A Mouse, and the Conundrum of Forgiveness

I don’t hate the mouse that is running around my apartment. In fact, I’ve only seen it once, and it appeared to be as frightened of me as I was of it. It’s fall, and little critters (like the rest of us) are just looking for a way to survive the bitter winter. This particular bold rodent happened upon a way into my cozy space and decided to take up residence. Who could blame it – I have a nifty and warm place. I’ve forgiven the little thing for moving in, but let’s face it, a mouse is simply not wanted. Does forgiveness require that I live with the mouse? I don’t think so. Therefore, I’m going to set a trap for it, without rancor (but with some squeamishness).

Better-Mousetrap-640x260

Which gives me pause to think about forgiveness in other circumstances. If someone has harmed me or hurt me, and the harm or hurt is real (not simply a matter of pettiness), how far do I have to take this forgiveness thing? Can I forgive without forgetting? Is it forgiveness if I can’t return to former feelings of liking or respect for the individual? Have I forgiven someone if I remain unwilling to allow them close enough to hurt me again? Have I forgiven them if the experience continues to color my judgement of their words or behaviors? Can I forgive a person but still not welcome them back into my life?

These are important questions. The kind of questions for which easy answers are rarely forthcoming. But I had to give it a shot, right? I googled “quotes about forgiveness” and found the sort of wisdom you might expect:

“Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.” – Oscar Wilde
“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” –Mark Twain
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi

These statements aren’t much good for those of us seeking some practical insight or advice about forgiving and moving on. Then I came upon this:

“Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back.” ― Anne Lamott

Perfect! A measurement I can really use. I don’t need to hit back. Does that mean I’m finished? Unfortunately, I’ve never been the type of person who hits back. I’m more the “stand-with-mouth-haning-open-and-mind-suddenly-blank” type. So lacking the urge to hit back may not be the best measure of whether I’ve forgiven someone. But it’s a good start.

“Forgiveness must be immediate, whether or not a person asks for it. Trust must be rebuilt over time. Trust requires a track record.” ― Rick Warren

Forgiveness does not require that I immediately trust the individual again. Trust requires a track record, and IF I continue to be in direct relationship with this individual that record needs to be established. In fairness, this idea of a track record also means that if the hurtful/harmful behavior is an anomaly in a relationship of demonstrated trust, then trust might be called for sooner rather than later. Clearly, one sign that we’ve actually forgiven someone is that we’re able to regard them with fairness.

You may already have guessed that these questions, and my search for answers, are not purely academic in nature. I’ve always believed myself to be good with the forgiveness thing – but in the past, forgiveness hasn’t posed much of a problem because I was dealing with family and dearly loved friends. These individuals forgive me, and I forgive them, easily and often. The experience of forgiveness directed toward someone who was not emotionally as close but whose ability to hurt me was still high is a new one for me. I believe that forgiveness is key for my own growth and ability to move forward in life – which is why I am spending time living with these questions. And even though there is a specific application in this case, it never hurts to revisit our beliefs about such important life questions as the nature of forgiveness.

In the meantime, I have some business to resolve with a little mouse.

In Praise of Weakness (Just kidding! I hate weakness!)

 

If I had a dime for every time someone has told me, “You’re one of the strongest people I know,” or, “You’re so strong, I could never (fill in the blank) like you” I would have enough dimes to buy something really big. Right this minute, though, I just want to munch on something crunchy and salty, so I would use some of my imaginary dimes to buy a couple of boxes of Cheese Nips and call it a day. In my weaker moments, I have been known to down a whole box by myself.

Weaker moments. We all have them, even the strong ones among us. It is in vogue to wax eloquent about how failure and weakness are our great teachers in life – that without them we wouldn’t even understand, much less achieve, success or strength. And this may, in fact, be true.

But here is how weakness feels: Weak.

Powerless. Fearful. Humiliated. Vulnerable. Stupid. I can’t speak for you, but  I don’t like feeling this way. If I can avoid these feelings altogether, I will. Failing that, I will suppress them, push them deep inside to a place they won’t inadvertently be seen or heard. I know they’re there, but when they speak, I am the only one who hears. I can be so heavily invested in the image of myself as strong that the idea anyone else might see my weaknesses and vulnerabilities is untenable.

Problematically, suppression has limits. I can suppress my emotions really well, sometimes for a very long time. Then some event, often insignificant in itself, triggers their escape. That escape is usually unexpected and sometimes directs itself toward another person who is blindsided by my emotional outburst. In thinking of these moments, it turns out, I have been learning some valuable lessons from my weaknesses. But these lessons are not about success or strength in the traditional sense. They are about courage. And they are about love, friendship and forgiveness.

What can these awful, painful moments teach me about courage? They can teach me, first and foremost, that there is a price to be paid for hiding behind silence. Not that everything we feel needs to be blabbed to the world or played on constant repeat. Rather, that our weaknesses – insecurities, fears, vulnerabilities – are part of who we authentically are. We are all generally happy to share our light with others. But when we enter into relationship with another person, the quality and depth of that relationship is determined, to a degree, by how willing we are to share our darkness. No one falls in love with the models in the J.C. Penney catalog – they are good looking but one dimensional. We also don’t develop deep bonds with people who only show us their shiny bits. Just to be clear, this lesson about courage is one I haven’t fully grasped at the emotional level yet, and my practice of it is uneven at best (pitiful at worst).

