Changing the Past

This is a long piece because it is a working-through-a-question effort.  If you choose to read the post, you will probably want to do a lot of skimming!  I’m including the piece in case any of the issues resonate with you.  The change in point of view comes when I consider what wiser voices than mine would tell me.

Just now, as I glanced through sheer curtains to the sunny morning and waving shadblow outside, I felt for a dreamlike moment the veiled scene was our backyard in Wilmington.  When I have a difficult spell, I sometimes say aloud, “I want to go home; I want to go home.”  “Home” is the little white house my parents and I shared, the home I pray they have found again in heaven.  I am not asking to join my dear ones in heaven yet—when my time does come, I beg to be with them for all eternity.  Instead, I am longing for us to return to our earthly little white house, for us to relive the joys and for me to be a better daughter.

Our little white house, drawing by Mason Hayek

What can I do to make up for the mistakes I have made that hurt those I love and others?  Can I revise, even now, the times I might have offered encouragement and loving understanding but, instead, turned away in hurt, anger, or frustration—not even understanding myself?  Can I in any way rectify the unkind things I have done?  Even though I can’t recall hurting another ever to have been my goal, it has too often been the sad result of my deficiencies.

Dear guides and loved ones in the Light, how can I make up for the unkind things I have done?

You wish with all your heart, with all your soul, you could take back the hurts you have inflicted, from your teenage years when you dreaded school and cried for loneliness to a few days ago, when you sought the cause for your not writing in external conditions instead of within yourself.  Before giving three responsibilities in “making up for” regrets, we’d like to offer a small but important and perhaps unexpected perspective on what some call “sin” but we prefer to call “mistakes” since the behavior grows out of a mistaken sense of oneself.  We would like to ask: have you not learned from the mistakes of others, from the times they hurt you through their own deficiencies?

Others’ growth from your mistakes is, of course, deeply insufficient reason for spreading sadness and dismay, but it is an outcome of which to be aware.  It is a small bloom accompanying the understanding you must seek of why you responded as you did to the confluence of facts and forces—some objective, many misread—leading to your being other than you wish to be, for the sake of others and for your own peace of mind and growth.  We mention the tiny flower of wisdom purveyed through mistakes to give you a measure of serenity as we begin our lesson.

When you are unkind—whether this unkindness is inadvertent or emerges out of your own sadness, whether you are missing an opportunity to encourage, or whether you are otherwise nourishing hurt where you might nourish love—you have three responsibilities.  The first is to figure out why you acted as you did and to grow so that you do not repeat your mistake.  Meeting this responsibility is a lifelong journey.  Our mistakes tend to sprout from the same deep roots within us.  Replacing these roots with healthy plants and tending them so their leaves and flowers thrive takes great reflection and wisdom and is gardening for a lifetime.  God gives us our lives in part in order for us to nurture and tend our souls through living, through surmounting our own mistakes and the mistakes of others.  When we acknowledge our weaknesses in a spirit of hope and then find our way to doing better, no matter the byways and detours, we are following a part of God’s plan for us.

Speaking to you individually: you have had a recent reminder of your need for the courage to mention small discomforts or concerns as they arise.  You fail to speak up because you think you may be wrong or unjustified, worry that your comments will ruffle the otherwise tranquil surface of a relationship, or, above all, fear you will be rejected or thought less of in some way.  But you know through repeated experience the answer to this question: Is it better to mention small issues calmly as they arise or to wait until a time of vulnerability and frustration blows the top off the mountain?

The fact that you have suffered (and caused suffering) all your life from your desire to please, to be perceived as each valued other would have you be, is not sufficient reason to let this problem continue to taint your days and your relationships.  Once a problem is clearly identified and understood, excuses for changing fall away, no matter how frightening the leap into change may feel.  Jump off the high dive into the beckoning, life-giving waters of growth.  Your diving may be awkward at first, and you may occasionally balk at the plunge, but to turn away is to fail to make your mistakes meaningful instead of purely cause for recurring regret and remorse.

For you another deep need for change has been within your creative life and your quest for a sense of purpose and meaning.  We will cover that challenge as part of the second responsibility we have in working with our mistakes.

That second responsibility is toward those we’ve harmed.  No matter what the hurt, we can show through both words and actions that we love and care for the other or others, sincerely and profoundly regret our hurtfulness, and have learned from it.  Words, no matter how sincerely spoken, are a beginning but are not enough.  We most honor those we have hurt, as well as ourselves, by changing the patterns that caused the unhappiness.

