Posts Tagged ‘Forgiveness’

“To Be or Not To Be”

At some point, perhaps years before the night of my book party, alcohol and drinking began to occupy an increasing amount of my mental real estate. During the workday I eagerly anticipated cocktail hour. Or I perseverated over where to purchase a bottle of wine on my way home from work. Among my shopping criteria were selection, price range, and distance from my condo. But most importantly, how frequently or recently I had purchased from a certain place. I feared becoming recognized as a “regular” so I rotated my patronage accordingly.

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I have almost always had a complicated relationship with my sister. Whether this is due to sibling rivalry, our closeness in age (she is 18 months my junior), or because we are the same sex, I am not sure. What I do know is that our relationship often feels tense and restrained. There is no doubt that we love each other fiercely, but when it comes to showing one another that love, we fall short. To the outside observer, we may appear a couple of compatible 30-somethings, but each of us feels the divide between us, like an invisible brick wall.

We have tried to explain away this separation – we’re just too different, we don’t look at things the same way. Much like I’ve tried to live as if my job doesn’t need to be personally rewarding and based on passion, I’ve tried to live as if I don’t need to have a close relationship with my sister. But this has never been satisfying for me. And, I suspect, for her. As much as we try to make it appear otherwise, we both yearn for a more fulfilling sisterly bond.

When the tension peaks between us, it’s usually because of something supremely silly. The source of our latest conflict was a jeans jacket. She liked mine, I ordered it for her in what I deduced was the right size, and she ended up returning it for a different size. Not a big deal, right? But when she told me she was returning it, I felt as though she was rejecting me and my love! I took offense and told her it was “annoying.” In response, she “stepped back” from the situation, and didn’t respond to my text messages or emails. This went on for a couple of weeks until I wrote her a long email explaining that underneath my snippy response were hurt feelings. What’s more, I told her that I felt rejected, unseen, and unappreciated.

The day after I sent the email, I was at my parents’ house on Long Island, getting ready for a baby shower for my cousin’s wife. While changing clothes in my childhood bedroom, I noticed a picture sitting on my chest of drawers for the one-thousandth time: A 3×3 inch square photo of my sister and me smiling at the camera. She is about 3 years old and I’m about 5. We are standing near the front door of our grandparents’ house in upstate New York; we are in our bathing suits, probably getting ready to go swimming in the old watering hole. My sister has on some kind of cape, and I’m tying it in a bow at her neck. The picture is in a small plastic frame that my sister decorated with our names and the words “Sisters are forever.” She gave it to me as a gift years ago; I don’t remember the occasion but she probably does. In the picture, we both look so carefree and happy (and are approximately the current age of her two daughters). There isn’t a trace of our current conflict on either of our faces. Looking at it again, I realized how we were wasting time being so unkind to one another. That in addition to feeling love for one another, we needed to practice showing it.

When my sister read my email, it hit her like a ton of bricks. There is no one that I know who tries harder to be a good person, friend, neighbor, wife, and mother. No one who thinks of others more, or spends more time caring for others instead of herself. The suggestion that she had hurt me flew in the face of everything she tries to be and do. When she called me to talk, it was with guns blazing because she felt as if she needed to defend herself.

At first our conversation was adversarial. She was fixated on the fact that there wasn’t anything else she could have done about the jeans jacket to make me not feel rejected. I insisted her “stepping back” made matters worse. She reminded me how different we are, that we have different lives and different priorities, and that we’ve had this type of conversation before and yet here we were again. I suggested that we could try to put the past behind us and focus on what we wanted from our relationship now.

And then something shifted. The bottom fell out of whatever short-term satisfaction we got from pointing out how we had been hurt or wronged more than the other. Suddenly we were able to hear one another. I asked her “Would you like our relationship to be different?” She responded “Yes.” I asked her “How would that look and feel?” She responded “I would call you to talk about my day or to discuss something I’m going through.”

I asked her if she ever felt the same things I wrote about in my email – hurt, unappreciated, unseen. She said she did. We talked about how we love one another differently than we love anyone else in the world and how, given this fact and the knowledge of our respective sensitivities, wishes, and needs, we are in a unique position to give one another exactly what we yearn for – to recognize one another, to cherish one another, to make the other feel special and loved.

