On my 30th birthday, I received the gift every girl dreams of. Well, OK, maybe not every girl. Maybe just this girl and a few others I know. It arrived on that unusually sunny February morning in England, gift wrapped in an airmail envelope. I must have sensed at some level that its contents were of a rare and mystical quality because I opened it as if in possession of the holy grail itself.
Inside the envelope, shimmering in all of its golden, legal pad glory, was an agenda-free letter of amends from my ex-boyfriend, containing 2 A4 sides of pure, unadulterated accountability for his part in the demise of our relationship. It was poetry, and it made me feel good for exactly half an hour.
It was no coincidence, in my opinion, that this man subsequently met his soulmate and is now happily married to her. He had done his work and was cleaning house from a place of genuine remorse, free from inappropriate shame but without even a whisper of justification. I could feel his heart on the page and it is for that same reason I believe, that my emotional high that morning lasted for a mere 30 minutes. My house was still cluttered with ungrieved loss, unresolved wounds, and the absence of any real clarity or accountability for my own part in what had happened between us. It took an additional three-and-a-half years for me to return the favour. I’m sure, even then I came nowhere close to doing justice to the letter I’d received.
The sense of liberation that I felt, however, in writing those lines of heartfelt remorse, was a lesson I have subsequently carried with me like a treasure. The lesson that any unresolved pain I carry in my heart can never be liberated by another human being. Even if the scenario in question is a place where my role was entirely that of being a powerless victim. Recognition, accountability and even an apology from the so-called offender in question will never set me free. Forgiveness doesn’t come as a result of my offender’s awakening but only as a result of my own.
A couple of years ago, my understanding of why and how forgiveness works in this way deepened when a dear friend turned me on to a life-changing book called Radical Forgiveness. Overnight, my perception of everything transformed from three- to four-dimensional. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone in the clutches of unresolved hurts or a painfully-insistent cycle of being or perceiving themselves as being victimized or persecuted.
The author proposes that everything is happening for us, not to us. The book suggests that our souls have made agreements with one other to act out what we need to experience in order for us to evolve into our whole, actualised selves. So, when your boss routinely passes you over for that promotion, you have, according to Radical Forgiveness, at some level agreed that they would do this for you so that you would learn something about your role in this reoccurring pattern. Maybe you need to learn to value yourself more, to speak up or to risk leaving for a new job elsewhere that is a better match for your skills. Or perhaps you are learning that climbing the career ladder is not a reflection of your worth or a match for the emptiness you feel. Or maybe you have somebody in your life who repeatedly through word or deed implies that you are worthless, of low value, unlovable, not good enough, in some way faulty or wrong etc. Through the lens of this same premise, they are consistently offering you the opportunity to begin, in word and deed, to refute those implications, and to out-grow and heal the origins of those beliefs.
I cannot tell you how many times the following scenario has happened to/for me. I have an unconscious belief that is making my life miserable and blocking me from receiving or feeling joy, abundance, love, or any of the good stuff. And I know that I don’t have the good stuff, but I’m not conscious of the belief that is blocking it or creating the circumstances I’m feeling stuck in. So, as if by magic, a character shows up my life (when the student is ready, the teacher appears), and starts speaking, and or acting out my shadow beliefs, and they do it with complete and utter impunity. Usually, I either fall in love with them or I can’t stand them or a little of both depending on the severity of the belief. But always, at some point, they become intolerable to me, because in truth, what is happening is that they are making my own dysfunctional beliefs conscious, and they are giving me the opportunity to start rejecting them.
This is true of most of us. I reject the person or the situation that is bringing the consciousness alive for me because I don’t want to own that I’m carrying it and that I feel powerless to change. So here’s a better idea: Either they should change, or shut up or go away. But that never works. Because if they do, like clockwork, a new character shows up with the exact same script. Or I keep running the script that the character I amputated was running, round and around in my mind. And on it goes until I, myself, become clear around the beliefs that are no longer serving me.
