Forgiveness Without Remorse

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about relationships and forgiveness. This past week was an anniversary of sorts for me, marking a year since I decided to stop drinking. Although I’d already started to make other changes like running more and eating better, the decision to stop drinking was when everything started to click. But it didn’t come without a cost. I stopped drinking because I didn’t like who I was when I drank. I stopped because I needed to prove to myself and to others around me that I could. I stopped because I never again wanted someone I loved to use alcohol as an excuse (and it was an excuse, not a reason) for turning their back on me.

An important part of changing my life in 2012 was learning to forgive myself: for drinking too much, for not being richer or prettier, more successful or married or finished with my Ph.D. But forgiving myself wasn’t really that hard, because I had felt so awful about my faults and misdeeds (real and imagined) for so long that, looking at myself with compassion, I understood it was time to let go of that suffering. What do you do when it comes to forgiving someone who isn’t sorry?

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The other thing that made me think of forgiveness tonight is that I learned this week that my former fiance has moved to Algeria. It’s been nearly nine years since we met, just over six since we broke up, and about that long since we’ve had any form of communication. We still had a mutual friend, and I would occasionally get pointed feedback from her about how he was living in the same apartment, working the same job as when we broke up. My reaction to these reports was something like Schadenfreude mixed with validation. He broke up with me in a cruel way. He took his time doing it, and in the meantime he spent nearly three months verbally and emotionally abusing me. I was called fat, told that I was unattractive, and he told me he was embarrassed to go to nice places with me because I didn’t dress well enough or have good table manners. He disappeared on me for days when it was convenient. He made me believe that my plans to get a Ph.D. would ruin him financially, and made it clear that he thought I was keeping him from some better future. These things would be terrible to say to anyone, but to say them to someone who had just been through a rape and a trial less than a year earlier–events he knew full well of–were ruinous to me. When it was finally over, I was suicidal. A friend literally drove me to a therapist on my lunch hour because I believed I would kill myself. I believed that I was totally beyond redemption, damaged to a point where I would never be loved by anyone. It has taken me years and many other bad relationships where I put up with bad treatment to get past some of these statements… And even now I still believe some of it might be true, in my darkest hours.

He never apologized to me for what he did. He never showed any remorse, not even to mutual friends. In fact, I found out months later that he’d led his friends to believe that had been the one to break up with him. Years later, I don’t know how to forgive that. I had a lot of emotions when I found out he’d left the country. While he was still living in my hometown, there was always a chance our paths would cross again. I’ve long since left behind any feelings I had for him, but I always had the hope that maybe some day I would see him on the street or at a party, and he’d apologize. I wanted to believe that a person I once loved was capable of empathy and remorse for what he had done to me. But it seems our paths are unlikely to ever cross that way again. In some sense, I was happy that he was gone. I regained some respect for him knowing that he finally did take a leap and do something with his life. But can I forgive him? Sometimes, in life, actually saying the words “I’m sorry” is the only form of justice we get. It’s the only thing that truly heals a wound. Sometimes, forgiveness just can’t be given without being asked for.

One year ago, something else was broken. It was broken by both sides. I apologized for what I did wrong because I knew it was the right thing to do, and I changed. But, once again, I never heard the words that I wanted to hear. I always want someone I loved to redeem themselves. I want to take that cloud off the memory of our time together. I want to know I wasn’t wrong to believe that the other person had a heart, or that it hurt them to break mine.

Perhaps I should just give forgiveness freely. I reflect on my resentments every time I meditate. But some resentments are as hard as stone, and wear away just as slowly.

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Gloomy Sunday

I knew today was going to be a lousy day when I started off with a lousy run. Well, actually it started a few hours before that when I was awakened around 3AM by the sirens and shouting of police breaking up a neighborhood Halloween party. I got up a few hours later to run on too little sleep, too little food, too little motivation, and some knee pain left over from last week. Unsurprisingly, I struggled and cut things short just shy of 6 miles, much less than I was hoping to run today.

