CLEARING THE DECKS
Back in the late eighties when AIDS was a death sentence, I had a profound experience with a friend at Century City hospital. He had written a play for teenagers about safe sex and AIDS, they were performing it in schools all across the Los Angeles area, when he started to feel sick. He called me that evening and said he was having trouble breathing. I could hear it in his voice.
“It might just be a bad cold,” I said. “Everybody gets colds.”
He was worse the next morning so I took him to the hospital where they diagnosed him with pneumocystis pneumonia, an infection brought on by the AIDS virus. His prognosis was bad but he tried to make light of it. “The good news,” he said,” is that I don't have to find parking places any more.” What he did have to do was tell the cast members of his play that he was ill, that life was imitating art.
His condition went downhill quickly. He was allergic to the first IV antibiotic they gave him, and the knowledge that he had a fatal illness was all consuming. I was devastated. This was the first time someone this close to me had contracted AIDS and I didn’t know how to cope with it.
They changed his medicine and when he began to breathe more easily, he starting making phone calls. Over the next two weeks, he asked a number of people to come visit him who were not in his close circle. I was stumped at first. I didn’t understand what he was doing. But after I was present for one of the visits, I realized what was going on. He was seeing people with whom he had misunderstandings or unresolved arguments and he was making peace. He didn’t want to die with grudges and regrets. He wanted to heal the wounds, some that he had inflicted and others that had been done to him, and he talked it out with each person. He was clearing the decks, letting go and finding compassion for his friends and for himself.
One day when I was leaving the hospital, in awe of the healing that he was doing, something occurred to me. I didn't have to wait until I was dying to make peace with the people in my life. I could start where I was. We just never know how long we have here. We don't know our expiration date. When we leave the house angry and slam the door behind us, we don’t know if we’ll have time to work things out or if we’ll die suddenly and have no opportunity to make things right.
That day, I made a vow to myself to clear up misunderstandings as they happened and make sure that whenever I said good-bye to anyone, on the phone or in person, there was clarity and they knew that I loved them. I’ve been doing it ever since and it feels right. But it isn't always easy. Sometimes it feels next to impossible to let go of grudges so when I try to make peace, there are some things I keep in mind:
1. When someone criticizes me, I remember that they're talking about themselves so there’s no reason to take anything personally.
2. If something is bothering me, I speak up. I try to do it in a gentle way. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t.
3. If I say something that is less than kind, I apologize. And I mean it.
4. I try not to lie. If I have to lie about something, I probably shouldn’t be doing it.
This brings up the complicated topic of forgiveness. We all engage in petty spats that are easily cleared up. But there are also mean and aggressive actions that seem unforgiveable, no matter how you look at them. In these cases, clearing the decks is not easy. Why should we even have to do it? Why shouldn’t people be held responsible for actions that hurt us? Why should they be let off the hook?
These are valid questions so I turn to the wisdom of Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, who reminds me that it's an inside job. She says, “Forgiveness cannot be forced. When we are brave enough to open our hearts to ourselves, forgiveness will emerge. First we acknowledge what we feel. It might be shame, revenge, embarrassment, remorse. Then, in the spirit of not wallowing in pain, we do our best to let go and make a fresh start.”
Wallowing in anger and regrets turns you into a victim, someone who is unwilling to understand a situation from someone else’s point of view and make it right. So how are you seeing yourself? Like a monster or a member of the human race with all of our strengths and frailties? Just like the light appears every morning and offers us a fresh possibility to start over and clear the decks, so does the opportunity show up to find grace every time we interact with another human being. We are forgiving ourselves for being human. When we recognize that in most cases, the source of aggression is ignorance, someone else’s or our own, we can find the inner strength to let go and accept the situation.
My friend who was fighting AIDS left this earth at 32 years old, but not until he had made peace with himself and his friends. I’m glad for him, but I still have some self-forgiving to do. Sometimes I think that in my grief, I was too overbearing and I smothered him. Sometimes I see that I was his best friend. But whichever is true, maybe both, he’s gone and the forgiving is up to me. A friend told me that when someone dies, there is an opportunity to begin a whole new relationship with them, an opportunity to heal old wounds and open our hearts. So I talk to myself and him, I try to soothe myself, and I do my best to acknowledge, forgive and start anew.
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Thank you for writing this, Andrea. It was very helpful for me to read it and reminded me of things I do already know, just have to be reminded specially now that I am in deep grief after losing my husband who was absolutely everything to me.