A year ago yesterday I was in the midst of Laura Sprinkle’s #shesgotgutschallenge.
[I know this because my Timehop told me so. Have I told you lately how much I love technology? Though it’s been bringing me plenty of wrinkly-foreheaded suffering and bumbling-brained confusion, it also brings me plenty of awesome heart-filling reminders of what has been, which is such a priceless gift. Also, the kid in me who used to lay her colored candies out in patterns before she ate them loves seeing posts from the same day over a span of years and drawing insights (or making them up) from what ended up posted on the same day over time.]
So anyway, the She’s Got Gots Challenge was a series of prompts exploring your guts and gut health from a holistic perspective – body, soul, heart and mind. This day’s prompt was about releasing anger through forgiveness; as I reread what I wrote, I was drawn to expand on it a bit and give it new life here on the blog. Especially as all my colleagues-in-education go back to school while I, for the first time in 14 years, do not.
When I think of forgiveness, this quote from Marilyn Monroe so often comes to mind:
“I don’t forgive people because I’m weak, I forgive them because I am strong enough to know people make mistakes.”
Holding grudges, withholding forgiveness. Though pain-making and bitterness-building, these acts of holding and withholding are often much easier than the releasing and letting go that forgiveness requires. They involve clear boundaries and firm endpoints. You did this thing to me, therefore I no longer love you trust you need you want you. Without those boundaries or articulated breaking-off points, life gets so damn messy. We have to actually decide or face what we feel and why. In considering forgiveness, we in effect choose to risk getting hurt again, to risk being called a fool, or to stay safe but closed, safe but unmoved, unstirred, untouched.
I’ve struggled with that fear in some form or another for about as long as I can remember having thoughts – not wanting to be thought a fool, not wanting someone who has wronged me to think that I believed them in the first place. Always looking to spot the inconsistency in the story so I could reveal the trespass before either the trespasser or some witness could, feeling such a need for no one to be able to think that anyone had pulled anything over on me.
I thought I was being street smart and savvy and looking out for #1. I thought this was what I wanted. And a part of me is still not sure I don’t. But in chasing this, I didn’t realize how much I was closing myself off – from what might be, from what already was, from the full range of what the people I was engaging with brought to our table. I was reinforcing the story that other people wanted to deceive me, and if it wasn’t that they outright wanted to, it was at least that they wouldn’t hesitate to if it saved them the discomfort of confrontation or consequence. In reinforcing that story, I was also reinforcing the idea that all this meant something. About the other person’s feelings toward me rather than who they were or how they felt about themselves. Or better yet, that maybe it meant nothing about anything except that we are all human and we are all imperfect and we all have room to grow.
It was in teaching that I first really felt the weight and power of this shift. You have several options when you’re faced with a middle schooler who is so very obviously lying to you. Many will choose to identify the lie, to catch the student out in order that the student suffers the consequence and hopefully learns not to do it again. Despite my ingrained tendency to show that I wasn’t being fooled in my personal life, as a teacher it was somehow very quickly clear to me that labeling someone out loud, even with a situationally-accurate, “earned” label, in effect puts up a fence between you both that can never really be climbed and crossed. And you see, kids don’t yet really understand the concept that pointing out that a lie was told doesn’t make them a full on liar, and it doesn’t mean that you now think of them as a liar. They don’t yet get that sometimes we do things that don’t align with who we really are. For them, naming the act is naming the kid, and I can think of bundles of other identities I’d rather see my kids assume, in my eyes and in theirs.
And yes, I understand that actions speak louder than words. But I’ve grown to think that this is best applied when looking at patterns of words and behaviors rather than one time deals. I’ve done some lousy things in my day, and I know that I’m a great person. I’ve seen many students make poor decisions because they didn’t know what else to do, because they were afraid, because they were confused. And I’ve seen plenty of adults, myself and those I love and have loved, do the same. By indiscriminately subscribing to the school of actions speak louder than words, we rob people of the opportunity to learn from mistakes, to see the way the mistakes have impacted loved ones, and to make better choices in the future. If they think they are now whatever label has been freshly inked into their tender flesh, they will start to default to that response because that will now be who they think they must be.
And much though we may not want to admit it, the reality is this: Keen and observant though we may be, sometimes still we will totally mis-take, mis-read, and mis-understand the situation. The only thing more damaging than a teacher accurately labeling a student as a liar is doing so when it’s not even true. Accusations can’t be taken back, and that isn’t a risk I’m willing to take when the cost is so dear.
So even if a kid is lying, even if I know it beyond a shadow of any doubt, I won’t say it. My response is usually to feign utter belief and overwhelming concern for the issue in question, often involving an exaggerated need to follow up, to check in with the parent to make sure everything is okay and to see how I can help. This and a little gentle guidance is usually enough to bring the topic around to a more true version of the truth, and holds a safer space where the child can come clean without experiencing that moment of being called out or seen as anything worse than someone who struggled to get it all out. Because that is all they are. I’m not even going to get into how many adults I know who struggle to tell the truth regularly. But kids tell untruths for so many reasons, and getting at those reasons is way more important to me than proving or disproving this one particular truth or untruth.
And you know what? Every time, I survived the child thinking that he or she got one over on me. Because my pride, for the very first time, was no longer the most important thing to me. I try to carry this with me in my interactions with others, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s way harder for me with adults. With them it’s more difficult for me to lose the judgment that they should “know better.” And I get really hung up on thinking that forgiveness = acceptance = tacit approval. But every time I’m able to let that story go and just open myself up to forgiving, without it meaning anything more than simple forgiveness, without expectation or consequence, I recognize the humanity in making mistakes and the ways hurt can happen both intentionally and unintentionally, so that sometimes we get hurt as a side effect and not as the directly intended result of an action. This doesn’t necessarily make it hurt any less, but it can make the cut less deep and the wound more easily healed.
Forgiveness is not an easy practice, nor is it a perfect one. Just as life is neither easy nor perfect. But I much prefer to live my life from a place of forgiveness, risks and all, than from a closed, safe space of labels, absolutes, and blame. Because forgiveness doesn’t excuse what happened, it just reminds us that although we cannot change that it happened, we can choose how it forms who we continue to be in relation to it and beyond.