Memories haunt me. Just when I think I’ve kicked one out, it sneaks back around and shimmies into my consciousness, flooding me with guilt and shame. One memory in particular occurred thirty years ago: I flew to Chicago to visit my sister, and because I am a vegetarian and was arriving at lunchtime, she made me an avocado sandwich. For some reason, I wasn’t in the mood for an avocado sandwich, so I ate something else. I think about this more than I should. Every time I remember my sister eating that sandwich, hating every bite, I beat myself up and wish I could get that moment back. My sister would laugh and say it is no big deal; but for me, that flash of thoughtlessness is almost more than I can bear.
Why can’t I let go of something so silly, when I can quickly forgive others for much worse—betrayals, slights, omissions, lies? We are much harder on ourselves than others. My capacity to forgive others was tested ten years ago, when my former husband had an affair. The profound devastation of his infidelity eviscerated me. That’s when I discovered the reality of true forgiveness: It dwells in understanding and love—two over-used but necessary words.
My need to understand why he had had the affair, why he lied to me over and over again, why he betrayed me . . . so intimately and carelessly . . . arose from my deep love for him. We had been best friends and lovers for twenty-two years. I knew that if I could see the world from his perspective, I would discover his why and be able to forgive him.
This is what I’ve learned: Most of us are doing the best we can . . . but we’re human, and we make mistakes. Sometimes bad mistakes—mistakes that change our lives and the lives of those around us. Even then we should forgive and be forgiven. To forgive does not mean that we excuse bad behavior or forget what’s been done: Even though I forgave my husband, I left him because he destroyed my trust. To forgive someone means we understand the why—as feeble as the why might be—and that allows us to let go of negative feelings. Ultimately, forgiving others is a way of healing yourself.
So why does the avocado sandwich haunt me? Most of us spend our lives unwinding the lessons of our youth. From the outset, we are taught to seek forgiveness from outside ourselves, whether from a parent or sibling or friend, or from an unseen god judging our every move. We are never taught to forgive ourselves, or that true forgiveness—for yourself and others—comes from the inside out. To forgive ourselves is difficult because we don’t know how. We need to understand that we all are flawed, to love ourselves enough to forgive ourselves when we fall. That’s how we stand back up again, healthier and wiser, to face this delightful, yet challenging world. Ultimately, that avocado sandwich reminds me to be more thoughtful of other people. I don’t always succeed, but I do try.
© 2016 Ellen Antonelli