I CONTINUE to wait patiently for several people to come to me begging for my forgiveness before they die — a change that is about as likely to happen for me as any breakthrough for the turkey in the old New Yorker cartoon marching with a placard that says “Repent!”
I’m waiting for one of the most damaging boyfriends of my life, with whom I broke up twenty years ago. (Still waiting.) Others: My poor mother, who was both a terrorist and a child. My father, a womaniser, who taught me to disrespect her and therefore myself. Both are dead, so not much hope (but still).
George W. Bush. (I have pretty much given up on Clarence Thomas.) And another is me. People like to say that we cannot forgive others until we forgive ourselves. Isn’t that nice?
People like to say all sorts of stupid bumper-sticker things that aren’t true and that in fact can be shaming, such as that God never gives us more than we can handle. What a crock.
(My friend Mary says, in response, that you should never give God any idea of how much you might be able to bear. Lowball Him, like a trainer at the gym who thinks you might be able to lift a heavier weight. Say that you injured your lower back doing that once. Hint at liability.)
I have forgiven most people who have hurt me or behaved atrociously to those I love, although there is one extended family member who (I’m positive) makes Jesus sick to His stomach.
Yet from time to time, I forgive myself for being a bad forgiver. Forgiving ourselves is the advanced practice — it’s Senior Lifesaving. It is a tricky business.
The comedian Carmen Esposito put it well: “I remember a close friend’s mom asking me if I really felt comfortable wearing a swimsuit next to her daughter’s much more slender body. I was eight. When you are a little kid, you can’t protect yourself from this shit. You think the shit is you.”
You thought the shit was you, all through the years, and droplets got trapped in various chambers of memory.
EVEN with years of recovery or therapy — after making amends and working on self-acceptance and even experiencing patchy moments of transcendence, after having mostly forgiven ourselves for not caring, for ambition, materialism, wasting time, and gluttony — it can still be exacting.
The fear of your defective nature resurfaces, the way chicken pox resurfaces as shingles. But at some point you realise that we all have dual citizenship here, perfect and neurotic.
Ram Dass said you have to remember only two things: your Buddha nature and your Social Security number. And wonderfully, there is not enough memory to keep track of every old grievance.
This is the grace of age. So one forgives as one is able, except for maybe those two or three special contenders and oneself.
Each full act of forgiveness and even each partial act is not only a miracle, but a prize of redemption, as with books of S&H Green Stamps. But instead of a toaster, you get a unit of peace.
Each act of forgiveness gives us more awareness of the beauty that surrounds us and of the friendly light inside, the tiny and usually ignored part that hasn’t been faked, cheapened, or exploited.
It is an infinitesimally small point of light — like when our ancient TVs were turning off — and eternity, the world in a blade of grass.
IT HAS taken me years to have tastes of this. It takes so long to grow up. I hate that. Forgiveness, I know now, is maturity. Mercy is maturity. It’s slow release, like certain medicines. It’s incremental, like traveling along the spiral chambers of a nautilus.
I once brought my Sunday school kids a nautilus shell, because if you want to help kids fall in love with God, help them fall in love with nature.
My friend Mark, who also teaches Sunday school, taught me that, and it is one of only a few great lessons I can teach. He also showed me a way to help my kids with their terror of what we’ve done to the earth.
“Ah!” he said, excitedly, when I asked for guidance, as if I had come to the right place. “First teach them how we live with sin.”
I nodded Hasidically. Then I asked, “How do we live with sin?”
I sinned so much in my twenties and early thirties, until I got sober, when I moved from moral turpitude to the simple cloth-coat sins of inertia, judgement, and morbid reflection.
The women who helped me get sober in the Eighties, when I told them how bad my behaviour had been, waved their hands dismissively and said, “Oh, me too.”
This began to relieve me of my bottomless shame. They said, Leave it alone. Don’t pick at it. Let it heal. Don’t have any affairs today.
Sin is not just affairs, or porn shops, or drug cartels. It is also the ignorance and brokenness of the world, extreme self-centeredness, hoarding wealth, using others as objects, not caring.
Mark said that to teach the kids how we live with sin, take them to a beach. So I did. (Never disobey Sunday school teachers. They will fuck with you.)
The beach was cluttered and littered with plastic bottles and crap of every kind. We walked around and saw what we saw — damage to this gorgeous beach, what human behavior had wrought.
I invited the kids to experience sorrow, disgust, and anger. I asked them how it made them feel. It made them feel sad, scared, hopeless. So we cleaned up one part of the beach as much as we could.
Mark had recommended that we bring back some of the garbage. Bring in the ugly and the sad, along with sand and shells. So we brought in some trash and some treasures.
Then, this being Sunday school and not biology, we laid it all beneath the arms of the cross, because then it is held; it became part of the bigger story, the bigger
Not just the crud from one section of one ruined beach, but a variety of things from what was now a cleaner beach, a beach loved and held by caring people, kids who care.
You admit that the ugly and repulsive and sad do exist, and they are happening, but we don’t have to believe it is us, and run away from it, from the cross, from the
beach, from our own crooked hearts.
This is how we live with sin, sickness, and a world on fire.
This is an extract from Dusk Night Dawn: On revival and courage © 2021 Anne Lamott (SPCK, £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.49)). All rights reserved