Growing up, I had this idea that forgiveness was something granted upon the repentant. I thought that when people realized that they had wronged someone, they went to that person and said that they were sorry, and then they received an “I forgive you” as a reward.
As I grew older, I realized that things rarely work this way. Often, when we have been wronged, the person who wronged us doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that we are hurt. Sometimes, even when they do apologize, we don’t want to grant forgiveness. It can feel like condoning their bad behavior.
However, the weight of the resentments that we carry can become a burden almost impossible to bear, and they can keep us in what Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu call “The Revenge Cycle” in The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. In The Revenge Cycle, a hurt leads to pain, which leads to choosing to harm another, which leads to rejecting shared humanity, which leads to revenge-retaliation-payback, and then to more violence cruelty and hurt. And the cycle repeats and repeats.
We can see the Revenge Cycle play itself out in recurrent wars between countries, couples who constantly fight, and feuds between families or family members. The resentment that they refuse to let go of keeps them from stepping out of the cycle and choosing to forgive in order to end the violence. While it may feel like violence should be answered with violence, this does nothing to end the pain for everyone involved, and in fact tends to lead to more pain. Choosing against revenge is truly the strong road, and the path toward healing.
Sometimes when I discuss with people that they need to work on forgiving their abusers, they tell me that they can’t because it would be letting that person off the hook. They say that by continuing to hold the grudge, they are punishing that person for the hurt that they caused. Unfortunately, this usually isn’t true. Usually abusers don’t have any idea about the hurt and resentment that their victims are holding against them. The result is that the only person that is punished is the one holding the pain. Choosing to release it is a way for people who have been wronged to heal themselves.
Forgiving is for the victim, not the perpetrator. In forgiving, victims release the hurt and the resentment that has been eating at their insides. And in doing so, they regain power over their own lives.
Desmond Tutu was instrumental in South Africa in both ending apartheid, and in helping the country to heal from the violence caused by apartheid laws. He founded The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which created the safe space necessary for victims of apartheid violence to talk with their abusers in order to create healing, and to release pain and resentment.
Tutu lays out four steps to forgiveness:
- Telling the story. “Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed. It is how we begin to take back what was taken from us, and how we begin to understand and make meaning out of our hurting” (Tutu, p. 71). Often, after abuse, people hide the stories of their hurt. But silence and secrets are the breeding ground of shame, and by exposing the stories to the light, we can dispel the shame of the secrets. It is important to choose carefully to whom we tell our stories. If it is possible to tell the perpetrator of the hurt in a safe way, that might be preferable. However, if the perpetrator is not available, or not open to the story, a therapist or a trusted friend/advisor might be a good choice.
- Naming the hurt. “Giving the emotion a name is the way we come to understand how what happened affected us. . . We are each hurt in our own unique ways, and when we give voice to this pain, we begin to heal it” (Tutu, p. 95). Sometimes the very act of naming the emotion can take some of the power out of it. By saying, “Oh, I’m feeling hurt, or anxious, or sad,” we give our attention and caring to the emotion, which is the first step in allowing it to heal. Emotions that we ignore tend to grow, and come out in ways that can be surprising.
- Granting forgiveness. “We choose forgiveness because it is how we find freedom and keep from remaining trapped in an endless loop of telling our stories and naming our hurts. It is how we move from victim to hero. A victim is in a position of weakness and subject to the whims of others. Heroes are people who determine their own fate and their own future” (Tutu, p. 121). Whether or not the perpetrator of your hurt knows that you have forgiven is not important. You know. You know that you have set down the load of your anger, hurt and betrayal. What a relief! This can be a slow process. Sometimes it takes several attempts over time to release the fulness of the pain. Be patient with yourself, and don’t expect the process to be completed overnight.
- Renewing or Releasing the Relationship. “A preference is always toward renewal or reconciliation, except in cases where safety is an issue. When we choose to release a relationship, that person walks off with a piece of our hearts and a piece of our history. The choice is not one to be made lightly or in the heat of the moment” (Tutu, p. 148). Deciding whether or not to continue the relationship is difficult and personal. If the relationship is one where the benefits outweigh the costs, then renewal can be a good plan as long as both parties agree. However, if having a relationship with the person who hurt you is unsafe, too painful, or puts other people in your life in danger, it is likely that releasing the relationship is the best choice. Take your time with this decision, and make sure that your heart feels comfortable with the choice that you make.
