From my birthday, in early September, until the beginning of the new year, I am one big ball of feelings. The reasons are many, some I have written about, some I have not. The individual reasons don’t matter so much as what they all mean together. And all rolled into one, they mean trouble.
Leo Tolstoy begins the novel Anna Karenina with the line:
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Right off the bat, the reader knows what is coming. But even though we know, we know this is not going to end well, we stay with it. We stay with it for a very, very, very long time because Tolstoy knows his human nature. He knows how to illuminate the mundane, to write about the every day as if it were anything but and he understands the psychology of readers. He understands how to give just enough detail to make it interesting but to leave enough of a character blank so that we may project our own thoughts and feelings onto the canvas he has provided.
If Tolstoy were alive and writing today, I would like to think he would still choose to be a novelist. The world would be a much less rich place without his words. But I have a sneaking suspicion he would be a showrunner for HBO.
All of us, the unhappy families, we bounce and sway from one holiday lunch to dinner, around the office party and back to New Year’s Day brunch, grinning and bearing it, waiting until we can get to the house, take off our clothes, put on our pajamas and pour a drink or eat ice cream straight from the container while standing in front of an open refrigerator. Every year we go through who goes where, when, for what celebration. Did we go to your mother’s or my mother’s for Thanksgiving last year? Dad is having Christmas Eve dinner at his girlfriend’s, so we can go to your grandmother’s before church. Hurry up and unwrap your presents. Your mom will yell if I don’t have you back by noon.
We weave a path as delicate as a spider’s web, threading through the divorces, the affairs, the tally sheets of who is no longer speaking to whom. Step-siblings, half-brothers, ex-stepmothers, second cousins once-removed, we all get shoved into this powder keg called family, into overwarm houses, around tables with not enough room, with a group of people who can tick off every major milestone of our biographies but know none of the truly important stuff. But they are family and family matters, family counts. Family are the people who have to take you to chemo, no matter what.
Learning how to forgive, how to forgive your family, how to forgive yourself, it is a skill that needs constant honing for as soon as I think I have done all the forgiving I can, someone picks a scab or pushes my buttons and, BAM!, there it is, another something that needs forgiving.
Almost a decade ago, I heard an Ash Wednesday sermon that completely changed how I thought about forgiveness. The preacher made the point, weaving together bits of scripture, that we can feel forgiveness, we can forgive ourselves, experience grace, only as much as we are able to extend forgiveness to others. If we want to let go of all of those stupid, stupid things we did, forgive ourselves for not knowing better, not doing better, we have to start by forgiving others of the same.
This was difficult, disturbing for me at first. I had a lot of very legitimate gripes. Some bad shit had gone down and there was a lot of blame to go around and no one wanted to take any responsibility and how could I forgive if the people who needed forgiving didn’t think they’d done anything wrong? I kept a list in my head and the list kept getting longer, not shorter. Bad shit kept happening. How can the forgiveness I have so generously extended stay fixed if this person keeps on doing bad, stupid shit? I wanted to holler this question out to the preacher but I did not. I waited. I thought I would corner him after the service and give him what for.
But then, the preacher said something else. He said it was okay to forgive and to move on, both literally and figuratively. Forgiving someone didn’t mean I had to sit around and wait for more bad shit to happen. I could move on. Forgiving was not the same as forgetting. I didn’t have to do both. And also, he said this, he said that we all fuck up. We fuck up all the time. And God still forgives us. Obviously, the preacher didn’t say fuck up but that is what he meant.
We do, we screw things up all the time. Our families fuck us up and we, in turn, fuck up our families. All the shit, the hurt, the heartache, the unmet needs, the failing expectations, it all gets rolled up in a tight package and handed down to the next generation. And so we all are continually in need of extending forgiveness and asking for it.
I can forgive the bad shit that went down. It doesn’t mean a person got away with it. It doesn’t mean I have to continue to engage in the same cycle of hurt, either. I can walk away if I need to. I can burn that list of completely justifiable grievances.
I do it for me.
A while back, I promised y’all a semi-regular feature on books, films, etc., I thought worthwhile. I haven’t kept up my promise. I’ve had, well, I’ve had a few other things I had to take care of. I like sharing the things I love with others and I also like telling people what to do and it has only been because of all of these other things getting in the way that I haven’t been able to boss you about with lists. So, here, on this theme of forgiveness, when we have so many legitimately grievous things to be pissed about, are my reading recommendations:
Man’s Search For Meaning, by Vicktor E. Frankl (1946); if you have known me for more than a minute and I have not already pressed this book into your hands, I apologize; if you read it in college, re-visit it; if you went to college and no one assigned this to you, demand a refund; in other words, read this book
The Sunflower: On The Possibilities And Limits Of Forgiveness, by Simon Wiesenthal (1970); revised multiple times, it is Mr. Wiesenthal’s attempt to plum the depths of human compassion, attempt to find the answer to the question ‘how much do I have to forgive?’
Phillip Larkin, Collected Poems (2004); if you can’t stand the idea of reading an entire book of verse, search for “This Be The Verse” and read it; Larkin is a master at saying all the things when seemingly saying very little
The Book of Ecclesiastes, The Old Testament; you do not have to be a believer to get something big out of the reading of ancient faith traditions; this writing has survived for thousands of years for a reason; I am partial to the New Revised Standard Version, also known as the NRSV
The Book of James, The New Testament; if you are not a Christian, read it and know how far most of us who profess to be are from where we should be; if you are Christian, read it and weep
The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius; literally, the last of the good ones, at least when it came to Roman Emperors; read in conjunction with Ecclesiastes, you will notice that one writer must have been reading the other; and also, we have always had bad shit going down
In case you don’t want to completely throw off your Google algorithms, I’ll give you this one:
This Be The Verse by Phillip Larkin