How Do You Forgive a Ghost?

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.

pronoia

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 grief recovery handbookperson 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.

the one who angers you

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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.

Where Are You on the Happiness Spectrum?

Where Are You on the Happiness Spectrum?

In re-reading yesterday’s post on the subject of victim thinking, I can see how it might have come across as offensive. That wasn’t my intention. The fact is, I’ve been blessed with an optimistic streak for which I can take no personal credit. I realize that it’s a gift from God, the angels, and/or the Universe. I did nothing to deserve it and I couldn’t get rid of it if I tried. Which means I, perhaps, had a head start in dealing with the supremely challenging emotions that come with surrendering a baby through adoption.

And it’s not like I didn’t struggle with my own bout of depression following the adoption. My depression manifested through anger. For the entire first year of my son’s life, I was pretty much angry at the world. I remember being reprimanded at work by a manager for something not work related and I told her off something fierce. And my apartment was a disaster. My sister, Corina, came out to visit from Phoenix and we spent her entire visit cleaning – boy was that eye-opening. Eventually through meetings with my social worker and my birthmom support group, I found my way back to equilibrium.

Now, as I mentioned in a prior post, I did a lot of work to be OK. But you can only do the work if you know that doing the work will help. What is one supposed to do if they’re stuck in the mire of sadness and have no idea that talking to someone or exercising or meditating or praying or hiking or making art or dancing or listening to music or playing with a pet or gardening or doing yoga or watching children at play or cooking will help them feel better?

Some people’s brains are wired completely the opposite of mine. Their natural default is sadness, pessimism, and depression. I’ve only recently started to get a sense of how truly awful that must be and feel a lot of empathy for them. I can’t understand it, personally, and neither can I imagine bearing that burden day in and day out.

I mean, little things that would set off a lot of people typically don’t bother me. Missing a plane, getting lost, running late for an appointment. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve learned not to care what other people think. However, I tend to think there’s more to it than that. Not to mention that I’ve watched friends – people I consider incredibly spiritually grounded – get incensed over something like spilling food on an expensive pair of slacks. This isn’t to say that I’m an angel and never lose my cool – trust me, I’m embarrassed to recall the way I’ve responded in certain situations when I’ve been angry (i.e., depressed) or stressed out. It’s just not my normal baseline to be irritable, angry, or sad. And those are the little things. Imagine when it comes to the big stuff.

Corina was two years younger than I. We grew up in the same house with the same parents. Presumably, when it comes to the nature/nurture side of things, our nurture experience was pretty similar. But she was a grudge-holder. She knew how to nurture negative feelings, hold onto them, and sometimes turn them into all-consuming soul fires. She was pretty sure that’s what caused the cervical cancer that eventually took her life. And even as she knew that it was anger that ultimately made her sick, she was unable to release it so that she could properly heal. She started to recover – was even on an upswing. We saw the tumors shrinking and knew she was getting better. But then she let the people with whom she’d been angry back into her life, without having developed a coping mechanism for dealing with the still-unresolved anger. And before she knew it, the anger was back, and the cancer raged on.

I am sad for my loss, so sorry that her life was cut short and that while she was here, her experience was so different from mine. I remember her telling me one time that her estranged husband – her daughter’s father – was probably going to disappoint her, so it was better to expect that and be right, than to hope for the best and be let down. She had impossibly high expectations, for herself and for everyone else, so she spent a lot of time being disappointed in people. And angry that they couldn’t give her what she thought she wanted or needed.

Even as I mourn my sister – it’s coming up on two years this February 12 – I know that her journey was her journey, just as mine belongs to me. We had different outlooks on life, different approaches, different coping mechanisms. I can wish all day and all night that Corina’s outcome would have been different, but it won’t change things. So I talk to her, I remember her joyfully, and I recommit to living my life well and happily. As I write this, I realize that anger seems to be the way my depression manifests – because I spent the majority of 2016 being angry at the world. I cursed at more drivers that year than I probably have throughout the entire rest of my driving life. And yet again, over this past year, I seem to have found my way back to my baseline of fairly happy and optimistic.

No doubt the same dichotomy that existed between my sister and me exists for birthmothers. We live at all points along the spectrum from happy to sad. Each of us occasionally waivers from our “normal” – but we all tend to come back to that place that is our natural state of being, of looking at the world.

How does one who is unhappy change things? That’s a complicated question I’m not in any way qualified to answer. People spend their entire lifetimes trying to decipher the scientific, medical, and spiritual answers to that question. I’m guessing it largely depends on the source of the unhappiness – if it’s a chemical issue, there’s one approach. If it’s physiological – brain wiring – there’s another approach. The thing that’s probably simplest to address is circumstantial sadness. Please note, I am not conflating simple with easy. Even for a typically congenial person, it doesn’t necessarily take much to get into a downward spiral. One negative thing happens, so you’re feeling bad about it, and then some other small trauma occurs. Then another. Even if you’re usually in a pretty good head space, you can get caught up with feeling like you’re on the merry-go-round to nowhere good.

I believe in the Law of Attraction – we get more of what we focus on. So if we’re heading down that path of sadness, anger, resistance, and victimhood, chances are good we’re focused on what we don’t want, rather than on what we do want. Please understand, I know this sounds easier than it may be to put into practice, but I swear to you that if you are in that negative space and you can find ONE THING to be grateful for, and focus all of your attention on that one thing, you can start to shift out of the negativity to at least a more neutral emotion. And chances are, no matter what your circumstances, you have many things for which to be grateful.

  • Did you sleep in a bed last night with a roof over your head?
  • Did you wake up this morning, able to breathe on your own?
  • Were you able to stand up and walk to your restroom with indoor plumbing on your own two feet?
  • Does the water from your tap run clean? Do you have easy access to clean drinking water?
  • Is there food in your refrigerator?
  • Is there one person in your life whom you love unconditionally – and one who loves you the same?
  • Do you have a pet or a plant you can talk to?
  • Do you have free/easy access to music?
  • Is the air inside and outside your home clean enough that you can breathe easily with no need of a face mask?
  • Do you have more than one pair of shoes?
  • Are you reading this on a phone, computer, or device you own?

You get the idea, right? Every time I stay in a hotel, I am reminded how blessed my husband and I are. There, in one room, we have more luxuries than most people in the world: carpeting, a nice bed, a closet with hangers, clean running water, hot shower, AC/heat, a fridge, a coffee maker, an iron, a TV, multiple pairs of shoes, several changes of clothes, toiletries…

Yet we can get in this place where we start to take life for granted, instead of being grateful for the small things. And if we are unable to muster gratitude for the little things, there’s absolutely no way to appreciate the big ones. Our culture teaches us that instead of celebrating the victories of others, we should envy them: if they win, it must mean we are somehow losing. For example, I heard the other day while in the Houston Hobby Airport that the person who recently won the $450 million MegaMillions jackpot was a 20-year-old kid from Florida. I mentioned this out loud to my friend, who was sitting across from me, adding, “Good for him!” I was sincerely happy that this kid is now set for life. The man sitting behind me immediately started to grumble, “What’s a 20-year-old gonna do with all that money? Spend it all and lose it. He’ll be sorry.”

I’ll bet if I asked that same man to name five things for which he’s grateful, he’d struggle to come up with them. Not because he doesn’t have anything to be grateful for – but because he’s become habituated to focusing on what he doesn’t have and what he doesn’t want. I’m no expert, but I think that before we can be happy, before we can even love, we have to learn to be grateful. It’s not just a cliché – an attitude of gratitude really can change everything.