Forgiveness and the Experience of Accepting “What Is”

forgive
Photo credit: Stefano Corso

My life has not turned out the way I had expected.  Not even close.  In fact, I have learned to never say “never” because when I do, I most assuredly will do the thing I swore to never do.

Way back in high school, I swore I would never be a chemistry major; this was related to PTSD I’d sustained in my junior year chemistry class.  Lo and behold, I somehow graduated from college with a biochemistry degree.

I told myself in college that I never really wanted to have kids.  Now, I have three.

I had planned on going to medical school, moving to some developing country, and NEVER living in the suburbs.  I’ve failed miserably at this last one.  All I’ve done for the last 15 years is live in the suburbs.

I had never planned on marrying someone just to have an unhappy marriage and finally get divorced.  I had never planned on staying in Indiana forever….good grief, I keep ending up back here. I had never planned on waving goodbye to so much of the faith and religious practices of my childhood.

Some days, when I’m really tired, stressed, and overwhelmed, I think: “My life wasn’t supposed to be this way.  I didn’t do it right. I made some of the dumbest choices years ago and can I please get a do-over?!”

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(In this section, the pronoun “they” is used to maintain maximal ambiguity about the person I’m writing about.)

I took care of a patient in the hospital recently whose life did not turn out the way they had expected. This person lay motionless in bed, hour after hour, their body ravaged by a neurological disease that left them contracted and rigid; the only movement this person was capable of was talking, chewing, swallowing and opening their eyes.

As my shift went on and I spent more time with this patient, they told me of all the plans they had made with their spouse to travel around the world and see all they could in their retirement.  Instead, all the funds the couple had saved up was being spent on hospital bills and ambulance rides and home health nurses.

As my patient talked about these things, they cried.  Silent, but hugely expressive weeping, with tears I wiped away with a tissue because they couldn’t move their arms to do so on their own.  I fed this patient their dinner on this shift; bite after bite of minced up ham, then bite after bite of applesauce, and cottage cheese, and pudding.  Forty-five minutes of small spoonfulls they could tolerate without choking.

Through this shift with this one patient, I finally got what Eckhart Tolle means when he talks about extreme presence.   I’ve cared for people before who were completely immobilized – people missing half their skulls from being slammed into by cars, people who were breathing the death rattle of their final hours – but this patient was the teacher that helped me really get it.

This was a time when platitudes wouldn’t do.  There was no point in saying “Everything’s going to be OK”, because everything, in fact, is not going to be OK. There was no use in saying, “Well, at least you can still do….”.

This patient was trapped in their own body and there was not a damn thing that was going to change it. There would be no magic cure. There would be no hope of a different ending to their life. Life had committed to taking this person by restricting what they physically could do at a frightening pace, all the while leaving their mind completely intact.

It seemed so completely unfair, so completely wrong of the universe to jack with a person like this, to completely rip their dreams away from them. These are the moments when it seems quite right to say, “What the fucking hell, God?! What did this person to deserve a death like this?”

Arguing with reality is futile.  This is what Tolle tells us: that fighting against what is, by refusing to accept it...this is what causes our suffering.  But I think sometimes people need others to sit with them in their harsh realities to help make it a little more palatable, a little less lonely.  Ten years ago, sitting with a patient like this would have made me extremely uncomfortable. What do you do for a person that can’t do anything? What do you do when you can’t fix the problem?  What do you do when there are no solutions to try? What do you do when God isn’t offering you decent answers for why this has happened?

There’s a program across the United States called No One Dies Alone, or NODA, for short. This is a program in hospitals where volunteers come and sit vigil with a person who is dying alone, without family or friends at the bedside. I volunteer with NODA at a local downtown hospital, and have sat for hours with the dying. In these cases, there is only one thing to do: not try to “fix” the patients, not try to reach into their unconscious states and convince them not to be afraid of what lies ahead….the only thing necessary, and the only thing possible, is just to BE with them.

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Growing up in the church, I’ve heard all sorts of definitions of what it means to forgive.  However, most of the examples have been complicated and hard to wrap my head around, especially when it feels like the offending person gets off with a free pass. And, most of the explanations are packaged in a theology that doesn’t sit right with me.  But just as hard as trying to understand how to forgive others is learning how to forgive myself for my countless dumbass choices, thoughtless words, selfish actions, and inability to move past so many of my insecurities and neurotic tendencies.

