How Do You Forgive a Ghost?
I am, by the grace of temperament, biology, psychology, and/or God, not a grudgeholder. Never have been. And while not exactly a Pollyanna, I was most definitely born an optimist. I remember, on more than one occasion, missing my bus stop on the way home from work while living in Jersey City and consoling myself with thoughts like, Well, it’s cold but at least it’s not snowing. Thank goodness I don’t have a broken leg. It’s only a 10-block walk, not a mile. And I realized, while pondering those thoughts, that mine was perhaps a fairly unusual outlook. Most people would just be pissed off, perhaps using that anger as an excuse to lash out at loved ones when they got home, pop an extra cold one, or pocket a lipstick at the drugstore – bad behaviors we so often convince ourselves are justified because the world is just not on our side.
One of my heroes is a guy named Rob Brezsny, who writes a most unusual syndicated horoscope column called Freewill Astrology. He is also the author of a fantastic book called Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings, in which he explains just that. The book is not for the faint of heart – unless you want to lose all your preconceived ideas about the value of victim thinking, shame, complaining, and blame. Rob is one of the most visible optimists I know of. Yep – he’s a woo-woo weirdo, but I’m of the opinion the world could use a few more of those right about now.
Like Rob, it has always been easy for me to see the good in almost any situation, even when my conversationmates are hellbent on seeing only the dismal, awful, horrible reasons to complain. My friend Sunil is still recovering from a series of strokes, and he was in a snarly mood when I went to visit him last night. I do my best not to make light of his situation when he gets in those moods, because I can only imagine how awful it must be not to be able to get your body to do the things you want it to do. And yet, every time he gets down like this, I challenge him to pull himself out of it, because that’s the only way he’s going to get well. By the end of our visit, he was much cheered. I hope he can call on some of the blessings I reminded him about the next time he’s feeling a bit sorry for himself. I am quite fortunate that, when I’m in a rare whiny state, my husband is there to buoy my mood or play devil’s advocate and remind me why entrenching in my momentary misery would probably be a less than ideal choice.
But it’s not like I’ve never undergone hardships. I’m a human person living on Planet Earth – so I struggle, just like everyone else. The years 2014 through 2017 were pretty intense and anguished for me and my husband, as we lost three close loved ones in that short span of time: his dad, my little sister, and then his grandmother. Some people get mired in the sadness, grief, blame, anger, and myriad other dark emotions. I can neither take credit for nor explain why I don’t. It just doesn’t work for me.
I was rather surprised when a very intelligent, spiritually focused friend of mine recently started a sentence with, “If you ever need to seek revenge against someone…” and then proceeded to tell me how to exact such revenge. “REALLY????” I wanted to scream at her. But she’s not the type to accept coaching – probably most especially when she’s in the middle of sharing her secret for getting even.
A couple years ago, I attended a well-known personal development seminar. One of the exercises was to think of someone with whom we were angry or had a beef. Although I believe most people could probably quickly think of several people who fit that bill, I struggled to think of anyone who brought up enough residual feelings to qualify for the rest of the exercise. Sure, there are lots of people I could be angry with. Whom some people would tell me I should be angry with. And yet, I just don’t stay angry with anyone – at least not for very long.
My son’s father comes to mind, but I’ve long since released most of the anger I had toward him. More recently, my niece is probably the best candidate for my anger – as she was unbelievably awful to my sister (her mother) and to me in the last few weeks of Corina’s life. And while I’ll admit there’s sometimes a twinge of $#%^#@&*! when I think about Samantha, it dissipates quickly and I don’t spend any unnecessary time there. My sweet, beautiful sister, on the other hand, was a master at mustering anger and then holding onto it for a very, very long time.
When she started seeing a naturopathic oncologist to treat her cervical cancer, her doctor told her that her particular version of the disease generally had two root causes: (1) the HPV virus and (2) unresolved anger. Bingo. She even knew who she was angry with and why – and yet, she couldn’t let it go. She nursed it and relished it and cheered it on, even she said, as she knew that it was making her physically sick. She had a reprieve there for a while, when she was able to spend some time apart from the people with whom she was so angry. And while she was separated from them, she started to recover and rebound. We saw so many signs that she was getting well and truly believed she would survive this unrelenting illness. And then, she let both of these folks back into her life, without having ever really resolved the old anger – or developing a coping mechanism for having them around again. The cancer came roaring back – and she died a few short months later.
I cannot fathom hosting enough anger within my body to cause it to become my enemy. Many people make that choice, though, consciously or unconsciously.
A dear friend of mine is trying to work out some unresolved anger right now – but the person with whom she is angry passed away, so she can’t do it face to face, in the here and now. She is working through the processes laid out in The Grief Recovery Handbook, a book gifted to me by another friend shortly after my sister died. My brother-in-law, Matt, was really struggling at the time I received that book, so I passed it along to him. As highly recommended as it comes from both of these friends, I have not yet felt compelled to read it myself. As I understand it, the steps are related to things left undone. Intense anger because of unresolved issues with someone who’s died is a form of grief, albeit not necessarily the kind of grief we’re programmed by society to expect and endorse.
My friend admitted the other day that she’d gone through the forgiveness steps detailed in the book for other people she’d lost in her life, but she’s just not ready to stop being angry with her mother-in-law. This friend knew my sister – and I reminded her how Corina’s anger had turned out for her. “You still have a choice, you know? No matter how much you still hate her and how justified you are in those feelings, you’re not hurting Jackie with your anger. I mean – she’s gone! The only one being punished by those intense feelings is you.” I think my comments surprised her – perhaps she hadn’t ever really thought of it in those terms. But she promised to start working the forgiveness process for her mother-in-law – both for things Jackie did or said to her, and for things she did, said, or failed to do or say to Jackie. In so doing, she may finally be able to release all those years of pent-up hostility and get down to the business of healing herself.
Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.