Since our conversation, my relationship with my sister has changed; the confusion and hardness we felt before has softened. The brick wall has come down a bit and with it the barriers to reach out to one another via phone, email, or text. We seem to reveal ourselves more fearlessly, show one another our vulnerabilities and to invite the other in. It feels as if we are appreciating each other more, and in doing so, we are appreciating the moment more, giving it the respect and gratitude it’s due. By dropping our stories about how we have been wronged, we are able to touch that soft spot we both have in spades. And (at the risk of sounding like Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy) to recognize that we deserve to love and to be loved in return.

sisters are forever

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Last week I had lunch with a new friend. It was a raw, honest conversation that bolstered our new bond. It also made me acutely aware of the ways we all suffer, how much we need one another, and how we can want that least when we need it most. He had to get back to work but as I left the restaurant and walked down the block, we were already texting one another, him to apologize for running off, me to chide him for not telling me I had flax seeds in my teeth.

I had just hit ‘send’ when I heard the screech of a set of tires. I looked up to see a jeep mid-intersection, mid-right-turn, about 6 inches from a crossing pedestrian. And as I (and everyone in a half-block radius) registered what had just happened, the jeep remained motionless while the pedestrian, a woman frozen in place, broke down. I walked into the intersection, took her by the arm and led her, sobbing by now, to the sidewalk where she leaned against a lamppost.

The jeep pulled over and just sat for a few minutes while the woman and I stood there, sort of holding one another up, breathing deeply, and fully realizing what could have just happened. This would only happen to me, she said, I’ve just come from radiation. And my own eyes welled in response to her thinking she could be responsible for this near-miss. And maybe even her cancer?

Then the driver got out and came over, visibly shaken himself, and said, I am so sorry, I can’t believe this just happened, I didn’t even see you. To which she responded without a hint of anger or self-righteousness, It’s alright, nobody got hurt. The three of us just stood there, a little triangle of basic goodness, feeling our own pain and that of the two other people in front of us. Raw and honest.

Had this unfolded slightly differently (and no one in New York City would be particularly surprised if it had), the same near-miss might have led to a screaming match about who was right and who was wrong between two people (and any number of onlookers) who felt vulnerable, fearful, and painfully aware of the difference a half a second or a half a foot can make. And the opportunity to allow those feelings and that awareness, and the choice to be kind to one another, would have been lost.

In those few moments, three people – three strangers – were there with one another. To hold that discomfort. And after those moments passed, we went off in our separate directions.

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During the last week, a lot has happened. The bombings that seem so long ago occurred just 9 days back. The around-the-clock news coverage by the journalists that besieged Boston seemed to stretch out painful moments interminably. Like many people, I was glued to my television until the surreal news came through the scanners that this confused, 19-year-old man-child was wounded and captured alive.

Add to that my own confusion, stress, concern for those affected, (temporary and non-serious) illness, and several days away from my home, and it seems not so unlikely that I would fail to do one of the things that supports me through difficult times. As often happens to me during times of intense emotional stress, last week I stopped meditating.

My natural impulse is to berate myself for this illogical lapse or to force myself to sit for a long period to “make up” for lost time. But as I delve deeper into practicing imperfection, I’m exploring the effects of being gentle with myself.

Instead of flogging, I forgave. And instead of harsh self-discipline, I tried to remember the reasons I do this practice. I sat for just 5 minutes one day as a form of re-entry; the next day I sat for a longer period of time and listened to full meditation instruction. Tonight I will try to sit again, with a sense of gentleness and loving-kindness.

At times like these, being gentle with ourselves and one another may be the most important thing we can do.

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For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with self-doubt. I felt there was something different about me, something not quite right. While other children seemed confident in who they were and what they wanted, I was never quite sure of myself. As a result, I became very interested in and curious about others, how they felt, how they knew what they knew.

To some extent, I still navigate the world in this way. I ask people a lot of questions about how they handle day-to-day events, relationships, and feelings. I bounce my thoughts off of trusted friends and family members, hoping to find myself somewhere on the continuum of “normalcy” and to triangulate my way toward a sense of certainty and rightness. Still, I don’t quite trust my intuition and my own goodness.

The concept of basic goodness is foundational in Buddhism. In contrast to original sin, Buddhism holds that humans are essentially good, clear-seeing, loving, and compassionate. In Ocean of Dharma, Chogyam Trungpa writes:

The Buddha discovered that there is something in us known as basic goodness. Therefore, we don’t have to condemn ourselves for being bad or naughty. The Buddha taught what he had learned to the rest of mankind. What he taught then – twenty-five hundred years ago – is still being taught and practiced. The important point for us is to realize that we are basically good. Our only problem is that sometimes we don’t actually acknowledge that goodness. We don’t see it, so we blame somebody else or we blame ourselves. That is a mistake. We don’t have to blame others, and we don’t have to feel nasty or angry. Fundamental goodness is always with us, always in us.

