THE FORGIVENESS JOURNEY: On the 15th of every month I write a post about forgiveness. This is the 6th post my yearlong attempt to learn about and institute practices of forgiveness. I’m not an expert in forgiveness. I am a novice, learning as I go. The objective of these posts is to share my learned lessons and strategies with you.
What are the sources of pain and shame and regret in your life? Is there something–some experience or incident you hide from yourself? From others?
On the morning of January 1, 2020, I sipped my full mug of coffee and scrolled through Facebook–spying on people’s New Year’s Resolutions. Lose weight. Save money. Be more generous. Learn a new language. All great resolutions.
Like when a neighbor gets something new–a Porsche, an outdoor meat smoker, or a cute little dog named Snowball, I felt the familiar twinge of envy– I wanted a resolution.
But what did I need in my life? What would improve my life?
A 40 year old high school English teacher who married his high school sweetheart, has 3 healthy kids, a full hair of brown hair, and lives in the suburbs– I was living the dream.
We are all guilty of creating an appearance of illusions. We live quietly behind smoke and mirrors. To a degree, we’re all magicians. What you see is not often what you get. We pull scarves from our sleeve and wave our wands and create diversions and distractions. And in our Facebook-lived-lives, we want everyone to see we have, yet often hide revealing how we really feel.
Because revealing how we really feel is scary business. When we reveal our true feelings we submit the control we had on those feelings. Note: I’m talking about the real feelings you hide from people. Not a passive-aggressive Facebook post that is annoyingly mysterious: “I love when “friends” don’t mind their own business. MEH.” End of post.
So, halfway through my coffee I start thinking– what resolution can I choose to better this my seemingly Facebook-perfect life?
A sip of coffee.
The thing I am most ashamed of are my webbed feet. Like Aquaman– minus the trident and shoulder-length, superhero hair. Sure, I can swim fast and communicate with marine life but having webbed feet is difficult. Thong sandals are a problem. I can’t hold a pencil and write with my toes. And when the kids at summer camp found out…
Stop. I can’t do this.
I’m deflecting the truth. I’m hoping my “webbed feet” will distract you from my webbed heart. I’m a magician. Smoke and mirrors. Remember.
The truth is I don’t have webbed feet.
I lied because I don’t want you to read the next sentence…
The thing I’m most ashamed of is my ataxia.
Ataxia is a symptom of a neurological disturbance (a stoke, trauma, cerebral palsy, or in my case cerebellar degeneration) that causes poor balance, a loss of coordination, difficulty talking or swallowing, compromised eye sight.
Beside physical issues–ataxia causes feelings of anxiety, apprehension, and general fear in me.
My friend, Gail Siggelakis recently wrote a tremendous book, The Affirming Way of Life. An easy-to-read, packed with homespun advice on how to simply live a better, fuller life. Gail, a retired teacher turned writer and speaker, explains “Forgiveness is a choice–an ongoing life decision that brings us peace and gets our hearts flowing again.”
The older I get the more I realize how little control I have over things. We’re living through a global plague and global social upheaval. You may have lost your job. Your wedding may have been rescheduled. And I have a neurological disease I didn’t ask for. If anything, the spring months of 2020 have taught us how little control we have. All this is happening whether we want to admit and accept it or not.
I grew up in Catholic school, where in third grade, when you’re 10, the Catholic church felt you were mature enough to confess your sins to God, accept divine intervention, and perform penance. You were expected to understand practicing forgiveness is the key to achieving eternal life with God and Jesus and the rest of heaven’s superheroes. I have a 10 year old now and he’s not even mature enough to brush his teeth twice a day. Once a day is a semi-miracle. We need Colgate to perform a divine intervention.
Anyway, I once believed forgiveness was a very formal thing which required a church, a priest, pews, church shoes (what my son calls “nice shoes”), stained-glass windows, an organ playing something low and reverent and some sort of incense burning in the distance. Here’s what a priest might say if I confessed I had ataxia:
He would say, “My son, ataxia is not a sin.”
And I would say, “But I hide it like a sin.”
And he would say, “If that is true, the only sin your committing is deceitfulness. And you’re committing deceitfulness upon yourself.”
And I would say,'”So what should I do father?”
And he would say, “Choose to acknowledge your ataxia. And then choose to forgive yourself.”
And then the priest and I would give each other an air high-five and I would tell him thanks and he would ask me if I’d been to church lately and then I would say no because I have webbed feet which makes it difficult to put on church shoes and before he could ask me another question I would spin out of the confessional box and waddle out of church like a duck late for a date.
Six months of writing and studying forgiveness and I learned something very simple: forgiveness is a personal choice.
You don’t need permission from a holy person– you can forgive yourself.
You and I have the God-like power to choose to forgive ourselves. We make the choice if we want to live bitterly or freely.
I don’t know about you but I want to live freely.
Furthermore, research conducted by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine indicates that practicing forgiveness leads to,”less depression, anxiety, stress, anger and hostility. People who hang on to grudges, however, are more likely to experience severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other health conditions.”
Like any New Year’s Resolution– the act of forgiveness is not easy. It takes work. A daily practice. Like buying a membership to Soul Gym–“where eternal fitness is our earthly goal”– and putting on the sweatband and pumping iron everyday.
I am not a pastor or a priest, a rabbi, or a Buddhist monk– I am just a dad and a writer with normal feet who lives an imperfect suburban life and I want to share some self-forgiveness strategies that have worked for me:
- Admit your shame or hurt or guilt to someone to someone you love and trust or a professional trained to identify your clogs preferably a therapist, not a plumber.
- Write down your feelings. Writing down feelings makes feelings tangible. You can see your feelings. Also, writing is a form of control. Writing puts you in charge of your feelings– not the other way around.
- Repeat this to yourself: I forgive myself for _______. Say this as many times as you need to. I say “I forgive myself for my ataxia,” three times a day. Morning, noon, and night.
- Help others. Find some way–through a text conversation, social media, a phone call– to comfort others and help others choose love and empathy over bitterness and selfishness. If you are nervous about talking to someone, a simple “secret”exercise is this: Think of a person who is struggling with themselves (this should be easy because we all are) and say to yourself: I hope______ finds forgiveness. This will (a) allow you to think of others and (b) send a little prayer or thought to them.
My 2020 New Year’s resolution was to learn about and facilitate a practice of forgiveness. Six months in and I’m learning that forgiveness is the foundation for self-improvement.
But you don’t have to wait to for the New Year to better yourself. You can start right now. All you need to do is to choose to be honest with yourself. And choose forgiveness.
PS– If you’re looking for a good self-help book this summer checkout The Affirming Way of Life by my friend Gail Siggelakis. Her book is full of personal stories, research, and easy-to-use strategies that will help you live more positive and fulfilling life.
Need some encouragement? Some perspective? This hardworking, almost-handsome, suburban soccer dad can help. Subscribe and, like a pizza, get my posts delivered to your door (your email inbox). No spam. Just posts.
4. Hearing his children laugh
5. Hugging his wife
(Bonus points for a dinner with his parents and a beer with his friends)