nothing anyone can do that can take away my right standing before God. If I can tell myself that story, wrongs turn into learning experiences. I can give away my cloak and I can turn the other cheek.

Just the Beginning: What #MeToo is Really Doing

If there ever comes a time when the women of the world come together purely and simply for the benefit of mankind, it will be a force such as the world has never known.—Matthew Arnold

It would be easy to see the stories of people being charged and convicted of crimes as a result of #MeToo and breathe a satisfied sigh that the movement has done its job, that the world is a safer place because some victims were able to connect the dots, connect with each other, and stand up for their right to be treated like valuable human beings. Lesson learned, awareness raised. Let’s dust off our hands and let #MeToo join the ranks of hashtags past alongside #IceBucketChallenge.

It might also be easy to see #MeToo descending into a witchhunt. If what #MeToo delivers is only (or even mostly) a platform for pointing out offenses that have occurred, it is true that it would not be hard to abuse it. Inertia (or the vast, as yet unplumbed scope of a real problem) could take us to some dark places.

But I don’t think we’ve seen the real end results of #MeToo yet. What happened wasn’t just a moment in time where women felt enabled to speak out. It wasn’t even just a recognition of the pervasiveness of the problem of sexual assault and abuse. #MeToo was the worldwide, public confirmation of our instincts.

For most women, #MeToo wasn’t a revelation. It was a validation of that quiet voice that not only said, “This isn’t right,” but also, “I bet I’m not the only one.” We’ve suppressed it for a long time, because if that voice is right… oh, the implications. There are times when I hear my intuition and ignore it because to believe it means that my world will be turned upside down. I deny it because, if I don’t, it means I’ve spent my life in a fog of lies. Sometimes it feels easier to stay in the fog… We are built for love. We will take whatever excuse we can find to not tear apart our world with our own hands, even if silence comes at the price of our rights and our dignity.

#MeToo tells us that our instincts are right.  It makes that small voice inside us impossible to ignore. Look carefully, and you’ll see that women everywhere are starting to listen to our inner voices when they tell us something isn’t right. Watch, and you’ll see us following our own stories instead of the ones we’ve been told. We are starting to confirm our instincts. Again and again, stronger and more confident every time. #MeToo has given the world cause to believe us. But more than that, it has helped us believe ourselves. And believing ourselves is just the beginning.

Fat and Happy

I had an epiphany today. I am an emotional eater, and more often than not that means I eat because I’m happy. That’s right. It’s a GOOD thing. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been, but when I look in the mirror, I see French cheese and dinners with people I care about. I’m not saying it’s phsyically healthy or even the best way to deal with happiness, but it’s not the way I’ve been thinking about food.

I was processing that epiphany and what it means for all of my posts where I’ve compared sex and emotional eating when a friend texted me:

“I made 5:15 [fancy special occasion steakhouse] dinner reserverations. Tonight. You in?”

“Hell yes. What’s the occasion?”

“I fucking need [fancy special occasion steakhouse] is the occasion. And you.”

Now, this friend… This will not be the last time he shows up on my blog, so I’ll give him a name—Bernard. He’s quite possibly the least Bernard-y person I know. I figure if I’m going to give someone a fake name, it should be REALLY fake. I’m tempted to call him “Not Bernard” or simply Bernard, but for the sake of my sanity and yours, I’ll just stick with Bernard.

Now, this friend Bernard has had one of the most horrific years I can imagine. And the last week has been kind of the brimstone icing on the cake from hell. When he says he needs [fancy special occasion steakhouse], that is not a throwaway statement. He’s had a horrible year, and he is a man who feels deeply. All the feels. Grief, joy, love, pain—he is not afraid of them.

I thought to myself, “what is it when a person who’s hurting deeply wants [fancy special occasion steakhouse]? I know this person, and I know that for him, this is not a distraction, it’s not a few moments of reprieve from grief. He will bring grief with him to dinner—I don’t think he’s capable of doing anything else. So what is it, then?” And something clicked in me. Something I never understood about joy in the face of grief, about whistling in the dark or the band playing as the Titanic sank or doing a happy thing because it’s what a deceased loved one “would have wanted”. It is this: that hopelessness is not our ally, that sometimes doing battle with wrong in the world means hanging onto joy with every ounce of strength. In the face of suffering (or, worse, the suffering of people we love), it is tempting to feel like I’m countering the Bad Thing by wallowing in sorrow, by taking the hopelessness of the moment and extending it into the foreseeable future. We embrace the reality of our grief and other feelings by letting them become everything.

Joy can feel inauthentic and disingenuous in the face of suffering. And certainly embracing distractions or numbing the pain can rob it of meaning. This is not the place for platitudes. But there is a place where real grief and authentic joy live alongside each other. Where solidarity with someone hurting or lost means that I grieve with them but hang onto hope when they can’t any more. When I own hope and joy and do not let the bad thing take them away from me even if my friend may have lost sight of them for himself. Sing and cry. Hold the light of hope in the face of darkness and loses its power to overwhelm. Weaponize joy.

I don’t know how to do this. I think… for it to be effective, I have to have one foot firmly planted in grief and one in joy. The thing is, I’m not great at either. I’m so accustomed to stuffing feelings away where they’re less disruptive. Bad feelings, good feelings, any feelings. I’m happy to draw them out in other people. But damned if I’m going to show them myself. I don’t have either foot firmly planted in any emotional space—I dance on top of feelings like hot coals. I don’t touch them any more than I have to.

When Bernard and I went on our first date, he got me crying (and cried a bit himself). We cried over life, the universe, everything. When you’re our age (around 40) and dating, there’s a lot of life to talk about, and a lot of it is emotionally moving. But having someone I barely knew SEE me—understand where I was and reflect it to me in such a powerful way—freaked me out. This was not the first time crying has happened on a first date, but it is the first time I was the one doing it. I’m happy to push and prod other people into vulnerability. But I’m not so happy to have someone else do that to me. I’ve gotten so adept at avoiding it by directing the conversation to the person I’m talking to that it is rare for someone to get past my armor. It was scary. I’m glad Bernard pursued a second date even after I turned him down a few times.

When I was going through my divorce, I learned a lot about vulnerability. I cried—openly—in just about every coffee shop in the city of Anchorage. Crisis got past my wall, and it was a good thing. But crisis and vulnerability have faded a bit, and with them my capacity to feel things. Not that the emotion isn’t there, but when I don’t express it, it comes out sideways. And I get scared and hide it.

Apparently I also eat emotion, bad and good. Which raises the question, what if I’m not eating to suppress emotions, but because for me it’s an acceptable emotional outlet? Eating quesadillas is easier than crying. Eating fancy steak dinner is easier than feeling… happy? I consume to express something that needs to come out, and eating is a way I know how to do it. It’s not so much that I am getting rid of the feeling, but that it needs to come out and eating is the way I know how to do it. In a nutshell, I’ve always thought of emotional eating as letting emotions have too much territory. I’m beginning to wonder if I got it backwards, if I eat emotions because I’m not letting them have enough presence and power.

I’m not sure where to go with it yet, but I’m going to chew on it awhile. And maybe next time I feel like eating a mid-afternoon quesadilla, I’ll find a way to let out the Amy who sings and cries instead.