While this process may seem daunting in the face of overwhelming pain, it is truly the best path towards healing yourself of the pain and resentment you may be carrying due to the hurtful actions of others. If it is possible for victims of apartheid violence and oppression to meet with their perpetrators, tell their stories, name their hurts, grant forgiveness, and make a choice about whether to renew or release the relationship, I believe that it is possible in almost any situation.
Unfortunately, what happens all too often is that people pretend these situations never happened. They are never spoken about, and the feelings are suppressed. In these situations, nobody grows. The perpetrator never understands the depth of the hurts that they have caused, and the victims never release the pain and resentment or take their power back.
If you choose to confront your abuser, be aware that he or she may reject your story. If that occurs, that doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong or that your story lacks merit. Instead, I would suggest that the abuser was not ready to hear what you had to say and has a lot of work to do on him or herself. With that knowledge, choose a different person to tell your story to, so that you can heal. A therapist is always a good choice.
As you read this, there may be many situations that come up for you that you have been holding on to and would benefit from releasing. If you would like more information about doing so, here are some resources for you:
The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu
The first time someone called me a slut, I was 10 or 11 years old, and a virgin. I had a school-girl crush on the boy who said it. His friend, having noticed my affinity for Crush, was telling him that he should ask me to hang out, and I overheard the conversation.
“Nah,” said Crush. “She’s a slut.”
My face flushed hot with shame and disbelief. What on earth would make him think I was a slut? Crush destroyed! After that, I went out of my way to avoid him.
That was just the beginning of a long string of misogynistic epithets and behavior that make my brain spin, which is why I related hard to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC’s) recent speech on the House Floor in response to Ted Yoho calling her “disgusting,” “out of [her] freaking mind,” and a “fucking bitch.”
For me, the most important part of the speech was when she “said it was important to point out that the issue wasn’t just about one lawmaker’s statements, but also a culture ‘of accepting violence and violent language against women.'” (Chris Walker in Truthout).
The culture of accepting violence and violent language against women is what I want to talk about today.
It bothers me that I feel I need to say this, but it’s probably important before I launch into some of my own experiences with the type of everyday misogyny that AOC is talking about. I’m an educated woman–a BA and two MAs. I tend to be shy in company that I don’t know, I’m a complete failure at flirting, and I’m not a casual dater. Personality-wise, I tend toward people pleasing, although I’m working on that, and I have depths of empathy and compassion that are yet untested. I am not promiscuous, stupid, mean, or difficult in any way.
Here are some of the name-calling highlights that led me to the realization that women have not come as far as many people would like to think they have in gaining cultural equality:
- Calling women stupid. Usually this happens when women fail to stroke a man’s ego, laugh at his horrible jokes, or agree with his questionable opinions. Instead of asking the woman why she isn’t laughing, or requesting her opinion, he assumes that she just doesn’t understand. A great example of this in my life was when I worked retail at Macy’s. (FYI, people working retail take an insane amount of abuse. Be kind to them). I was minding my own business, ringing up an elderly man’s purchase, when he started telling me terrible, sexist jokes. They were so insulting that I couldn’t even pretend to laugh at them, and did my best to just finish my task so he would go away. When I failed to laugh at yet another horrible joke, he said to me, “You’re pretty dim, aren’t you?” When I gasped, his wife stepped in to cover for him, “Oh, don’t take him seriously,” she said. “That’s just how he is.” I felt both sorry for her that she had to live with that man, and angry with her for minimizing his insulting, sexist behavior.
- Calling women sluts, whores and bitches. It’s come to my attention that these insults about a woman’s sexuality have nothing to do with whether or not she’s sexual. They’re more about cutting a woman down after she’s hurt a man’s ego in some way. I’ve been called a bitch after telling a man I’m not interested in going out with him so many times that I’ve stopped saying no. Usually I’ll just give him a wrong number and walk away. Recently, I broke up with a man who thought that he could tell me what I could and couldn’t post on Facebook, and in response, he launched into a tirade of insults all variations on the theme of bitch. Not a good look.