Words can express the content of the heart and spirit and can presage and reflect change.  About your recent emotional outburst to your dear friend over your writing, you might say to your friend (and yourself), “I have been greatly frustrated by my inability to work on my writing in any consistent way.  As you know, I place meaningful writing on a high pedestal and judge my life as severely defective if I am not able to leap high enough to reach it.  Throughout the years, I’ve sought the reasons for my not writing consistently, trying out one reason and then another, begging for insight and a way forward.  At the time of my recent outburst, my ongoing frustration with my writing linked with fatigue and an episode I felt confirmed the meaninglessness and unacceptableness of my writing efforts.  Still looking for reasons for my intense, fifty-years-in-building distress, I landed on my old standbys: inferiority in the eyes of others and failure to feel whole.

“As I emoted, you were intensely kind to me—in spite of the onslaught, in spite of my flinging out complaints.  Your kindness has given a gift of serenity, serenity enough for me also to recognize your wisdom: I’ve been trying too hard and so destroying the peace I require to write.  Others have said the same to me, but I have never, until now, been able to accept alternatives to striving, begging for insight, and praying in desperation for inspiration.

“The epiphany came last night: Write for the pure joy of writing, for the pleasure of arranging words and expressing thoughts, for the bliss of exercising a God-given skill, no matter its scope.  Write because, as you, my friend, wisely said, good thoughts flying out into the world—even those unheard or unread—help to create a better world.  We are literally all connected; consciousness is one; how can the thoughts and words of one soul not affect all others?  And through being written down, thoughts gain clarity and strength.  Writing matters to the world even when the words live only between the covers of a journal.

“After searching all my adult life, I have stopped seeking the writing route to finding my place and purpose.  And writing for the joy of writing brings with it time to write.  Before the long-sought epiphany you helped to gift to me, my ‘time to write’ meant all the details of my life were perfectly aligned and I was buoyed by ideal energy, inspiration, and the assured attention of others.  Of course, it is surprising that ‘time to write’ ever came at all.  When I’m not trying too hard, times to write become rampant.

“While I understand now why my fifty years of building frustration erupted in one more lava flow, as you witnessed, I ask your forgiveness for the distress I gave to you and all I said that felt unkind.  With all my heart I wish I could remove the pain I gave to you.  What I can do, must do, and will do is, with gratitude to you and to God and our loved ones in the Light, remember and practice what you have helped me, finally, to see.”

You can share these words with your treasured friend face to face.  In much the same way, you can share newfound understanding with your parents and those others in heaven whom you pray to heal from your hurtfulness, from the hurt or hollowness within you that erupted to scald them or fail to bolster their courage and joy, honor their wonderful strengths, and help fill their own hollow places.  By your words written and spoken to those who have gone to the Light, you can share your insight growing out of experience.  They hear you.  And above all, they see your growth.

And what of those in this life with whom we have lost touch or severed ties?  We can speak or write to them, too, even when we know they will not directly hear or read our words.  As you and we have said, healing words and thoughts put out into the world, through prayer or through any sincere expression of meaning and emotion, touch every other soul because all of us—on Earth and on the other side—are linked through the unified consciousness pulsing through God’s creation.

Our third responsibility in the face of hurtful mistakes is to deny ourselves the right to wallow in remorse.  While we are actively mourning our past behavior, we are holding back our ability to change in the present.  The goal is not to forget the regretted past; the requirement is to understand it, release (as best we can) the regret we feel into the river of life, and renew our place in Ongoing Conversion, as the Franciscans describe the God-given river of life’s ever-flowing, ever-nourishing offer of learning and growth.

Finally, we would like to mention a difference between Earth time and God’s time.  We on Earth view time as linear, with an unchangeable past and a relentlessly approaching future.  In God’s time, in which our loved ones in the Light share, the whole is visible: all you are; all you can be; your hurts and your hurting of others; the vast love, joy, and kindness you give, have given, and will give; the lessons you have learned; the ways you are continuing to struggle; the glorious soul you are; and the unwavering brilliance of your spirit even as you feel your light has dimmed.

So go on with optimism, courage, and peace of mind.  Even on the other side your spirit will continue to evolve.  Along with releasing the reasons for failing sometimes to make the world a better place for you and others, release the remorse you feel for your lapses, even the most distressing.  Never cease to learn, never blame others for your not growing, and strive never again to be unkind or unloving.  But let the pain you feel dissolve in God’s endless river of life—helping to guide your journey but not becoming boulders and rapids hindering your way.

Playing with Gusto

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Age brings strength of many types.

Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but the whole thesis of this book [Falling Upward] is exactly the opposite.  What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture.  -Richard Rohr*

I’ve been in a slump—hunkering down with a brick wall in my face: the brick wall of “I don’t have any ideas worth writing about”; “My friends are going to get sick of me, if they aren’t already”; “I’ve messed up so many things in my life”; and “If I don’t hurry and get it together, it will be too late.”

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Don’t get me wrong: all sorts of wonderful things have filled vast expanses of my most recent slump time: happy and deeply meaningful experiences with friends, the arrival of the beautiful weather and blossoming brilliance of late spring, the royal wedding (which I watched live and then watched again later in the day). . . .  But the sense of time ticking past with frightening speed while I fail to catch hold has once again thrown me up against that brick wall.  Life has been and is profoundly good to me, but I’m not doing my share, or so it seems.

Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest with an embracing and ecumenical spirituality, not only writes of the value and strength of later life, he also does the same for our mistakes: “Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences—all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey” (Falling Upward, 21).  Richard Rohr’s books and daily meditations, available by e-mail, speak in harmony with my needs and personal philosophy.  They give me comfort and encouragement.  But I have continued feeling bogged down along the path of my particular journey.

And so, as I have before, I asked my Loved Ones in the Light to give me their perspective.  Here is what I think they told me today:

We think you’re doing pretty well, better than you recognize.  But there is room for improvement for the sake of your peace of mind and sense of purpose.  This is a prime time in your life.  You think that many possibilities are behind you—and they are, those of your now-past life stages.  But the possibilities available and offering themselves to you now are just as vibrant, interesting, and important as were those of your youth.  Such is the case for everyone.

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Evening is beautiful.

The key is in not regretting what has slipped through your life and into the past but, instead, valuing the lessons distilled from

  • Missteps, wrong turns, right turns, and byways along life’s journey
  • Opportunities—taken or not
  • Challenges—muddled or surmounted
  • Deep regrets
  • And dear memories

Who you were, you are now.  Your four-year-old self and your forty-year-old self are with you, transmuted but not abandoned or lost.

You know very well that if you spend your days mourning what no longer seems possible, fearing you cannot meet your own high standards and others’ expectations, and feeling like residue left behind after those you love have crossed to the other side, you will damage or destroy your health, your serenity, and much of your joy.

This evening, you have finally wrestled aside your fear enough to pick up a pen again after a long siege by the paralysis of self-doubt.  Look at the pleasure that writing even these few lines has given you.  This small success has reignited a sense of living life instead of merely bouncing around with its buffeting—back and forth between happy times, like those with friends, and the desperation of sleepless nights spent tangling with the What Am I Going to Do Monsters:

  • What am I going to do to bring life and purpose to my blog?
  • What am I going to do to become calmer and stronger?
  • What am I going to do to be a better friend to my friends?
  • What am I going to do to bring order to my days?
  • What am I going to do to bring stability to my finances?

And so on.

Richard Rohr reminds his readers of the value of mistakes.  To give our own analogy: wrong notes cue you about what the right notes are as you continue playing your life symphony.  As the late Adlerian psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs, an acquaintance of your family’s, said when someone pointed out a wrong note he had played on the piano, “But look at all the notes I got right.”  Besides, the “wrong” notes you have played may not, in fact, have been mistakes so much as modulations into valuable new improvisations, or into the development section of your current symphonic movement.

Piano 2

Okay, so some of the notes you played really were sour.  Yes, entire measures of your life have been filled with missed accidentals and a failure to follow the key signature.  But you are now a much more skilled musician of life as a result.  While you may not be able to present your life’s music with the full force and vigor that you could muster when you were fifteen or thirty, you are able to play with greater finesse, passion, and virtuosity.  And remember that pianissimo moments can be captivating and lyrical; they complement the fortissimo, con brio, and con fuoco passages.

So play the melodies of your days with gusto, even in the minor keys.  Remember that while nothing, including practice, makes perfect, practice in interpreting life with determination and courage makes meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment.  Play on.

Namaste

* Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 139 (Nook edition).

Transforming Regrets

Sunset

My lifelong-learning French course (which a late friend began more than thirty years ago) is now run like an ongoing book group conducted in French. This week was my turn to lead the class—a daunting prospect because of my miscellaneous insecurities and deficiencies. Some in the class are native French speakers; many of the others are retired French teachers or lived in France for an extended time. I merely studied some French in high school and college, lived for a year and a half in a dorm where we were supposed to speak French all of the time, and spent three miraculous weeks in France in January 1972.

