Saga Supporter Penny Nelson peels back a layer, and I'm taking her up on it
Dear Readers: This is a meditation on a very, very important idea inspired by supporter Penny Nelson. My thanks to her for her honesty and for always giving me carte blanche to quote her as I wish. She has a lot to say that is worth repeating, as do all of you.
Have you ever come face-to-face with bitterness or desire for revenge over a slight? Dug around in your inner world and realize, perhaps with some horror, that you are carrying resentment about something that happened to you years and years ago, like a bad case of crotch itch that won't heal?
Most of us do. Penny made a comment about this kind of thing and I wanted to share it, because it speaks not only to Deep Work, as she indicates, but it also speaks in great detail to personal growth and freedom, which are closely intertwined.
Here is her comment on a story I did about letting go of physical things, which in many cases is far easier than letting go of slights and offenses:
I've never been much of a hoarder of things. I clean out my closets fairly regularly, my kitchen cabinets are not full (although they are leaning towards full and need to be paired down). All my old saddles and tack have been rehomed now that I'm not riding anymore. The closets and cabinets in my spare rooms are empty. You get the idea. I do, on the other hand, gunny sack my emotions and I remember in detail times when I felt slighted along with times I was a horrible human being. That is where my deep work needs to be done. I'm not sure how to really let go of those things although I know I am more forgiving and kinder to other people and to myself these days. It is, indeed, deep work. (author bolded)
First, I love the visual "gunny sack." So many of us, if we fear confrontation, can save up our slights in said sack, and whack the unsuspecting offender with years and YEARS' worth of bad behavior without so much as a fair warning. This is what passive-aggressive folks do. I've done it and am ashamed of having done it.
However having grown up with sexual abuse and alcoholic parents, I didn't learn how to handle such things in a healthy way. Girls often don't; add color and trauma, it gets even harder.*
To that, though, if I may.
The first and most essential step is recognizing that we do indeed hoard our hurts, feeling so very justified in our anger and resentment. That sours us going forward in a variety of ways. Most often for me it's needing to be right and someone else be wrong. My brother's incest, for example, the rapes I suffered, those kinds of things. They're big, and it's easy to carry anger for years.
The problem is that while you can I can agree that the resentment and what one teacher referred to as "accounts" (the unpaid debts of others that we hold them accountable for, what they owe us) have a basis in real events, the problem is that the longer we nurture them, the more damage they do to us. They get our attention, they grow in size and stature even as we diminish.
The gunny sack then ends up being this enormous burden we carry over time, bending our backs even as we try hard to ignore the weight. The only way we can let go is to face off with what we are carrying and call it out for the lie that it is.
Think of it this way. At any given time you and I are doing the best we can with what we have. Penny points out that she has at times been a horrible person. Okay, and who hasn't? I can easily pinpoint more asshole moments than I'd like to admit, more cringe-worthy times that I was a harridan or was a selfish bitch. That makes me human. Makes us all human.
If I can recognize, as is both my right and responsibility, that in that moment I was coping as best I could, that is the glimmer of humanity. The second I can accept that, it's simply a matter of practice before we can apply those same standards to those who have hurt us. Sure, there are truly evil operators. There are very bad people. However, we come into contact with them in life, as do many, and rather than hate them for what they did and we pay the lifelong price for that, perhaps the alternative is to be grateful for what we learned.
It would be easy to take a broad brush and paint the rapists who did me harm with that brush. One of them I knew to be a devoted dad even as he was a predator of women. We are messy, complex, annoying and all of us, in one way or another, dichotomies.
For example, I wrote the NPR program 1A yesterday with copies of a brochure my father had developed for American University courses in radio in the late 1940s. There are aspects of my father for which I have endless admiration. And aspects of his alcoholism and verbal abuse of me for which I have no mercy at all.
My father was a child of the Depression, whipsawed by a thousand events, and made fearful by those events. He was also a beautiful man, driven by his sexuality and desires, succumbing to alcohol young. He never quite recovered from its grip, and it cost him a great deal.
Yet that man taught me to ride, love football, love words and reading, and made me strong by putting me to work on the farm. It is patently unfair to see him as evil. He suffered in ways I had no idea, for he spoke nothing of it. However people who are in pain often inflict pain.
As we age, and Penny and I are four years apart, one of the great challenges is how we can unburden ourselves from the slights, offenses, hurts and crimes which those we loved or trusted or both committed against us. Again, to Penny's point, those we have committed against others, which of course deeply gouges our fantasy of ourselves as "nice people." As with all things, it depends.
A woman I thought was a nice person, a friendship of twenty years to which I was devoted, began carving pieces out of me when it appeared that she didn't like that I had begun living a life that outshone hers. She was brutal. That didn't make her evil, but that friendship ended. I couldn't trust her any more.
I ended it very badly, for which I am sorry, but I am not sorry the connection ended. I no longer hold accounts for her behavior. We all have our reasons for doing what we do, no matter how thin or shaky. They are our reasons. She had hers. I wasn't privy to them, but these days I walk my lovely house looking at her art and wondering what on god's green earth caused her to go mean and cruel.