- Calling women Psycho or Crazy. After I left an abusive ex-boyfriend who stalked me and broke into my apartment, I found out through the grapevine that he was calling me “Psycho-Bitch.” I found this ironic given that he was the one who’d behaved like a maniac.
After being called a “psycho-bitch” by this stalker ex-boyfriend I had a revelation about labels, and it is this: Labeling a person is a way for the labeler to justify mistreating the one being labeled.
It’s true. Stalking Jennifer, the person, and breaking into Jennifer’s house is so much more difficult to justify than stalking Psycho-Bitch.
It might be a “dick move” to ghost a woman after having sex with her, but if she’s a “slut” or a “whore,” well, then, it’s probably happened to her before. She’ll get over it.
Slapping a woman might be unmanly. However, slapping “That Bitch?” Well, she deserved it, right?
As I became aware of this labeling phenomenon as a woman, I began to see all of the different ways that labels are used to dehumanize and enable barbaric behavior toward fellow humans. Think about the labels that have been placed on people of different ethnicities. Calling people of Native American descent savages has historically enabled brutalities like stealing Native children from their parents, cutting off their hair, sending them to boarding schools, and physically punishing them for speaking their native language, in order to “kill the Indian, but save the child.”
Think about the labels used against people from Mexico in order to justify stealing their children and putting them in cages, where they languish to this day.
Think about the labels used against Black people in order to justify killing Black teenagers for innocent things like walking down the street in a hoodie.
Bullies use labels like geek and nerd to enable them to feel Ok about their mistreatment of people that are kinder, smarter, or smaller. I’ll never forget an incident on the school bus in middle school when a group of older boys cornered me, called me “school-girl” and pretended to spit on me.
In today’s news, I read an article about Federal troops occupying Portland and disappearing people from the streets in unmarked vans. I was horrified that Americans could justify treating other Americans this way until I scanned down to the comments section (always a mistake) and saw what those troops must be thinking. A man commented that the protesters were “animals” and “thugs” and that they deserved to be taken and detained indefinitely. Animals. Thugs. By dehumanizing the protesters through these labels, the troops rid themselves of any guilt they might feel about what they are doing to the lives of the people that they are taking.
Words matter. Words are power. If you don’t believe me, think about how authoritarian regimes invariably conduct book-burnings. They fear the spread of ideas that might threaten their power. The words that we use shape the way that we view reality. When we label other humans in ways that steal their humanity from them, we are shaping the way that society treats them. We need to respect this fact, and respect it when people express a preference about the words that we use to describe them.
If someone is labeling you in any way, remember that they’re doing it as a way to justify treating you as a non-human, and act accordingly.
I am now advocating for using these words more often: Human. Person. Humankind. People.
I’ll leave you with this. When I was a little girl, I used to sit next to my father while he played his guitar. Sometimes I would put my hand on the instrument in order to feel the vibration of the music. I loved these times, and I think my father did too. One of the songs that he used to sing while I sat with him was Puff the Magic Dragon. As he sang it, I would imagine myself as Jackie Paper playing with Puff, and sailing the seas while Puff intimidated mighty pirates with his roar.
One day it hit me that Jackie was a boy, and that I was a girl. I immediately felt left out of the song and the adventure. When I said so, my dad started singing “little boys and girls” so that I would feel included. I had never heard of non-inclusive language. I was 7 years old, and didn’t know about feminism, but I already felt excluded because of the preference for male pronouns. Words matter. Words have power.
As don Miguel Ruiz would say in his book The Four Agreements, let us be impeccable with our word. If the urge to dehumanize someone with a label hits, please pause and question the urge. Let us choose words that embrace the humanity of all people. I know that it will make the world a kinder and more compassionate place for all of us.