Though I tried not to be too hard on myself after the poor showing this morning, I failed at that too. Nothing with me is ever as simple as, “I had a bad run, I’ll do better next time.” A day like today reminds me of how out of shape I used to be. It makes me feel like a pudgy girl again. It reminds me of when my fiance, who broke up with me almost exactly six years ago now, told me I’d put on too much weight and how I was unattractive and lazy. It reminds me of how much heavier I was when I was drinking, and how the last guy who broke my heart told me he didn’t want to deal with me because I drank too much and had too many “issues.” Maybe it doesn’t make sense that I lump these things together, but if you’ve been depressed or know someone with depression, I think you’ll understand what I mean. It’s hard to forget those words. Even if you believe they aren’t true or if you’ve moved past that point in your life, the messages never go away. In your worst moments you let them attack you over and over. What is said can never be unsaid. And even a bad run creates the opening for those voices to remind me how worthless and damaged I am, and the extent to which I have failed to create the life that I wanted.

Today I meditated on the disordered thinking. I tried to practice forgiveness for myself and compassion to others, even to the guys who have hurt me and left these messages that haunt me. I cooked myself a good meal. I managed to get just a little work done. I gave some old clothes to charity. I’m not going to say I turned things around, but I survived that one little moment where I wondered if life is worth living. I had a bad run. And now I move on.

Review: The Weight of the Nation

Last week, I watched HBO’s mini-series The Weight of the Nation. I found this to be a very thought-provoking documentary, but it fell short in some important ways.

The first part of the four-part miniseries, Consequences, is probably the slowest. Focusing on the health risks of obesity, this episode mostly features doctors and other medical professionals addressing both well-known health issues like heart disease and diabetes and some lesser-known conditions like cirrhosis and kidney issues. The episode also follows the links in diseases from childhood to adulthood, emphasizing that the road to problems starts early. Class is also discussed, with obesity higher among lower-class individuals, but growing at all levels. The episode was very informative, but didactic and preachy. Lack of personal stories made this the least engaging part of the series, and it was a curious choice for a lead-off episode.

Episode 2, Choices, improves upon the series with stories and discussions of individuals taking different approaches to losing weight. The focus, with the exception of a segment on gastric bypass surgery, is on individuals who have had some success managing their weight through small, achievable goals.  I particularly enjoyed the section on mindful eating. While I’d heard of this before, I’d never connected the idea of meditating before eating to control appetite and lessen stress.

While episode 2 was inspiring, episode 3–Children in Crisis–inspired anger. This episode focused on children and weight issues. The documentary carries a not-so-subtle agenda, pushing increasing regulation/restrictions on the advertising of junk food to children. While I’m not necessarily opposed to this, I think the episode overlooks the role of parents. Over and over again in the episode, we see well-meaning parents who are clearly not on the ball about what’s going on in their childrens’ lives and diets. Parents seem completely unaware of what children are eating for lunch–we see children grabbing disgusting, pre-packaged lunches and full-sized bottles of sugary sports drinks, and the image is juxtaposed with statistics saying that nearly 90% of parents think school lunches are “healthy” or “somewhat healthy.” At home, we see parent after parent giving their kids juice drinks, which can be just as sugary and calorie-laden as soft drinks. Most infuriatingly, we are told that only about 10% of parents actually seek medical help for an obese child. One parent tells us: “My daughter has a computer and a television and she eats in front of the computer and the television… And that could be my fault.”

Could better regulation of school lunches and advertising bring about change? Sure. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for parents taking responsibility for their children, and I think this episode did not emphasize that enough. At least where I grew up, school districts sent the lunch menu home to parents. At the very least, parents should be asking their kids what kind of food they’re getting. And if you don’t like the answer, pack your kid a sandwich, buy something at the supermarket, do something to bring about change yourself. Changing the demand for gross school lunches may be the best weapon parent/consumers have in changing the supply.

Episode 4, Challenges, ends the series with more discussion on the roots of the obesity epidemic, and finally gets around to policy issues. There is a discussion of the farm industry and subsidies for products like corn, which help keep meat and corn-syrup-laden drinks priced artificially low. Meanwhile, vegetable farmers who are not subsidized struggle to get food to market and to table. Portion sizing also finally makes it into the discussion. It’s unsurprising to hear that as our food gets bigger, so do we. I was unable to finish the last chapter of this episode, though, as the streaming video version of the file was difficult to start and stop. After dealing with freezing/buffering for the first 3.5 hours of the series, I gave up on the last part of the final episode.

