I grew up thinking of myself as a forgiving person. The truth of that reflects much more about my dumb luck, that the universe chose for me two parents who never once failed me in any meaningful way, than it does about my forgiving capacities. What it really meant was that when the moment came when I could not forgive–which is the moment to bow down and call on the true power of forgiveness–I found myself insufficient to the task.
I met my failing with the newly discovered tool of my movement practice. Physically listening to my hoop for hours each day had changed my relationship to my embodied experience of time. That time slowed to the speed of the hoop, and allowed me to observe my emotions as they arose, and simply move with them in their unfolding.
For a long time, all I could notice was my inability to forgive–also known as anger. That took up all the time and space I had inside. Honestly, there wasn’t much to move with. So I watched that feeling, and sat with the understanding that I, the forgiving, kind, and just Ann Humphreys, was facing my limits. It was not only that I could not open my heart. It was that I could not even try.
Then, somehow, a process rose out of that practice of observation. In retrospect it seemed to have had three parts. I do not suggest that forgiveness is a simple or easy undertaking. However, I do feel that somehow through my movement practice I have been gifted by an insight as to how to prepare for the possibility of forgiveness, should it someday arrive. And taking those preparatory steps might be, in and of itself, enough. Because I believe forgiveness to be a form of grace–a beneficence meted out to us, one by one, by a suddenly and unexpectedly kind hand of chance.
Part 1: Humility
At the same time I hit my forgiveness wall, I was also trying to “catch myself out” in my movement practice. It started out as noticing that the moments I would lose contact with the hoop were the selfsame moments in which I would find myself on some kind of mental ego-loop, be it blame, self-justification, or one of their equally attractive cousins. I started to notice how the focus of my subconscious mind seemed to be bizarrely and intensely on telling myself I had never made a mistake. When I delved into this more deeply I discovered the sharp sorrow that I was unconsciously protecting myself from–the empathetic awareness of the pains and disappointments I had caused.
And the more I became aware of this, the more I became aware of my own oblivion, which seemed to regularly allow me to…actually…make…mistakes. This was not about self-recrimination. It was the simple act of recognizing that, at times, I had acted inconsiderately because I had, in fact, not been considering anything, or anyone, outside myself. I was unaware. I had not meant to. I did not do it on purpose. I had made a mistake.
As it became more and more evident to me that I was blind to myself and acted out of impulses that I might never come to understand fully, it began to break into my awareness, like little dashes of light, that the person I could not forgive might, too, have made a mistake. Acted in error. Acted in a way that did not reflect intent.
The Latin root word of humility means “soil, earth.” It means we are all on the same level. No one better, no one worse. No human body is buried any higher than another.
This was the first step.
Part 2: Wishing No Harm
I didn’t realize that there had been a first step until I completed it. It just happened. But with that sliver of objective distance, I began to see that there was something there I could work with. Motion had occurred. The interior space was no longer clogged absolutely full of my judgment. Because I had had to make room for my own possible mistakes.
But what I felt was not forgiveness. It was not opening. There was no generosity in it. I simply had counted myself among ye who shall be judged. There was no bridge towards the person I could not forgive–I did not see any reason for there to be, even though a huge part of our lives overlapped.
However, because of this overlap, I was often confronted with my desire to see this person fail–and, because of our shared community, I was also confronted with the ugliness of my wish. I can’t possibly know, but it is hard not to sometimes wonder if all of our wishes for revenge really reflect what we wish on ourselves–the punishment we, in some deep, inaccessible and unacknowledged place, feel we are deserving of–and that this is what makes those feelings so particularly intolerable.
Regardless, at some point that sensation of ugliness began to feel unwelcome. And it somehow occurred to me that I had a secret option: I did not have to rush to re-embrace this person, but I could still, from afar, aim to intend no harm. Instead of indulging my exhausted appetite for visions of their downfall and my triumph (all very carefully tucked below all rational radars), I could instead, patiently search for the quieter spaces in my heart that wished for nothing to happen–places that were content to be left alone, that could allow to live and let live. To wish no harm. It’s harder than it sounds.
That part took up a good couple of years. In my movement practice I would allow my attention to return to the spots in my heart that were heavy with that ugliness. And I would focus, find, and feel places that genuinely wished for nothing to happen. No opening, no friendship, but also no damning or schadenfreude. Those places were there. But I had to look for them.
And the longer I looked for them, the more often I found them. Places that wanted nothing. Places that had no agenda, no dog in the fight. And just keeping company with them. I think when it comes to forgiveness we might feel tempted to give up before we start because we expect too much of ourselves. We think if we aren’t capable of turning the other cheek, why try for anything short of that? But I’ve come to believe that sometimes forgiveness might only occur if it is allowed to do so very, very slowly.
To wish no harm. To wish no harm.
Harder than it sounds, but not as hard as you might think.
Part 3: Grace
In the course of human events, it becomes necessary to acknowledge that certain gifts only befall us when we make no specific effort. The poet Sylvia Plath described “a gift, a love-gift/ Utterly unasked for.” Once in a very long while, something essential may drop from the sky and into our lap. Though a sworn secular–I might even call myself a scienceist–I identify such moments by the name grace…also my mother’s name.
Years into Step Two I wasn’t wishing for grace. I wasn’t looking for a ready way to move beyond where I was–I had no reason to. Everything was moving along as it had been…no harm no foul, to borrow a phrase from college basketball. In other words, no motivation to move the forgiveness process forward was going to come from inside me.
But if the gift of grace is to arrive, it will– even in a clumsy or a terrible package. What actually happened was something terrible. I received news that the father of the person I could not forgive had inexplicably vanished. Having lost my own father over twenty years before, the very first phrase to pop into my mind was “something you would not wish on your worst enemy.” For the first time in all my life, I really felt the meaning of those words. Where there had been first anger, and then nothing, there appeared in my heart a gash–the smallest and most rudimentary kind of opening. And within five minutes, I had written to her–our first communication in five years. Two months later, this photo was taken.
(And her dad came home, too).