Health has always been a struggle for me. As a child, I have multiple memories of sleeping on the bathroom floor so that I could be near the toilet because I was too sick to be far away. As a teen, I struggled with debilitating migraines. Often, when I was at school, trying to study, I suddenly noticed a shimmering circle in my peripheral vision. If I waited too long, the circle completely engulfed my sight and I was trapped at school in the throes of a migraine so severe that I couldn’t tolerate any light or sound.
As soon as I noticed the shimmering, known as an aura, I ran to the office and called my mother to pick me up so that she could pack me into bed, put a blanket over my bedroom window as make-shift blackout curtains, give me an ice pack for my pounding head, and shut the door so the room would be as quiet as possible, because any noise at all was like a nail being driven into my skull.
I had my last migraine at age 17, and thought that my struggles with my health might actually be over. What I didn’t realize was that I was just at the beginning of struggling with the health of my romantic relationships. I’ve discussed my early marriage in previous posts. Suffice to say it was bad. Since then there have been a string of bad relationships that looked great in the beginning. The trauma of these events led me both into therapy, and to become a therapist in my own right.
However, I hadn’t realized what the true problem was until my current therapist, a wonderful woman who specializes in Highly Sensitive People, said, “You know. I think every man you’ve ever dated was a narcissist.”
Running through the criteria for narcissism in my head, I realized she was right.
As a Highly Sensitive Person, I possess a depth of empathy that is difficult to find. When I meet new people who interest me, I invest in getting to know more about them, and I have an unfortunate tendency to notice the light in people and disregard their shadows. For these reasons, I’m like catnip too narcissists. They love being put on a pedestal. They love a person wanting to know more about them and being interested in what they have to offer.
There is a lot of talk in the media about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), but most people don’t understand what it truly means. It sounds like someone who has high self esteem and is generally impressed with themselves. These qualities don’t sound so awful. We tend to like people who like themselves. However, the truth about NPD is so much more insidious. Here are the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
(4) requires excessive admiration
(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
**Author’s note: While there are women with NPD, 50 to 75% of people with NPD are men, so I’m going to use the pronoun he/him to refer to the NPD person. Please know that I acknowledge that not all NPD people are male. I am also going to refer to the person he is dating as her. This works for my purposes, but know that I recognize that romantic relationships can be between people of the same sex, or people that identify as transgender or gender fluid.**
At first meeting, an NPD person will be excessively charming. This isn’t to make the other person feel comfortable. It’s a way to gain admiration. Unfortunately, this charm takes people in, especially in dating situations. When the NPD person takes a date to a fancy restaurant, buys expensive gifts for her, and takes her on romantic vacations, it isn’t to show his date how much he loves and respects her. It’s to make her believe he is as amazing as he believes he is. The more that she believes he is wonderful, the better he feels about himself.
It’s a trap.
Once the NPD person has hooked his target into admiring, and possibly into loving him, things start to shift and the other criteria for NPD show up.
Here’s a real-life example that happened to me. I had been dating Adam (not his real name) for about 3 years when he suddenly decided that we should move in together. Instead of discussing this with me, he told all of his friends about his decision, and they brought it up in conversation with me, which is how I found out. This should have been my first clue. Then, without discussing it with me, he decided that I should move into his apartment building. I told him that I would prefer that we look at other places, and choose a place that was new to both of us so that it would be our place instead of a place that belonged to him.
Instead of respecting this request, he informed me that he’d talked with the management of his complex and made an appointment for us to look at an available apartment (criteria 5 and 7). When I said that I had no intention of looking at the apartment in his complex because I had already made my needs clear to him, he became very angry with me and chose to punish me by taking me on a hike that we had planned for the day and refusing to speak to me the whole time (criterion 9). It was excruciating, and I eventually told him I wasn’t having a good time and was going back by myself.
Adam eventually caved and said that he would look at other places, but was still rigid about what he wanted in an apartment, and didn’t much care about what I wanted. We ended up compromising on a place where we lived together for 2 years. During that two years, we went on amazing trips, ate at fancy restaurants and he gave me beautiful and expensive gifts. He was a very fancy dresser and tended to talk too much about money and his expensive education (criteria 1, 2, 3 and 4). However, living with him was excessively lonely. He spent all of his time watching television that I hated, and I mostly hid in the bedroom with earphones in trying to get some peace (criterion 7).