People do such things when they are suffering. You and I are suffering from something, be it pain or illness or lack of self-love. When we hang onto and nurture such things, we "fall in love with our suffering," for it allows us to inflict pain on others for the pain we inflicted on ourselves. Then we suffer from the knowledge that we inflicted pain on others, which doesn't fit our picture of ourselves as the good guys.
You can see the insipid insanity here.
We hold accounts by justifying the negative states of mind we hold, which allows them to fester and grow. When we stop justifying our need to be right, our need for revenge, and how they must pay, we also release all the weight in that gunny sack.
The way I do it, and it's clumsy and doesn't always work (because anger feels righteous), is to take a hard, beady look at what I'm so pissed-off about. Ask where this lies in me. Ask what this is really about, and why it's so important for me to hold that anger.
Then, how does it serve me to hold onto those accounts (it doesn't) and what the greater cost to me and my life is if I do hold on (considerable).
Ultimately there is freedom at the end of that. We are imprisoned by our fondness for negativity, and our delight in pointing out where others done us wrong. I suspect even more embarrassed by those times we most assuredly have done others wrong.
When you and I can come to grips with how incredibly difficult it is to own our shit when we've hurt others, then perhaps we can better understand that waiting for others to own theirs with us is a fool's errand. That is why the work is ours and ours alone. We are the holders of the keys.
So if first I challenge where I get my idea of "justice," then perhaps I am on the path. If I feel I am owed respect, or gratitude, or appreciation, or if I'm angry that people don't understand how terribly important I am (or whatever) then I am going to suffer slings and slights all day long every day.
Where there are worse insults, where people seek to do harm, like my previous friend (even out of ignorance) where folks really do commit damage, like my rapists, even then we are challenged about our ideas of justice, which really are just ideas.
A chimp that bites the neck of its oppressor in order to mate with a preferred female doesn't trouble itself with justice. Given the right conditions, we'd kill someone seeking to steal our last bit of bread in a famine. So such constructs can be malleable, at best, and negotiable, at worst.
The real question is the cost to us for clinging to our beliefs that we've been wronged, and our willingness to suffer for the rest of our lives in that prison. Especially knowing, as in my case, that my incestuous brother, now dead, would never have apologized, much less admitted to wrongdoing as boy. There is no satisfaction to be had.
My father would never apologize to my mother for philandering. Yet she held her anger and disgust about him for more than fifty years, to her detriment.
There is only the Deep Work of letting these go, letting those insults fly free, and myself along with them.
If you saw the image of the woman's skirt becoming doves, that print I bought the other day that I shared in an article, you can understand now the significance of it. Freedom is paid for by sacrifice. When we sacrifice such unnecessary suffering, that is the beginning of true freedom.
Finally, a story. A dear friend's mother-in-law, who was 95 when I first met her during a Christmas celebration, regaled me with a tale of woe from her childhood. Her big brother was given the family support to go to college. His crime against the family, according to this woman, was that the brother had fallen in love with and married an Indian woman (American Indian). At the time, this was a horror of all horrors, an insult to the family.
Seventy-nine years later this woman was still complaining about it, had done so her entire life, to anyone and everyone who would listen. It was the throughline of her misery, the reason she pulled out of her quiver every time she wanted an excuse for why her life had been ruined.
Even on her death bed a few years later, she would tell this story as she lay dying, utterly unable to release herself from the prison she had built brick by brick, stone by stone. For more than eighty years.
The cost of such self-imposed suffering is incomprehensible. Nelson Mandela, who, being in real prison for close to three decades, freed himself not only from anger against his captors and tormentors, but from the hate that apartheid had created not only in him but all his countrymen.
All of us in some ways suffer trauma, slights, insults and the like. We can choose to cram our emotional cupboards with these, stuff them into our gunny sacks to carry around like brave wounds. We are only further wounding ourselves, and our ability not only to heal ourselves but also those we love.
The very first step is to see what we do it. The next is to make the immensely powerful decision to end the unnecessary suffering. Life isn't a revenge film. The more anger we carry, the deeper the grave we dig within which we bury our happiness and potential for so much more.
Like Penny, I have some rummaging around to do in my own cupboards, my own gunny sack. I offer these thoughts only as an expression of the path I am on, not one that I have mastered.
But as my beloved friend Melissa said the other day about her kitchen, it's not going to kill me to have an empty cupboard.
No. But it can kill off our happiness to have them be so full of accounts that cause us and others unnecessary suffering. The journey to true freedom begins with sacrificing the suffering we have imposed on ourselves.
*For those interested in Deep Work around trauma, I heartily recommend Dr. Rosenna Bakari, whom I count as a dear friend. You can find her, her book and her work here: https://rosennabakari.com and here: https://www.amazon.com/Rosenna-Bakari/e/B001K8WEW8%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share
Dear Walkabout Saga Reader:
If my work appeals to you, may I kindly invite you to consider joining those Patreon supporters whose generosity keeps the gas in my tank as it were. Those supporters get to dictate my content calendar, we engage as a community, and this website and its content acts in service to our collective best selves.
As you can see, I use commenters' material for inspiration, which engages you and teaches us all.
However you decide to partake of my writing, thank you.