When I first learned about basic goodness, it was difficult to think of myself in this light. As a life-long self-doubter, it was easier to see the basic goodness in others than in myself. I still struggle with it.

This past weekend I took the refuge vow to formalize my commitment to the Buddhist path. I took refuge in the Buddha as an example of a human being who attained enlightenment. I took refuge in the dharma – the truth – the teachings of the Buddha on the nature of reality. And I took refuge in the sangha, the community of practitioners who are all on their own lonely paths but who are also there to support one another.

As part of the ceremony I was given a Tibetan name – Champa Wangmo – which can be roughly translated as “maitri (or loving-kindness) lady.” The Acharya who named me explained to those of us taking the vow that in his experience, we grow to embody our refuge names over the course of a lifetime. While I am sure I will be figuring out the meaning of this new name for many years to come, I have some initial thoughts.

Maitri has been described by Chogyam Trungpa and other Buddhist teachers as an unconditional friendliness, toward others and especially toward oneself. Maitri has also been described, most recently by the wonderful Susan Piver, as an antidote to self-doubt. This is not about countering doubt by beating my breast and proclaiming all my wonderful, lovable qualities. And it’s not about “managing” or forgiving myself for being scared or petty or small-minded. I’m beginning to see it’s about opening to myself with the same sense of love and welcome that I have for others.

Since taking the refuge vow, my thoughts and emotions have gone technicolor. My doubts and fears feel magnified, and I have an increasing sense of groundlessness. I have reached out to friends and family to talk through my concerns, for some consolation, for someone to confirm me, but the feelings haven’t changed. After a few days of confusion, I realized this is exactly what I signed up for.

In practicing maitri or loving-kindness, I am practicing turning toward all of the scary, uncomfortable feelings with softness and a sense of welcome. I think this is the practice of my lifetime. And it’s all good, basically.

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Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. ~Soren Kierkegaard

Have you ever wished you could communicate with yourself at a different time in your life? Perhaps you would tell your teenaged self not to worry so much about what others think. Or remind your happily coupled self how you once thought you would never find someone.

The impulse to provide that reassurance to oneself is a very loving one, and doesn’t necessarily require time travel. For one thing, we can share our stories with others, offering them some “been there, done that, it gets better” perspective. Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project and Ellen Spraigins’ Letters To My Younger Self do just that. I imagine the authors wish they could have offered themselves this counsel at the time, but barring that, did the next best thing: offered it to the next generation.

Often I would like to communicate with myself in the more recent past. At the moment, I wish I could have communicated with myself last Monday, when I hit a wall and found myself glued to the couch. I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and paralyzed. Weighed down by my anxiety and an utter lack of space, which seemed not only solid, but permanent. I lost all perspective. The following day I felt completely differently and wondered to myself, “what was that all about?”

If the more neutral me could have communicated with the paralyzed me, I would have said, “Take the day to sit still. You are recuperating from a big move and changes at work. You’re also preparing for the next chapter in your life. Relax and don’t stress about needing to relax.”

Recently, after a particularly shocking loss of perspective during which I completely freaked out on my boyfriend for pushing some ancient button he didn’t even know existed, I had the idea to write myself a letter. The letter read:

Dear Jenna

You are overreacting. You are not a bad person. You are a good person with some bad habits. [Name of innocent boyfriend] loves you and (like you) is doing his best. You should do something to make yourself feel better – exercise, get a pedicure, go for a massage, go for a walk, or all of the above. You will feel better tomorrow.


I gave the letter to my boyfriend with the instructions to present it to me (with my blessing) the next time I overreacted in this fashion. But he really hasn’t had to do that. Just knowing that that letter exists has helped me navigate some of my most confusing moments; knowing I had the presence of mind at some point to write it reminds me that there is space even when I can’t seem to detect it and that whatever I am feeling at the moment, it will pass.

In The Places That Scare You, Pema Chodron writes about training in the three difficulties:

  1. acknowledging our neurosis as neurosis,
  2. doing something different, and
  3. aspiring to continue practicing this way

Whether we get the message in a letter from ourselves, from someone else, or by practicing sitting and looking at our minds, noticing our thoughts and feelings allows the space necessary for change.