At the point that I become clear and willing to change, the character who apparently had the contract to do this for me either changes, too or disappears. And it’s isn’t always a case of being shown a shadow belief. Sometimes a situation or person shows up that has something I want, something that I have been denying myself, not allowing myself to want, or not feeling good enough to have. Same principle. They bring to life the pain of the denied desire and all the beliefs that are blocking me from having it. Usually the same process too. Immediately I either put the person on a pedestal, ie. deny that they are just showing me an unrealised aspect of myself by making them superior to me. Or I degrade the thing I’m telling myself I don’t want or care about having, or easier still the offending character who has what I want, in an attempt to make it all unconscious again. Until the next time. Because, as we all know, that which we resist, persists!
While in the moment it feels excruciating or even impossible to find the gold in the discomfort—especially whenever a perceived injustice is being enacted in my life—and I want to take the person I see as being the offender and throw them off something very tall with an unforgiving landing ground, I am still almost positive that it is all happening for me, not to me.
Every scenario I believe contains a gift for all parties.
I’ve come to see these interactions less as unwanted confrontation or conflict but as shadow theatre. A performance of characters who appear to be dark but are actually being operated by helping hands with a desire to wake me up somehow. I have my so-called antagonists, the Voldermorts and pretty much anyone with an evil laugh at Disney, who are there to provoke me into growth, and the so called support team, the Sam Wise Ganges, C3POs, and Gandalfs, who are there to inspire and nourish me into growth.
Whichever way you look at it, they’re all on the same side. How or why would Luke ever have discovered his connection to the force and his calling to become a Jedi if it hadn’t been for Darth Vader? Antagonists don’t just make for good stories; they are a necessity of life. I have come to see them as my best friends in disguise. The greater the infraction, the further I will have to travel and expand my capacity for compassion and healing and acceptance. From that perspective, the infraction becomes a gift worthy of gratitude.
Here’s the tricky part: To hold the knowledge of that truth, but to act according to the lessons. In other words, we’re not here to be boundaryless doormats in a state of transcendence around abusive behaviour. Nor should we be renouncing accountability for our own offending behaviour on the premise that we were doing someone a favour in order to help them with their personal growth. Sometimes the lesson is learning to draw the line, say no, or to speak up. Or perhaps it is learning to feel remorse or to be able to process appropriate guilt and shame around our dysfunctional behaviour. This isn’t a perspective designed to transcend accountability or difficult feelings; it is, in fact, the opposite. It is a perspective that takes the cycle of being stuck in shame, blame and waiting in order to get the liberation we need to move on or to grow.
Are apologies really only for the apologiser? I don’t think so. To be on the receiving end of an authentic, heartfelt amends can be a profoundly validating and moving experience. More than that, it seems to me to be the only pathway for deepening intimacy. The expression of authentic accountability and remorse builds trust in a relationship. A person who is able to be accountable can also be held accountable. Often it appears that the stronger and healthier a person’s ego, sense of self-worth, and personal security, the greater their capacity for personal accountability, remorse, and processing appropriate levels of healthy shame, all a necessary part of being available for healthy connection with others.
My closest relationships have all weathered a variety of storms, and been made stronger and more intimate by them. During these times we have earned each other’s trust by taking responsibility for our behaviour, and by demonstrating genuine remorse for the impact of our missteps. The desire to change and do better in the future often makes the parties involved feel valuable and valued. So perhaps this is one of the most powerful ways that intimacy is created. Because while the good times in relationships are wonderful, I wonder if our most intimate bonds are forged during times of difficulty or conflict.
People who have weathered storms together are usually closer than people who have only ever experienced the sunny parts of life together. Most healthy relationships, of course, contain a cocktail of shadow theatre and sunny picnics along with the acceptance that no human being is without dark and light. When I come to view the darkness in myself and others with a grateful and investigative mind, the world and everyone in it becomes more like a friendly school of evolution than a battlefield. While school wasn’t always my favourite place to be, I’d much rather be in class than at war.
A version of this post was originally published on the author’s blog and is republished here with her permission.
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