A recent training with twenty-five women at Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic for low-income women with cancer made me think about how I love the people in my life. I was reminded that many years ago, when I volunteered and served as staff there, I was emotionally open to hold the space for women who were often suffering and always courageous, no matter what else was going on in my personal life. I would hug any woman who wanted to be held, and I would forget any of my own problems at the door. In that space, once again, where I was working from my heart and listening to the pulse of the women around me, I realized that I have not, for a very long, lived in this way. Too often I’m guarded (not without good reason, mind you!), and operating solely from my intellect, resisting my intuition and blocking my emotions. Yet, there I was, physically holding virtual strangers and asking myself, “How could I step into that space and be there for total strangers and not for my own sister?” This is the question I’m grappling with.
Like most people, I haven’t got the “relationship” thing down perfectly. I haven’t always been there for the people I care about in the ways they’ve wanted. At other times, I’ve come through with flying colors. It’s occasionally hard to tell when I’ve hit the mark or not. Lately, I’ve been listening better, but it’s still not entirely clear when I get it right. I’m drawn to people who articulate their feelings openly, or who trust me with their unspoken realities. Can I really afford to avoid those people who express themselves differently? I think that I cannot. This has me thinking a lot about atonement. Why don’t we have more rituals to help us make amends when we stray? I don’t mean legal recourse, which we have in spades, but rather authentic space for reconciliation in our everyday lives.
The Jewish tradition has a yearly Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. They have it right. I believe my life would be much better—I’d have far more peace in my heart—if I had had the chance to apologize, ask for forgiveness and make amends at regularly scheduled intervals throughout my life.
Unfortunately, there aren’t too many role models for this one. Martin Luther King inspires me, but his work seems to be from another lifetime. The training the Civil Rights Workers underwent in order to resist oppression without resorting to violence is ignored and underrated though there is much that can be learned from their displayed discipline in the face of adversity and violence. They literally trained themselves to turn the other cheek.
Why don’t Christians have a tradition of non-violence and reconciliation as a common practice? Oh, I’ve read on the Internet that Christians honor this tradition, because Jesus would have observed these practices, but I cannot recall personally attending even one such service in all my many years as a member of different churches. Perhaps we take it for granted that since Jesus died for our sins, we needn’t trouble ourselves to reconcile with others. That’s not the whole truth. Communion and silent confession have given me great peace and comfort, but what about the intentional righting of wrongs?
I’m a teacher, so it always comes back to training and practice for me. In my opinion, I can’t get good at a thing until I’ve had some practice. Learning to make amends is now moving into the priority range for me. Perhaps I’m more aware of my mortality now that my mother is seventy, and because I don’t have a healthy relationship—friendly communications, even—with my sisters. All this has begun to unsettle me. At the same time as I want to have a relationship with my sisters, I don’t want to ignore the very real problems that have led to our present impasse. I need a ritual that will let me heal the deep emotional wounds that only sisters can inflict on each other and address my concerns as well. I’d like to have open communication with my blood family. I’d also like to remain sane through the process.
This week I’m co-facilitating a workshop to help young people unlearn internalized oppression, and it makes sense to me that atonement has to be part of the work we do to heal our communities. We can’t move on, heal, or feel good with guilt on our conscience. It’s critical that we learn to forgive ourselves and other people. We have to learn to say, “Sorry,” and then take steps to build trust. It’s essential that when we get a second chance, we use it to make peace. This is not the popular social paradigm of our times—possibly of any times. Generations of families have been known to carry grudges (Note: Romeo and Juliet, or the Hatfields and McCoys—fiction and reality are telling us a truth).
We have to make atonement part of the fabric of our society.
In the Buddhist tradition there is space to air and resolve grievances. It allows individuals to talk openly about their troubles and begin to repair damage with the help of the Sangha, the community of practice. The community both witnesses and mediates, with the goal of keeping the community intact. Thich Nhat Hanh also teaches the practice of atoning by writing letters. Sometimes it’s too hard to face someone who has hurt us and whom we have in turn hurt. In such cases, a letter may allow for the full expression of our emotions. I’m not just talking about forgiveness, which is often a personal practice that has noting to do with reconciliation, per se. I need the ability and skill to speak thoughtfully and compassionately to the people I love.
Now that I’m committed to my monthly service at Charlotte Maxwell, I see that I will pour the love I feel for my sisters, who I’m literally and figuratively afraid to touch, into these women, who want to be touched by me. Even my awareness is a powerful reminder that I am learning and growing because this matters to me. My ability to express love in ways that are meaningful for the people in my life is important. I know my prayers and meditations are bringing me closer to the healing I desire. In the meantime, I want and need to be loved for who I am and the gifts I bring into the world. This can better happen when I’m open. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the exceptional gifts of love I’m able to share with friends, family and strangers.