I am on firmer, and more proven ground, when discussing the lessons my own weaknesses can teach me about love, friendship and forgiveness. After all, these lessons have been demonstrated time and again to be true. Demonstrated when someone on the receiving end of one of my emotional eruptions stays with me in an effort to understand what just happened (as opposed to sensibly, understandably, running away). Demonstrated when evidence of my darkest self results in compassion and the offer of support. Demonstrated in the gift of forgiveness when my inability to hold onto strength results in hurtful actions or words directed at myself or others.

I haven’t learned to celebrate my weaknesses because they are my teachers. I doubt I will ever get to that point. I am just on the upside of accepting that my weaknesses don’t make me an unlovable pariah. They do make me human. They give me the opportunity to practice courage by sharing my authentic self with others – without knowing in advance what the outcome of that will be, but trusting that it is the right path anyway. As I work to change the pattern of suppression followed by emotional outbursts, my weaknesses offer the chance to develop kinder, gentler coping skills (kinder, gentler to self and others). Coping skills that actually help me cope.

And while I can’t manage to actually celebrate my weaker self or weakest moments yet, I can truly celebrate those who offer their love, compassion, and forgiveness to a flawed me. I hope that I am able to return these gifts, with true joy and gratitude, when those I know and love are having their weaker moments. Who knows, I may even be willing to share my Cheese Nips with them!

What’s in a name?

My birth certificate reads: Jenifer Ann Hanson.  My parents told me, when I was young, that they spelled Jenifer with one “n” so that they could call me Jenny but spell it J-e-n-i.  Until I was in graduate school, everyone in the world called me Jeni.  Once at the University of Iowa, my faculty called me Jenifer because that was the name on the class lists, and I didn’t bother to correct them.  I liked the new identity that going by my full name provided.  Jeni was young, uncertain, self-conscious, girl-y.  But Jenifer was a mature and professional woman.  Pre-1986: Jeni.  Post-1986: Jenifer.

A lot of other life-altering events and processes took place post-1986 as well.  Including an almost complete break with the friends who had been important in my life until then.  I held onto family, and one or two people from graduate school.  Every five years or so, I’d be in touch with my college roommate, Vicky Powers Wong.  But other than that, there was a defining line that broke my life into two halves: before and after.  Some of those relationships ended in the normal course of life events which take us into new arenas, keep us busy with the daily tasks of living, and generally make it difficult to maintain contact (especially in those days, before cell phones, text messages and facebook).  Others ended over hurts, breakups, misunderstandings.  And some just from my own laziness about staying in touch, and friends who eventually gave up when I clearly was making no effort.

After a while, I realized I missed these people who had been such a part of my formative years.  By then, though, I didn’t know how to bridge the gaps and I lacked the self-confidence to believe that they would want to have me in their lives again.  There were no high school or college reunions for me…well, there was one disastrous reunion at Clarke where my nerves led me to drink too much and say exactly the wrong thing to everyone I saw.  That cemented my belief that the past was sealed to me, and since no one would speak to me by the brunch on Sunday I know I wasn’t imagining it!

This summer, when I least expected or looked for it, reconnection has happened.  I owe much of it to facebook, the rest to people with loving and forgiving hearts.  While each person I’ve reconnected with has been a joy and gift, there are three in particular to whom I owe a debt – Mike, Carol, and Marty.  And here’s why:  these three people knew me intimately at times in my life when I was both my best and worst self.  They saw me grow, strive, learn…they also saw me smoke, puke, make a fool of myself in public.  They always believed in the person I could be, even at times when I was far from behaving like her.  And after years of silence, these three who have reason to shun overtures from me, welcomed me back into their lives as if I am my best self now.

As part of this incredible summer, people from the before and people from the after have been meeting one another.  For me, this has been a little surreal at times  (as it was for Mike when everyone knew his name before my introduction).  When my sister Gwen’s family finally met the Dennis family, after more than a decade of hearing about one another, I was surprised by how much fun we had (and that my neices think its a good idea for us all to vacation together next summer).  Suddenly, people who have always known me as Jenifer have decided they have permission to call me Jeni — and those who have always called me Jeni have adamantly refused to call me anything else, unless they are making a point.  There is no longer a separation between people based on the name they use for me.

More important, I feel like there has been a reunification within myself, as stunning on a personal level as the reunification of Germany was on an international level.  I am whole in a way I wasn’t before – I embrace all versions of my name,  my self.  There are still unmended relationships from my past, a couple of people who haven’t accepted my friend requests.  But I want Carol, Marty, Mike — and all of the rest of you who have taken me back into your graces — to know how grateful I am.  The truth about real relationship is this:  how I feel about myself and/or you in a particular moment may vary. But below that, in the deeper always of my heart, there is love.

Affectionately yours,

Jeni