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When I was a ‘tween, I had a dear friend named Gwen. We were two oddballs. While other girls our age were boy crazy, Gwen and I were obsessed with the Broadway musical Cats. We knew all of the songs by heart, purred and arched our backs and strutted together, licked our paws.

When we were not quite old enough, Gwen and I watched The Breakfast Club. John Hughes at his finest. The princess, the athlete, the criminal, the brain, and the basket case: Five students with seemingly nothing in common spend a Saturday afternoon together in high school detention and learn they are more similar than they thought. Anyone who watched the movie could identify with one or more of the archetypes. Either they were one of the popular kids – the beautiful rich girl or the clean-cut jock – or they weren’t for one reason or another – too smart, too poor, too weird.

I was dazzled by Claire’s sense of style, her effortless beauty, the way she danced; intimidated by the arrogance of Andrew the athlete and John the criminal; cautious of Allison, the basket case. I identified most with Brian, the awkward bookworm who took academic failure far too seriously. In its oversimplified way, The Breakfast Club acknowledged the unwritten rules of high school society, what determined which social caste you fit into. After the film was over, however, we never saw what happened to the characters 20 years later.

Gwen and I stayed friends for about another year before she ended our friendship; her family moved away shortly thereafter and she attended a different school. Losing a friend in this way was not new to me. During the previous 2 years, I was (for lack of a better word) dumped by several other girlfriends. The friend who drifted away the moment we moved from our small elementary school to the larger middle school where through some secret ritual she emerged as one of the popular girls; the friend who called to inform me we were no longer best friends because that position was now occupied by her cooler cousin who’d recently moved into town; the friend who had a crush on the boy who in turn had a crush on me, thus ending our friendship, but not before she spread a rumor that I stuffed my bra; and the group of girls who called en masse to let me know I was being let go and that they collectively thought I needed “mental help.”

At the time, I was most troubled by the rejection and the loneliness. Like everything else, though, they passed and weren’t all bad as they definitely contributed to the introverted, sensitive, and thoughtful person I am today. What lingered, however – and what sometimes troubles me to this day – was never knowing what I had done, what made me so unilaterally intolerable to those I held closest. I suppose there are a number of explanations: maybe I was a jerk, maybe my friends were mean girls, or maybe I happened to be a repeat casualty of the fickle teenage years. Regardless of the cause, the result was the same.

Soon after my friends separated themselves from me, I began drinking to fit in with a different crowd. (This is not to blame anyone for my drinking; I could have picked up physics or community service, but I chose instead to drink.) And drinking became my way of coping, with uncertainty, with social anxiety, with loneliness. It worked…for a while.

Since I quit drinking nearly 5 years ago, one of my greatest challenges has been dealing with the same uncomfortable feelings without the buffer of alcohol. My meditation practice has offered me the opportunity to face these feelings without cutting myself off from them. Meditation encourages me to lean into the discomfort, to become curious about it, and to look at it squarely without rose-colored glasses or the stink eye.

Recently, I attended my 20-year high school reunion. In the days leading up to the reunion, I prepared myself for every possibility: who I might see, what feelings might arise, and how I could react. Walking in that night, I felt fairly grounded. What I was not prepared for, however, was seeing Gwen, who all but disappeared when she ended our friendship and who didn’t even graduate with us.

Seeing her brought back all of the uncertainty, the insecurity, and the unsettling feelings I tried to put to rest. But in that moment, I recognized what I was feeling, acknowledged it without reacting or repressing, and let it go. I moved past Gwen and into a room filled with other nervous, excited, and nostalgic people (most of whom had a drink in hand).

Surely I wasn’t the only one there with insecurities or unanswered questions, but most of us seemed to check those at the door. Conversations focused on what we were doing now: home, work, kids, families. Part of the beauty of a 20-year reunion is that you forget most of the reasons you were friends with one person but not another. What remains is the familiar outline of someone’s face – perhaps with a few extra lines or gray hairs – and the knowledge that we shared an experience a while back. As adults, most of us learned that kindness, compassion, and curiosity are more important than being one of the cool kids. One of my former classmates exclaimed, “I wish things were like this 20 years ago!”

Before I left the reunion, I spoke with an old friend and congratulated her on all the wonderful things she had achieved since we left high school. I still haven’t forgotten her response. She said that people never seem to miss a chance to remind you of your mistakes, but that every one of them was necessary and brought her to where she is now.

NOW being the operative word. I guess we could all say that.

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