“He’s not happy until he’s not happy.” Some people fit that description, it seems. Glass half-empty, miserable creature or maybe just plain a misanthrope—there are numerous terms that can be used. Whatever the case, it seems that there will always be those who find the most comfort when they surround themselves with negative thoughts and attitudes, nursing each injury, every slight, all the losses.
Is that how they seek comfort? Yes, there is this thing about the familiar. Whatever one is used to, deplorable as it may be, tends to bring its own measure of reassurance. But comfort in misery? Perhaps it stems from a generally uncertain, pessimistic attitude toward life. Yes, there are many who have come to a place where they never truly expect to succeed; often through no great fault of their own, mind you. Self-centered or otherwise dysfunctional parents, tragic circumstances or just plain bad lives—all of these can contribute to an overall pattern. When failure occurs, it is not unexpected, but, instead serves to confirm what the individual already feared, “I do not measure up.”
I see him, young, strong and confident; ready to face whatever life brought before him. Initial success, yes, but then, one by one the cuts came. A small one here, left untended; did not heal, then another, and another. Each time his response was to focus on the harm, not the healing; each wound left to sit and fester. No thought for reconciliation, no chance for the affronts to mend. Bit by bit, he, once so strong, so vital, was brought low.
Finally all that was left was a pitiful shell of its former self. The memories of that former life remained, almost enshrined; idealized. Every thought was for the person he could have been and every emotion tended towards self-pity at the injustices wrought on him by the self-serving others who had so callously picked, piece by piece, at his birthright. To others he had become unrecognizable— a broken, dejected shadow of a being, barely self-sufficient, still aching for imagined glory, yet bitter at the uncaring world that had so mistreated him.
It could be any of us. You know that saying, the ones that starts, “there but for the grace of …”
Some years ago I was in danger of becoming that person. Twice in as many years I had been denied opportunities for significant advancement; things for which I earnestly believed I’d deserved. Alas—for me, that is—those with whom the responsibility for decision-making lay felt otherwise. Two solid blows, I had not recovered from the first and, frankly, the second set me reeling. I swayed and wobbled emotionally. Work, once a joy, felt, for a while at least, almost pointless. It was as if I were merely a puppet whose strings were under the guidance of others. I was no longer an active agent in my own professional life.
At least that’s how I perceived it for a while.
Thankfully it was a brief one.
One day I found myself in a friend’s office, taking, as was our fashion, about this and that, mostly about education. Somehow the conversation come round to the adversity we all face in our professional lives and at some point I found myself listening intently as he spoke to me of the many people he’d worked with in his life and how they’d all struggled on a regular basis. Some thrived on it. My friend Elke would recognize those individuals as antifragile; gaining strength in the face of hardship. Others were resilient, standing firm against all that came before them. Still others, though, were beaten down, never seeming to be able to recover from injuries. They dwelled on them, moped, nursed grudges, and over time, turned increasingly negative.
You know how it happens. Every so often someone speaks and your inner voice yells, “hey—this pertains to me.” Time slows down, the distractions melt away leaving just a simple platonic form of just what happens to be the single great truth for that time and space. There it was: a three-way fork in the road. Which path did I wish to go down: Antifragility, Resilience or Negativity?
Forgiveness, a term often misunderstood and, thus, so rare in its purest form.
Some years back I had a brief conversation with a former student, an exchange that I have since come back and revisited in my mind time and again. He’d not had an easy time of it as a child. His dad had died tragically when he was in high school and his mom had turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism—or maybe it just got worse. His adolescence was marked, more than anything else, by the circumstances than had ensued as a result. Christmases and birthdays were not celebrated. His Mom had not gone to his high school graduation. Rather than being nurtured he’d been more of a survivor, working hard to achieve good grades while, at the same time, serving as ersatz caregiver to an alcoholic adult who also resided in his house. As he grew older he distanced himself from her—his own coping mechanism. He’d pursued a career in business and, through dedicated effort, found financial and professional success.
I used to run into him from time to time and we’d stop and talk. Each time, though, the conversation would drift back to his high school years and the old scars would reveal themselves: a bitter memory of an unmarked occasion here, an unkind deed there, each time stripping away the veneer of professionalism and success and revealing the deeply wounded child beneath.
Just before he moved away west to start a new career we met for coffee. Once again the conversation began to take on that old familiar bitter tone.
I interrupted, “You have to forgive her.”
“What? After all that she’s done? How could I? She does not deserve it!”
I simply replied, “You cannot move on until you do that.” That’s more or less where we left it.
Much time has passed since that brief chat and there’s been plenty of opportunity to reflect, and perhaps better expand on what I really had in mind that day when I urged my former student to forgive his mom. In my way of seeing it (which is by no means the only way) forgiveness is an act of letting go of a hurt that was inflicted in the past. You are not absolving the offender of any wrongdoing—that’s something they need to do for themselves; make it right and seek atonement, but that’s another matter entirely. What you are doing instead is freeing yourself from the burden of pain that was inflicted on you, saying “this will no longer injure me. It no longer has me under its power. I can heal now.”
It’s has not come up since. His mom has passed away and he continues to find success in his chosen field. He’s been back home a few times but we have not had the chance to revisit the subject. Has he forgiven her? That’s his business.
For me, though the previously mentioned conversation in my friend’s office made a world of difference. I did not want to be that person who refused to thrive and so, over time my perspective changed. Instead of seeing the failures as slights I instead accepted them for what they were: decisions; done deeds. I reassessed, reframed and began moving ahead with a new plan. Forgiveness, at least in that case, is working just fine.
And, yes, this does come across as rather selfish, entitled, maybe even “sooky.” Acknowledged. But that’s how it is when we hurt. It’s all about perception, about how the message is received, not how it was transmitted. It’s easy to see, now, that no ill will went into the decisions that so negatively impacted me but, at the time, that’s not how it felt and that made all the difference. It therefore took an act of forgiveness to free the impasse and allow me to move on to better things and, just as importantly, to be able to reframe the past events for what they really were.
I write this on the 25th anniversary of the infamous Montreal Massacre. On this day in 1989 at École Polytechnique in Montreal 14 young women were murdered and an additional 10 women and 4 men were injured by a gunman who claimed to be an anti-feminist. While controversy still remains surrounding the incident (Was it the act of a lone, aberrant, deranged individual or a reflection of a lingering undercurrent of misogyny?) the fact remains that it was an act of extreme violence against women, sealed in the blood of 28 innocents; a scar to be worn by all Canadians.
Where, then, does forgiveness lie in this? If the families and friends of those affected—indeed all of us in my country–are to move on then is the shooter to be forgiven? Some—not all—might find a measure of comfort in this, thinking the sins he committed lie on his soul and that’s a matter best left for…the Almighty, perhaps. Others—again not all—would respond that sins like this simply cannot be undone. There can be no forgiveness and sometimes, despite our best efforts at healing and reconciliation injuries will leave scars that can never heal.