Christmas Eve, somewhere in the late 80s, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.
That’s the setting for the unfolding of a moment in my life for which I was quite certain I would be forever doomed. I mean, it happened in the National Cathedral. Surely, I thought at the time, God was bigger and more powerful in there, what with that choir singing with that huge echo, all the fancy candles, and the huge massive ceiling with paintings of serious people in weird clothes who looked really important.
I’ll be honest. I was bored. It was probably about 25 minutes into the service - no, that’s a lie, more like 2.5 minutes into the service - when my ADD took hold. The oncoming crash of ADD caused (still does) such a stir inside my bones that if I did not move my body soon after, my only other options were screaming at the top of my lungs something really weird or unzipping my skin to crawl out. So, obviously, I started moving. In my fancy Christmas dress. I imagine it probably had a red velvet ribbon around the middle and that my hair was braided perfectly with bows tied at the end of the same velvet ribbon, but, knowing my grittiness even then, I’m sure my mom conceded with just a dress without a huge grass stain on it and a surrender to the notion of a hair brush ("next year," she probably assured herself).
And not only was I moving, but I decided to recreate the scene from Pippi Longstockings where she, thanks to really antiquated special effects in 1988, managed to spin around so fast in circles with her arms outstretched that she then lifted up into sky for a flying adventure. Clearly, this seemed fitting at the moment. In the National Cathedral. On Christmas Eve. Where God is bigger and more powerful.
Anyway, off I went, spinning around and around, awaiting magical launch. To my surprise, no one noticed or even scolded me, so I kept going and going annnnnnnnd going. And then, it happened. I can still feel the sting on the back on my hand, the sound of its bony knuckles making contact with a fleshy cheek and then the thud sound of a falling body on the ground. And here is where, in my memory, the whole thing goes to slow motion. I turn around to see what has happened and there on the ground is a little boy, who is clutching the left side of his face and crying, like a lot. A lot of crying. He stumbles his way up to his feet, not letting his teary gaze leave mine, and finds his mother, his almost teenage body curling into her lap like a tiny baby.
Being a ninja always evading trouble even then, I sunk back into the fold of my siblings and the ornate wall decor near my seat, my eyeballs roaming side to side as a I awaited the inevitable lashing from mother.pastor.God combined into one massive lightning strike. But, nothing happened. No one seemed to have even noticed. Not even the boy’s mother could find the assaulter in the crowd. Could it be possible, I thought? Was I to get off without even a blip? I wouldn’t even have to walk on my hands and knees and apologize for destroying this poor boy’s face for all eternity?
At first, I felt relief. And then - then - I started to tumble down the rabbit hole of sins gone unpunished. As I sat and listened to the choir singing angelic sounds, I convinced myself that not only had I melted this boy’s face off and his mother was going to seek out my hand until I was 85 years old, but that God was going to forever hold the secret over my head. I was doomed, I decided. DOOMED.
I carried that Christmas Eve around with me for a long time as a child, using it as ammunition for why my inability to sit still was a really huge big problem certainly capable of covering the world in darkness if it was released ever again without careful restraint. And I promised God that I wouldn’t ever try to spin like Pippi again, if only I could be absolved of my wayward hand’s attack.
Wait, I JUST realized that this sounds like a really bad version of Frozen. Dang it. This movie is haunting me.
The whole point of this is that upon celebrating TWO YEARS today for MommaStrong, I have something to say: I recently completely forgave myself.
No, not only for the event above, but for everything. You know, everything. I’ve known for a while, thanks to friends and good therapy, that self-forgiveness was still something I needed to work on. And the tricky part here is that you can’t force that. You can’t just wake up one day and say, oh, I forgive myself. Nope. True self-forgiveness slides in next to you while you are busy doing the good work you need to do to be healthy. And after it slides right in, you look over at it and go, oh, this is nice. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
That’s what happened to me. It just slid in. And the ways in which I held myself at a distance from genuine self-love then crumbled down without any effort. And left over from that crumbling was clarity and freedom. Like taking a first deep air conditioned breath after having walked around the humid hot summer air in Houston. Smooth. Full. Free.
What I discovered from this process is not only that it cannot be forced, but also that a lack of self-forgiveness existed as a way for me to engage in self-preservation. And engaging in self-preservation required me numbing myself out. Feeling badly about who I thought I was and what I thought I did wrong allowed me to turn a blind eye from my reality, from owning up to my mistakes, from bearing the brunt of those things that caused harm (even warranted harm), from not being perfect, from failure, from trouble. And it became a vicious cycle because turning a blind eye meant that I needed to engage in behaviors and things that kept me cushioned (numb).
But, when self-forgiveness slid in next to me and said hello, all of these things I was doing to preserve myself from the brunt of my human fallibility became unnecessary. They had less of a hold on me. The addictive pull towards shutting down released as I felt a more sacred pull towards feeling it all. And even though feeling it all involved pain and reflection and ownership and learning and beginning again, it also gave me back my life force.
Forgiving yourself is the key to loving yourself, which is the key to everything. And to think that most of us have gone our whole life compiling the ways in which we are not worthy or that deserve a Divine lightning bolt of punishment is truly the worst "sin" of them all. Can you imagine dressing your own child up in that load of crap every day? Here you go, Mary, let's put this shame sweater on. Oh, here's your failure pants. Oh, borrow these "be afraid" socks. And here's a hiding hat. That's basically what we do to ourselves every single day when we are not facing the monsters we think are begging us to believe we are not whole and gorgeous.
Let's be real, though. You've done some dumb stuff. I know. Me too. So, while you can start to shed those layers of loaded clothing and release yourself from self-hate, you can also simultaneously remind yourself to face the things you need to work on. That's the beauty of self-forgiveness. You get to let go of the crud that is actually totally irrationally attached to your self-worth and you get to pony up to the things you need to learn how to do better. Period.
Then .... Then, you get to let go of the stuff that is keeping you from feeling all of it. You get to be alive. You get to have sensations. You get to let your freak flag fly. You get to choose your own way. You get to speak your mind. You get to breathe clean, non humid air into every part of you.
I can handle this. You can handle this.
And that kid at the Cathedral could handle it. I think.
Oh, and because I just threw out a loaded topic in a light blog post, here are some ways I started to allow self-forgiveness to coming sliding in next to me. I hope they help you.
- Make a list of all of your fuck-ups
- Categorize each thing with the following 3 labels:
- 1) Not Proud of, won’t Do again;
- 2) Part of me and my imperfection that I can accept and embrace; and
- 3) Stuff I Need Pro Help Learning about.
- 1) Not Proud of, won’t Do again;
- List all the things you do to numb out. Ask yourself if they are worth you feeling alive.
- Then say over and over, I can handle the full scope of being alive.
- Laugh. A lot.