To be fully present we must be living in the present. That seems obvious, however we often don’t live in the present. There are two ways of avoiding the present, one is being anxious about the future, the other is by dwelling on resentments from the past. I will leave the future for the future, today I want to talk about handling resentments from the past. When we spend our lives dwelling on the past we cannot be fully present for others, because we are not fully in the present. During the High Holy Days last year I gave a reflection where I talked about the Jewish practice on Yom Kippur of asking forgiveness of others, and how healing that is. What I didn’t fully address was the healing nature of forgiving. Forgiving frees us from the past and allows us to live fully in the present.
Forgiving takes two forms, one is forgiving others, the other is forgiving yourself. Forgiving myself has been one of my major issues. If you are waiting for me to list the mistakes I have made, forget it. But trust me, it would take longer than I have for this reflection. Mistakes that we make are useful as they serve to teach us what not to do. But we need to remember the lesson and forgive ourselves For me forgiving takes a conscious effort that involves feeling sad for, rather than angry at, the person that I was. I wish that I had learned this lesson before I was in my mid 70's. My wish for you is that you learn it at an earlier age than I did.
My other major issue was about forgiving my father. Is that familiar to anyone else here? I have mentioned him occasionally in earlier reflections. My daughter caught him perfectly when she said, “He was brilliant, but he wasn’t a nice man.” What I have recently come to recognize is that he was cruel and brutal only when we were at home, in the city. In a rural or wilderness environment he was kind, gentle and loving. He was Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Once I realized this duality I began working on understanding it.
What I came to realize was that, in many ways, his early life may not have been all that different from my own. He also was taken away from what had been his home and his grandparents at an early age, he at 8, I at 9. He also had a very bright father who wanted him to get an advanced education. And, like me, he spent summers with his grandparents back “home.” In his case it was on his grandparents farm. He once told me that when he got on the train to go to his grandparents he took off his shoes and didn’t put them back on again until he got back to the city. At his grandparents he learned to plow behind a mule, and to fish and hunt for food. I have a feeling that those were some of the best years of his life.
However I am fairly certain that his father, who had been a tenant farmer, wanted him to be anything but a farmer. My father went on to become, among other things, a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences and chief of Epidemiology at HEW. His father set him on the correct path for success, but possibly not on the best path to happiness.
Realizing this has finally allowed me to be able to forgive my father. I think that at his core he was a decent person. However, I believe there was a lot of anger at not being where he really wanted to be. And he took that out on his children. One thing he was not and that was introspective, so I don’t think he every realized what was going on.
I recently hung his bamboo fly rod above the window in my office, and when I look at it I recall only the good times. My he rest in peace and may I now live in the present, and be present for others, rather than living in a painful past.
If you harbor resentment and a failure to forgive, understanding might also be useful to you as you try to move out of the past and into the present. I also prey that you will find peace sooner than I did.