I turn up the air conditioning in my car as high as it will go. I’m trying not to throw up. Other people from the funeral are arriving at the restaurant, brave soldiers in black march by me as I sit in my car paralyzed in a parking lot.
The frigid air stings my face and hot tears drip on to my black dress. A few land on my forearm and burn the tiny, flesh indents I’d made from digging my fingernails into my skin an hour prior, sitting in the pew repeating “Don’t pass out. Don’t pass out. Don’t pass out,” over and over in my head as I inhaled big gulps of air polluted with incents.
I fling open the glove compartment and pull out an old bank statement envelope I’d stuffed in there. I flip it over. Then I root in the console for a pen. When I find one, it leaks blue ink on my fingers as I squeeze it, but I don’t care. I write the number one, and a name. Then another and another. Writing each name felt like I was carving it into the thigh I was resting the envelope on, sharp and permanent.
Then I profess out loud to the nothingness in my car, “The people I need to forgive.”
Rewind 3 days.
My heart is racing and the black dust is starting to creep into the corners of my eyes again. I rock back and forth and yank at my fingers so hard I wonder why they don’t just come off. My feet dangle over the doctor’s bench in the cold urgent care room, the tissue paper crinkles beneath me.
I can’t bring myself to meet the eyes of the small man in the white coat standing in front of me, so I look at his hands. I can see that he is holding the finger pulse clip, furrowing his brow at my vitals, furrowing his brow at me. The nurse had typed every frantic word I said like a court stenographer, so he doesn’t ask many questions after he looks at the computer. He already knows.
“You know, panic attacks are fairly common,” he said gently.
“Not for me.”
Index finger, pull. Middle finger, pull. Pinky, pull.
“What do you think is going to happen when you see this man, Ms. Herrick?”
I look up for the first time. I notice he is staring at me cautiously, probably worried I might lose consciousness again. Great.
“I, I just can’t see him.” I choke on the words, the pitiful lack of explanation I had to offer for my fear and scorn. The same way I’d felt trying to explain myself to a friend on the phone three hours earlier in the city. I paced back and forth on the shore of the Hudson River while I tried to talk, gazing out at the Statue of Liberty, wishing I could find a way to be that isolated and safe.
The doctor places his hand on my shoulder lightly.
“He is just a person. We are all just people.”
Fast forward to one hour before the girl freaking out in the car.
I let go of my clenched arm for a moment to rub the back of my friend sitting next to me, listening to her quiet cries. We are at a Catholic funeral for one of our best friend’s father. She sits at the front, continuing to be one of the bravest and most admirable human beings I have ever encountered. Next to me is another beautiful, resilient best friend, we sat at her mother’s funeral three weeks prior. I can feel her pain beside me, radiating waves of anguish, and it breaks my heart how helpless I am to relieve it.
I keep my eyes on the floor, feeling sick and dizzy. A tall, slim figure in a dark suit rounds the corner of the pews to my left, standing in the center line for communion. He is now four feet in front of me.
Four feet in front of me is the monster I created in my mind.
Four feet in front of me is the person I used to sleep one foot away from, every night for two and a half years, listening to his slow breath, but now hadn’t seen nor communicated with for six months.
Four feet in front of me is a complete stranger, the person I told myself I hated more than anything, that I would never, ever, be able to forgive.
Then I hear the obscure urgent care doctor’s quiet words. “Just a person.”
Because four feet in front of me, that terrifying, evil stranger that I couldn’t breathe being in the same sanctuary as– was just a person. And not only that but a person I once loved. Under the suit, he was likely wearing one of the thin white undershirts or patterned pair of socks I’d washed, folded and put away in the drawer dozens of times before. He probably still put his coffee in the fridge that morning for a little while because it was too hot for him to drink right away. He probably felt a sadness pull at his heart being at the funeral of a friend who lost a father, as he unexpectedly lost his own less than two years before. Because despite everything he now represented to me, “We are all just people.“
Then I drove to the funeral reception, and on the way, got the news that a friend of mine had just died.
Now we are all caught up.
I put the list of names down on the seat next to me and open my phone. I scroll through my texts, reading and re-reading each detail that I knew in order to wrap my mind around the sequence of events playing out in front of me.
Then I scroll to the last messages from my friend a few days prior. There are four texts, split up from one long message, asking about coming to the city to visit me for his birthday over Labor Day. Phrases stand out and slice into me, “two weeks away” and “If you’re up for it, I’d love to get out of town and have a good time.” But what stands out the most is what is missing; my response. Because I didn’t answer. I read the texts when I was half-asleep, hungover from a night out. I had just seen him at my family’s house the weekend before, so I figured I had time to answer. But I forgot. I said nothing. And now I never could.