When I finally realized that he was just keeping me around as a roommate and was never going to marry me (criterion 6), I moved out. The day I left, he didn’t even say goodbye to me. When I emailed him saying that it bothered me that he didn’t say goodbye, he told me that he had considered us broken up for the whole two years, so he didn’t feel he needed to say goodbye to me (criteria 6, 7 and 9). I was devastated. He had lied to me and wasted time that I could have spent trying to find someone who truly loved me and wasn’t an exploitative narcissist.
On their own, any one of these actions doesn’t look too terrible. Perhaps he simply forgot to tell me that he thought we should move in together. Maybe he really liked his building and wanted to stay. Maybe he likes watching television a lot and is careless about making sure the other person enjoys the show that’s on. However, taken together, they show a pattern of disregard for the rights and needs of others that is pervasive to his personality. I should also say that Adam was probably the nicest of the narcissists I’ve dated and this is a fairly light example.
Many people wonder how kind and giving people end up with narcissists. It seems to be a pattern. When one person in the partnership is cruel and exploitative, the other person seems to be incredibly empathic and caring. This is exactly because narcissists have an unending need to be loved, understood and cared for.
In the article “Do Highly Sensitive People Attract Narcissists” Andre Solo writes, “[Narcissists] have very lofty dreams, nothing they do or achieve is ever good enough, so they’re frequently upset, disappointed, or even wildly angry. Isn’t there anyone who can treat them the way they deserve? Yes, unfortunately; and all too often it’s an HSP, the person who keenly feels the pain of others and takes a true sense of satisfaction from helping. HSPs are often the first to try to console and comfort someone in need, and that puts them at risk of getting pulled into a narcissist’s trap.”
What happens is that whenever the HSP gets exhausted by the NPD’s selfish and exploitative behavior, the narcissist reels the HSP back in by “love bombing.” What is a love bomb? It’s a super romantic date or trip, or an expensive gift out of nowhere. The HSP thinks, “Oh. I was overreacting. He really does love me,” and then the narcissist goes right back to sucking the empathy and kindness out of the HSP.
If you’re recognizing yourself or your relationship here, please don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. It’s an insidious trap that unfolds over time and plays on your capacity for kindness and empathy.
However, I urge you to get out now. It will not get better. It will only get worse. Leaving a narcissist can be incredibly painful. He will blame you and make you question your decision. He will punish you. The intermittent reinforcement the narcissist gives, alternating between intense attention and then intense lack of attention is addictive, and leaving a narcissist can feel like detoxing from a drug.
However, once you’re through the detox, it can feel like being freed from a long and arduous prison sentence. The day I received my divorce paperwork after I left my NPD ex-husband, and I saw my name in print changed back to the one I’d been born with was one of the happiest days of my life. I walked away from the courthouse holding my divorce papers with a smile on my face so radiant that several people stopped me as I walked back to my car and asked me why I was so happy. All I could do was hold up the 1/4 inch-thick divorce decree and say, “I’m free!”
It’s only dusk and I can already hear fireworks going off in the distance for Independence Day–the day in which citizens of the United States celebrate winning the war against England for the right to govern themselves. It is seen by many as a day to celebrate the independent spirit, the rights of the individual, and freedom of religion and thought. And yet, many do not have the freedom that the United States claims to value.
This lack shows up in many ways; some large and some small. This past week I was reminded that I don’t have the freedom to make my own decisions about how I handle my work because I am an employee of a large corporation. The reminder left me shaken, and with an anxiety in my chest that took my breath away. Whenever an emotion creates an overwhelming sensation in my body, I remember a line from a book in Margaret Atwood’s Madd Addam series.
If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you probably have heard of one of her most famous books, The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become a hit series on Hulu as well as a symbol of the importance of combating misogyny. The Madd Addam series tackles a different social problem–the human destruction of the earth. Some of the characters end up becoming members of a fictional group known as God’s Farmers, who form an earth friendly and sustainable commune. Whenever things go wrong in the story, the leader of the God’s Farmers says “Let us put light around it.”
Let us put light around it.