Overall, parts of The Weight of the Nation were really nicely done, but the series was uneven. I’d say part 3 is a must-see, as childhood obesity should be an issue of some concern for everyone. Part 4 is also worth watching (assuming you can make it through the technical issues) because it delves further into root causes. Part 2 will likely be of interest to those interested in losing weight–I found it engaging but not overly relatable from the perspective of someone who is already living a healthy lifestyle. Part 1 is worth watching only if you’re into science and statistics. I’d also approach the entire series with a healthy dose of skepticism about the overarching message that more regulation is the primary ingredient in solving the obesity epidemic. There are certainly areas that should be regulated–I’m a big fan of things like posting calorie counts on menus and raising nutritional standards for school lunches–but personal responsibility cannot be undersold. I also think the series does a good a job of demonizing big farming and soda companies, but lets the meat industry and the alcohol industry off the hook. Education is probably a better tool for fighting obesity than regulation. This series is a starting point, but not the end of the discussion. Take its message to heart, then do your own research.

*The Weight of the Nation is available online and can be streamed free-of-charge from the series web site.

When Things Fall Apart: A Review

It may seem a bit hyperbolic to say that I am writing a review of one of the best books ever, but… yeah, this is a review of one of the best books ever.

Book coverI recently finished re-reading Pema Chödrön’s 2000 work, When Things Fall Apart. Chödrön is an American-born Buddhist nun, and this book is meant to be a collection of advice and guidance for Westerners on how to deal with suffering and times of challenge. Notice I don’t say it is a book for Buddhists, because I don’t think it is. Chödrön’s advice and teachings are relevant for individuals of all faiths, though there is some discussion of religion that might ruffle feathers, and some of the book’s chapters rely heavily on Buddhist teachings and principles. The central themes of this work, developed from notes and talks that Chödrön gave in the years leading up to its publication, are about how to use adversity as a catalyst for introspection and growth (“poison as medicine,” she calls it in one chapter), cultivating mindfulness, and developing acceptance and compassion. All of these skills that I, and many of us in today’s society, are in dire need of.

The good news, according to Chödrön, is that we already have all the tools we need to cultivate these desirable qualities: our minds, and the world around us. Buddhists believe that life is suffering, and that suffering is caused by attachment (two of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths). But there are two sides to every coin: We develop attachments to the good things, too. Praise, love, wealth, and the positive things in life are also addictive, and our attachment to the good things causes suffering as well when those good things disappear. All things are impermanent. Bummer. So, we have to eliminate all of our attachments if we are ultimately going to see the world for what it is and transcend suffering. Sounds easy, right?

Chödrön recognizes we are no saints, and this is where mindfulness and compassion come into play. The meditation techniques outlined in the book are aimed at helping us to better understand ourselves (and our emotions), and to accept ourselves as we are in the moment. “In practicing meditation,” she says, “we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal—quite the opposite. We’re just being with our experience, whatever it is.” (17) Understanding where we are and living in the moment is key: She often tells us to stop running from what scares us, stop trying to escape “feeling,” stop seeking solace in drinking or drugs or whatever makes you feel better. The moment is the perfect teacher, and she tells us that by sitting in the bad places, feeling what we feel, we become more keenly aware of our attachments and the habitual emotional patterns that keep us stuck. At the same time, we can also use these teaching moments to develop empathy. Realize that these negative emotions are part of the human experience. If we feel fear, sadness, loneliness, or anger, imagine the other millions of people in the world that are going through the same emotions. Couldn’t we enrich everyone if we stepped a little outside ourselves? Here’s one of my favorite passages:

“All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever. Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?’ Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?’” (11)

This was my third time reading this book, and it’s been through some difficult times with me. This time, though, it spoke to me on a deeper level than it has before. For me, at least, it seemed like every time I picked up the book I turned to a page with exactly the advice I needed to hear. Want a drink? Here’s why it’s a bad idea. Angry about that guy who broke my heart? Here’s how to deal with it. Thinking about sending him a nasty e-mail? Here’s why I shouldn’t. This book just works for me. It is short, written in plain language, but carries a powerful message. It all sounds lofty, sure, but part of what makes this book special is that Chödrön herself seems to “get” it. She gets the “first world problems” that hook us in. She had a cheating spouse. She went through a divorce. She struggles with colleagues. She sometimes thinks her way is the only right way. She is open about these experiences, and that makes her relatable in a way that some authors aren’t. By sharing her challenges along the path, she gives us a subtle message: You can do this too. And you know what? After a few weeks of daily meditation practice and nearly a month without drinking, I’m starting to believe it.