I throw my phone at the dash and it bounces on to the car floor. I smack my forehead on the middle of the steering wheel and lay my elbows beside it so my arms can cover my head in shame. Questions cut through my mind, moments I overlooked or avoided a few weeks prior for the sake of comfort or convenience. I stay there for a while before I reach over to the seat beside me, pick up the pen and envelope and add one more name to the “People I Need to Forgive,” list.
What I learned on that day, yesterday to be exact, can be captured in two points:
1. Life is too damn short not to forgive.
2. Life is too damn painful not to forgive.
I have always been shitty at forgiveness. Every one of the other “Good Christian” or “Good Person” qualities have always come easily to me, even as a young girl. All but forgiveness, that is. I have openly admitted it on numerous occasions, sometimes even proudly, like it somehow made me tough that I could hold ruthless grudges for years on end. But I realized yesterday that it doesn’t mean I’m tough at all. If anything it’s the opposite.
Hatred is a flesh-eating bacteria on your heart. It destroys you from the inside out, eroding your humanity like acid.
Let’s start with the first part of my story. My own inability to forgive allowed me to get so worked up about being near a human being that my body physically shut down. I couldn’t breathe. I lost consciousness. I couldn’t eat. I even got a fever at one point. A FEVER. The strength of my disdain and contempt quite literally broke the physiological ecosystem of my body.
Then the second part of my story poses this question: FOR WHAT?!
For what purpose did my negative emotions serve?
They changed nothing. They accomplished nothing. They helped nothing. All they did was cause more hurt, mostly for me.
And while I sat in my car, thinking about how I’d be attending my fourth funeral service in a month’s time, I couldn’t fathom how the grudges I held up until that point meant anything anymore.
Even the worst of the worst, the biggest and baddest monsters from my past and present, were only people. People that had just as little of a freaking clue what to do on this planet as I did. We all make mistakes. We all hurt each other. We all act selfishly sometimes.
That doesn’t excuse it, and I am by no means an advocate for tolerating disrespect, neglect, betrayal, abuse or hurtfulness. I have high standards for others, as I set for myself, and I think that is incredibly important and enriching for your life. You should only surround yourself with humans who deserve you and bring positivity into your world. BUT, walking away from negative people and spending your life harboring negative feelings about them, are two different things.
Forgiving others is liberating. And it’s also mighty.
There is a reason the story of Jesus Christ is so compelling and has been for all of history. Aside from the whole rising from the dead thing, the most powerful element of that story is the unwavering, unprecedented and unmatched theme of forgiveness. There are a lot of examples, but this one gets me every time.
Jesus is about to be crucified by the people he loves and calls out to God (as the big guy is about to rain down hellfire) “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
That’s right, forgive them. These people are quite literally shouting out votes for torturing and killing the man at that exact moment, and he asks God for their forgiveness. It seems unthinkable and downright impossible to demonstrate that much grace, and that’s the point.
Forgiveness is the ultimate display of love. Love of life, love of others and love of self. It’s the most powerful decision you can ever make.
It’s the only way to survive all of the horrible, devastating tragedy and heartbreak that comes along with the human experience because it satisfies and nourishes your soul in a way that nothing else ever can.
It’s the answer to everything, even when it’s hard and maybe even undeserved. Even when your heart has been frozen for decades, you’ll never be free until you thaw away the hatred and choose love instead.
So I have been making my way down my list.
I started at the top, clicked in and out of the contact upwards of 25 times before I finally hit the call button and heard the voice of a ghost. And since then have taken baby steps in the right direction of peacemaking, something I never thought I would do. I texted a few others, people I said I’d never contact again but in light of all that happened, felt it was time. I even wrote a letter to a relative I haven’t spoken to in ten years because of something I decided when I was a teenager I was never going to forgive him for.
Because the thing is, I’m not a teenager anymore. None of us are.
We know now how dark the world can be, how scary and unpredictable everything is. Therefore we should understand how futile 100% of grudges are.
We also know that the ability to embrace love, reconciliation and acceptance IS within our control. So REVEL in that.
Take that power and let it wash over you like a healing waterfall of humanity. Prevent more names from appearing on your list, and continue to cross off the existing ones, including every time you find that you’ve added your own name. Show yourself grace, and give it to others.
And I’ll keep doing the same by opening my own heart to forgiveness.
With a bleeding pen and a bleeding heart, I too will survive.