I was walking the dog a few days ago, listening to teachings by Eckhart Tolle on accepting reality. Out of nowhere, I had the realization:  this is what REAL forgiveness is – the acceptance of what has happened and what is happening without struggling against it.

To accept what is means to not fight against what has already happened, saying it shouldn’t have happened, or constantly thinking backward to how you would change things if you could just do them over, or playing through memories again and again about the wrongs people did to you or you did to people.  When we do that, we enter the world of illusion because the past doesn’t exist anymore.  And in fact, what has happened, happened, and there’s nothing we can do to change it.  Fighting against that is just a means of bloodying ourselves against a wall needlessly. Wrestling with the past, and trying to wrestle with the future before it happens, are what cause our mental suffering.

I think back about some of the people in my life that hurt me the most, the ones who gave me lots of mental and emotional baggage to drag around for years. For me to constantly dredge up that pain is useless…what’s done is done.  Trying to outline all the ways they were wrong or horrible or thoughtless does absolutely nothing to change where I am now, and trying to do so leaves me stuck, unable to be fully present right now.

So, this is what I think real forgiveness is: letting what is, be. Refusing to look back and say “If only…..” or “If so and so hadn’t done such and such”….or “It shouldn’t be this way…”.  The fact is, in this present moment, IT IS THIS WAY.  When you think about it, this takes away so much of the burdens we carry around ALL the FREAKING TIME.  If we accept this present moment as it is, and forgive the past by not arguing with it, we are free to do what we can with the present moment.  Either we let it be as it is, or if we feel a change needs to occur, we evaluate our options at that moment and proceed forward after we’ve already accepted what is currently going on.

Forgiveness like this is not a matter of condoning what people do or the difficult circumstances life deals us; instead, it is all about of freedom to live fully right now and not in a dream world of should have’s and could have’s.

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There are a couple of Jesus’ teachings that I’m thinking about here, relating to the past and the future.  In one place in the Gospels, he tells people to come and follow him.  They reply that before they can follow him they have to bury their father. Jesus tells them to let the dead bury the dead.  He’s not being cruel here; he’s making the point that what is dead and gone is in the past….it should not keep you from living in the present moment and doing what you are being called to right now.

In another story, Jesus tells his listeners not to worry about tomorrow, because it will bring its own troubles.  Today, this moment, has enough going on already.

And again, he tells of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and how they do not worry and fret over everything, yet they are cared for, moment by moment.

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At some point, I think we all need to forgive life for not being what we told it to be. We live these short little lives but believe we understand how reality should operate.  We think we know what is best for us, and best for everything around us, and we decide what is good and right for everyone in every situation.

Life smiles, and keeps giving us new moments….now, and now, and now, and now. And really, we have absolutely no control.  Forms come, and forms go; everything is passing.  Clinging to anything is pointless and only causes us hurt.

It’s exhausting to try to cling to the past, present, and future all at once….I know, because I try on a regular basis.  In fact, trying to “figure out” your life and how all the puzzle pieces fit together is an exercise in futility and literally impossible.  There’s absolutely no way that we can understand it all and how we can fit into the great cosmic picture.  Sometimes we can look back and see traces of how life might be guiding us, but even then, we have to be careful to not cling to where we then conjecture life might be leading us.

All there is is now.  To be truly here, right now, we have to let go of our ideas of all that has happened….to forgive it by letting it be and not arguing with how it should have been different, so that we are free to be really alive right now in whatever is currently happening.

When I think about my patient trapped in their body….I think that part of our task is also to help be with people who are in situations so difficult that they might not be able to forgive life on their own. By sitting with them, truly present in whatever circumstances are there, showing them they are not alone in this moment.  Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush wrote a wonderful book called Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Death and Dying, where they talked about dying and how to prepare oneself for death.   I’ve listened to the audiobook multiple times, but I think the title really says it all.  All there really is in this world that we can know for sure, is that we are to walk each other home – not walking each other toward some ethereal heaven that is set in chronological, linear time – but to walk each other into ultimate being and helping each other stay present in every moment of reality, no matter how challenging it is.

When I look at life and forgiveness in this way, they seem so much easier and seem to ask so much less of me than I always tend to think.   It’s like Ram Dass famously says, “Be here now,” and then be here now, and then be here now.

 

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