But I prepared carefully for Monday’s class, and my classmates were kind and encouraging, so I survived and even enjoyed the experience. We were talking about the last four chapters of Philippe Claudel’s novel Quelques-uns des cent regrets[1] (Some of My One Hundred Regrets), which prompted lively discussion. In the novel, the narrator describes his return to his childhood town for the funeral and burial of his mother, with whom he has been estranged for half of his thirty-two years. The short novel (154 pages) is not available in English. Its vivid scenes and characters—including some elements reminiscent of magic realism—account for both the book’s difficulty for non-native French speakers and its power. Quelques-uns des cent regrets is well worth the effort if you have a fairly solid reading knowledge of French.

The title comes from a parable-like story that the hotel owner in the novel tells the narrator: Human regrets are like the pearls that oysters create, treasures “qui possèdent le souvenir, la mémoire de la blessure”—“that possess the recollection, the memory of the injury.”[2]  Each person, according to the legend, is allotted one-hundred regrets in a lifetime. Each regret is written into a magnificent illuminated book called The Book of Debts. Shortly after a person’s one-hundredth regret has been written in the book, the person dies.[3]

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Catching of Pearls, Bern Physiologus (9th century illuminated manuscript), by unknown, public domain

Making Meaning Out of My Entries in The Book of Debts

I imagine that I have company—billions of companions—in struggling with guilt, with how to move from inundating guilt to regrets transformed into meaningful memories. And so I have asked my higher self and guides for their advice. Here is the response (which I’ve also included in my book A Woman in Time):

Making mistakes to learn from is part of the point of it all. As you know, of course, you can’t change the past, but if you look back, you will see that you made your mistakes out of a lack of understanding, knowledge, and insight, not from a desire to hurt or harm others. As you have grown in wisdom, you have made better choices. You have more to learn, more to grow, but that is why you are on Earth: to learn and to grow. If you allow the past to weigh you down, you will restrict the potential inherent in the present and future. Some of the wisdom you have now grew out of your errors and mistakes. Such is the way of life on Earth. If you were perfect, you would not be here.

See the attitudes that misled—and mislead—you. Because of things that happened to you in school and your lack of understanding at the time, you grew to believe that even small faults or infractions make you unacceptable to others. You thought—and to a degree still believe—that some inherent flaw in you meant you had to be even more careful of slipping up than others needed to be. Others could make mistakes and do or say wrong things and still be acceptable, but you had to be pretty much perfect even to have a chance of being accepted. And to an extent—too great an extent—you still feel that way. Even though you have close friends, you fear you are one gaffe away from having them throw you overboard.

Because they loved you—and love you—your parents disliked your reflex of saying “I’m sorry,” but you even now continue to fear and act as if failing to sprinkle the magic powder of “sorry” over what feel to you like your slipups and transgressions will mean the loss of the possibility of forgiveness and continued inclusion by those you want to please and whose company you value.

Your attitudes have brought you great suffering and pressure and have contributed, to a large measure, to the hurt and harm you have inflicted on others, especially your dearest ones. It is hard to live under such pressure to be perfect as you have endured and not have negative symptoms appear from the strain. And the irony is, of course, that your behavior was anything but perfect as a result. But it and you were and are very human, as are all people on this Earth: getting along as you can, given your level of insight and experience.

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Black pearl on oyster shell, by Brocken Inaglory – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Creating Pearls Out of Pain

About some things you know better now. As hard as it is to change ingrained conditioning, it can be done, and you can do it. But if you allow yourself to live in regret, you will never become the whole, mature, compassionate, confident, loving, creative person you wish to be. You gave up smoking and other destructive behaviors; you can also give up thinking you have to be perfect to find even the hope of approval by others. And you can learn to release regret, letting the sad thoughts float through your mind and out again without anchoring there.

You want to make up for all the causes for regret in your life, and while doing so per se is impossible, you will make up for your past lack of wisdom by moving forward buoyed by what the years have taught you. Find missing courage and be yourself, doing the best you can but not beating yourself when you stumble. You will stumble less if you refuse to see yourself as less than others, refuse to look down on yourself, mourn what is lost without wallowing in guilt and fear, and celebrate what your errors and unhappiness have taught you. The way to find your way is to be, knowing that life is about becoming, not about figuring it all out at the start.

When you make a mistake, consider the lesson and move on. Keep going. Hold your head high. Have compassion for yourself, as well as for others. Expect yourself to be a good human being, not a perfect being.

Those you love will be cheering you on, are cheering you now. They are not counting your flaws and failures; they are celebrating your courage and your victories.

[1] Philippe Claudel, Quelques-uns des cent regrets (Paris : Éditions Stock, 2007).

[2] Quelques-uns des cent regrets, 152.

[3] Quelques-uns des cent regrets, 152-3.