Dear Grateful Lifers,
I spent many hours with Tara, my beloved therapist in San Francisco, talking about life and loss, love and forgiveness. We spent many hours together discussing books, and theories, and God, and hope. I adored our time together, and even wrote her an open letter of thanks on TGL when B and I left for Ohio.
On one particular occasion, I sat on her cozy sofa berating myself, no doubt for the 100th time, for a mistake I’d made in recent history. Carefully unpacking what I perceived to be a new perspective, or angle or clue into why it was all so messed up and in which ways I am to blame was (sometimes still is) my specialty!
“Human beings are the only known creatures on earth who repeatedly punish themselves for the same mistake”, Tara said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Let me put it this way. And really, this is a bit of a caricature example, but you’ll get the point. Picture the plains of Africa – a gazelle is quietly grazing in the grass, unassuming, when suddenly a lion leaps from behind him and a race for life ensues. The gazelle zigs, and zags and somehow manages to escape his fate as lunch. What do you think happens next? Do you think the gazelle then goes over in his mind all of the ways in which he handled this high stress situation inappropriately? Berating himself for going left, when he should have cut right? Regretting his choice to graze in that particular spot again when clearly he should know better? Talking about this incident with every other gazelle for the next few weeks, remembering with more shame each time the story is told, subtly asking for affirmation that maybe he isn’t the dumbest gazelle on the plain?”
(by now I am laughing)
“No. The gazelle has a natural, biological response. Within a few minutes his heart rate and blood pressure lowers. He resumes grazing...perhaps more mindfully, yet absolutely without continuous self-punishment. He survived. Life moves on.”
OK, I realize we are not gazelles on a plain. #Basic, much? I’d like to think of myself as something more regal and emotionally astute, like an elephant, anyway. But you see what she is trying to say, yea?
As part of the natural animal world, humans have similar biological responses of flight, fight, freeze. Of course, our developed brains then layer on about a zillion subsets of choices under those umbrellas, but at its core, we still walk around with deeply ancient biologies imbedded in our DNA.
We need fear to survive. Each one of us is writing and/or reading this because our primal lineages managed to navigate and learn from fear. “Cousin died eating that berry. Berry bad. Do not eat that berry. Lion ate brother. Run from lion.” But we no longer need fear in this same primal sense for survival. We do not need to apply it to every single stinking decision we do or do not make in modern times. We do not need the detailed stories it makes up for us, nor the mental file cabinet of past hurts it utilizes to implement anticipatory grieving, failure, or finality. It is not our only teacher.
What we do need, however, is more forgiveness. What we need are our gazelle-like instincts to learn to let it go, and move on. Let me be clear: When we forgive self or others, there is no lack of acknowledgement for harm caused. It’s truly impossible to have real intimacy with anyone without this. Forgiveness requires transparency and accountability. Yet it does not require complete absolution of all negative thoughts forever. Positive feelings don’t wholly erase negative ones. With forgiveness, we are less likely to be sensitive to, or triggered by, negative memories while seeing our hurts (self inflicted or otherwise) as part of who we are, yet not an all-encompassing representation of our beings or our lives. They co-exist. They are some, but blessedly, not all. Thank goodness, because there are things far more worthy of our energetic investment.
You survived, darling. What did you learn? How did it change you? Where will you create transformation through active choice in the future?
Now let life move on.