Those words stuck with me long after reading Madd Addam, and I started using them in my own life. As I struggled with anxious chest pains last week, I closed my eyes and imagined the pain surrounded by a healing, white light. Slowly, the pain began to shrink, and eventually nothing was left of it except for a ball of white light in my chest.
While this technique is highly effective inside my own body, putting light around it doesn’t necessarily change things out in the world. However, it does change how I feel about them. So, I thought I might devote this blog post to putting light around the intensely difficult experience of the world in 2020, in the hopes that it might change how we all feel about it.
First, let us put light around a deadly global pandemic that has killed over 500,000 humans throughout the world. Let us put light around those grieving for their dead family members and friends. Let us put light around the sick. Let us put light around health care providers who risk their lives every day to help those suffering from this deadly disease. Let us also put light around the people who have lost their jobs due to the quarantine, and those who are afraid about how they are going to pay their rent or mortgage, and how they are going to feed their families. Let us put light around the lonely people who haven’t had any true human contact for months.
As I write these words there are tears in my eyes for so much suffering, and yet imagining light around these problems does seem to ease the pain a little.
Let us also put light around a social system that doesn’t offer the same opportunities to everyone, and that often works to block people from succeeding based upon the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation. Let us put light around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and so many others who were killed due to the racism inherent in the system. Let us put light around the families and friends of those who have been murdered. Let us put light around a police force that is having to face itself and ask hard questions about how to change. Let us put light around the people who have risked their own safety to go out and protest the injustice in the system. They have been heard, and we are grateful for their voices.
Let us put light around those who are dealing with sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking. Let us put light around a social system that is biased towards the abusers–a system where rape kits–representing the most horrible day in thousands of women’s lives go unprocessed. Let us put light around a system where rape victims find it almost impossible to get justice–a system where, instead, these victims often find themselves accused of lying, or of trying to get attention. Let us put light around a society where women who are beaten by their partners are asked what they did to deserve it, and told to stop provoking the beatings. Let us put light around 16-year-old Chrystul Kizer, who killed the man who was sex trafficking her, and now faces life in prison. Let us put light around the abusers, the misogynists, the traffickers, and the rapists in hopes that they can see the error of their ways.
Let us put light around a medical system that often seems to be more about profit than about treatment. Let us put light around the patients seeking help who are turned away because their ailments aren’t easily diagnosed. Let us put light around medical providers who lack compassion for the sick. Let us put light around the people of color who are unable to ask for pain medications without being accused of drug seeking. Let us put light around the women who are unable to ask for care without being accused of having mental health problems. And let us put light around the medical providers who are doing their very best to help people in spite of being overworked and under-supplied.
Let us put light around a political system that divides a nation, divides families, and divides friends. Let us put light around those who want to vote, but cannot. Let us put light around the bullies that assume they know better. Let us put light around those that hold their thoughts to themselves in order to keep the peace.
Let us put light around the LGBTQ+ community. Let us put light around a society that condemns people for their sexual preference or gender identity. Let us put light around the victims of hate crimes. Let us put light around Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered because he was gay. Let us put light around those who hate gay and transgender people, for surely they suffer too.
And finally, let us put light around ourselves. Remember that you are always your first priority because you are a member of the human race and inherently deserving of your own love. Embrace yourself, for your relationship with you is the most important relationship in your life.
I had my heart cruelly broken at the end of 2018, and spent all of January 2019 sick in bed, and I’m positive that the two are related. While I eventually became physically well enough to work, go grocery shopping, and clean my house, I performed these tasks with only my body. My mind was off trying to alternately figure out how I could have chosen so poorly, and also what was wrong with me. Maybe you can relate.
As I cycled through the stages of grief again and again, I looked for ways to heal myself. One of my go to strategies is to make myself super busy, so I started taking piano and Spanish lessons. That was helpful, and I’m a more accomplished person now as a result, but I was still a complete emotional wreck. I needed something more.
One morning I was scrolling through my email and got a message from the universe in the form of an email from HeatherAsh Amara, a spiritual teacher that I follow, inviting me to join a trip to Teotihuacan, Mexico, a place I’d wanted to go since my high school Spanish teacher showed us photos of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon located in the Teotihuacan complex. I opened the email.
Here’s HeatherAsh Amara’s website for more information on what she has to offer: HeatherAsh Amara’s website.
If you’ve never heard of Teotihuacan before, please look it up, because the photos will blow your mind. It’s a pre-Colombian pyramid complex northeast of Mexico City with three beautifully preserved pyramids along what’s known as the Avenue of the Dead. As I read the description of the trip, my heart spoke up and said, “I want to go there!” Since it was the first time my heart had said anything except, “I hurt” in months, I pulled out my credit card and booked the trip.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, because Teotihuacan turned out to be powerful medicine for my grief. Every day at the pyramid complex felt like I’d been transported to another world so majestic that my heartache seemed petty and unimportant. I climbed to the top of both pyramids, descended into the Temple of the Butterflies, and bonded with an incredible group of women, but there is one experience that I particularly want to share with you today.
Each day, we all gathered and walked out to the pyramid complex for ritual. On this particular day, the instructions were to walk the grounds gathering stones. Each stone was to represent a loss. I didn’t know yet what we were going to do with these stones, but I had losses and I was ready to represent them. So, I went out and, with the determination that I give to most tasks, gathered two heaping handfuls of stones. Then I went to the assigned meeting point and waited for the others to finish their task.
The only other woman at the meeting place was the co-leader of the group, Emily Grieves, who has an amazing personal story and is an incredible painter. Here’s her website for more information: Emily Grieves’ Website.
Feeling a little bit shy and star-struck, I said hello to her, but then waited quietly for the rest of the group to arrive.
The longer I stood still in the sun, sweating, the more bugs began to take interest in me. When a particularly nasty bug landed on my arm and bit me, I jumped, dropped all of the stones in one hand and swatted the bug. With the danger over, I sighed and proceeded to try to identify and re-gather the stones that I’d been holding on to. Emily Grieves watched me, saying nothing.
When another, even more enormous and hideous bug landed on my other arm, I dropped my stones and swatted it away again. This time, however, instead of staying silent as I began to pick my stones back up, Emily said, “Maybe those bugs are trying to help you let go.”
What an incredible idea! I looked around myself at the swarm of bugs, then at my empty hand, and then at the stones strewn around my feet and thought, “Maybe the bugs ARE trying to help me let go.”
Then, just as I’d decided not to gather those losses back to myself, the biggest blue-green dragonfly I’ve ever seen circled my head a couple of times and flew away.
I looked at Emily Grieves and said, “Did you see that dragonfly?”
She smiled and said, “Yes. I did. Dragonflies symbolize illusion.”
Then I had the epiphany.
All of those stones–all of those losses–they were just illusion anyway. I had been holding on to those stones waiting for someone to give me permission to let them go in the proper way, but those losses were in the past and they could only touch my present if I continued to hold onto them.
Now, I would love to tell you that I put the rest of those stones down and was immediately and miraculously healed of my broken heart, but that wouldn’t be true. What is true is that I changed my mind that day, and it was the beginning of true healing.
Now, my question for you is this: Are there bugs in your life that are trying to help you let go of your stones?
They may look like annoying problems, but perhaps they’re trying to show you that what you’ve been holding on to is only an illusion that is keeping you from seeing the reality of your life unfolding in this present moment.
For instance, maybe your difficult boss is the “bug” that is trying to show you that you’ve been holding on to the illusion that you need this particular job even though you don’t like it, and by letting go of that illusion you could move into more fulfilling and meaningful work. Or, perhaps, that difficult partner is the “bug” that’s trying to show you that you’ve been holding on to the illusion that this is the relationship for you, and by letting that go you could either grow more fully into your relationship with yourself, or move into a healthier partnership.
When I realized that the bugs were telling me to let go of the illusion that the relationship I’d lost was the one for me, my relationship with myself blossomed so beautifully that I’m not only still taking piano and Spanish lessons, I started a blog and a podcast and wrote a book.
Perhaps if you let go of that thing that you’re trying to force, you’ll find that you bloom in new and wonderful ways. I encourage you to give yourself that chance.