In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you. Buddha
At some point during their courtship, my father told my mother, “I do not intend to suffer any more than I have to.” It was a line oft-repeated during my childhood, not as an admonishment but as a tender reminder not to add to my own pain.
My mother loved the story Dr. Marty Nemko tells about his father, Richard, who spent his teenage years in a German concentration camp. When Dr. Nemko was a teenager himself, he asked his father why he never seemed angry about that time. His father replied, “The Nazi’s took five years from my life. I won’t give them one minute more.”
What a hard thing, I thought, to release past offenses like that. To refuse to carry the resentment, rage or regret forward and not haul it with you wherever you went. I admired Richard Nemko’s resilience and determination, but struggled to imitate it.
Despite my parents’ sage advice, I have spent far more time nursing my slights and clinging to past hurts and insults than releasing them. I relive conversations over and over again in my head, envisioning what I could have said or done differently, rewriting the script so I had better lines or a snappier comeback. I stew over chance encounters when someone does something unkind or rude, kicking myself for not coming up with a flippant comment that would have rocked the other person back on their heels. I imagine apologies, admissions of wrongdoing, acceptance of accountability that will never come. And I try to will karma into showing up and exacting some sort of cosmic cost.
It took me a long time to realize that in doing this, I was the only one keeping the incident alive. The client who’s perpetually late to Zoom meetings isn’t focused on the impact his actions have on my time or stress level. The colleague who interrupts or won’t let me speak in a meeting isn’t thinking about how I feel about being silenced. The friend who comes to town and doesn’t call is busy juggling other needs and priorities. They will all move on to other things, leaving me to stew quietly by myself. I didn’t like being stuck in a negative swirl, but I didn’t consider what a waste of time it was until Jimmy was diagnosed.
Life-threatening illness and out-of-order death have a way of revealing who people are. When, whether and how they’ll show up. What they expect of you on your worst days. How much they choose to acknowledge. How quickly they want you to move on.
It’s a raw time. The impatience, small slights and sharp words cut deeper. The bad behavior of a few have a way of distracting you from the ones who stay close and lean in. It feels unfair that other people, even those who have no idea that one of your essential people is gravely ill or has died, are adding to your despair by cutting you off in traffic, ignoring your texts, refusing to make time to see you. But carrying these resentments around day after day is like holding onto shards of glass and expecting not to get cut. The very act of hanging on keeps the pain fresh and prevents you from learning anything about yourself or the other person.
I don’t remember what sparked the epiphany, but one day, as I was wasting time wallowing, I realized that the other person’s behavior had nothing to do with me. Not that I didn’t play my part. My expectations were often too high, and grief made me more needy than normal. But the other person probably wasn’t thinking about any of that. They weren’t thinking about me at all. Instead, they were focused on other priorities, other friends, other commitments. I wanted special dispensation. To matter more than I did. It wasn’t their fault that I didn’t.
I wondered how many times I have said something that wounded another person and then moved on without a backward glance, never considering that my words might have left a scar. It’s easy to do and, depending on the circumstances, often unintentional. We wring our hands, wondering, “How could he do this to me?” “How could she say that to me?” instead of asking for clarification or understanding. We breathe new life into these encounters by continuing to dwell on them instead of making a choice about what to do about them.
Letting go is so much more powerful than holding on. We may never get that time back. We may never forget what someone else did to us. But there’s no better way to make your misery worse than by reliving what happened over and over again. By saying “no more” and putting the whole thing out of our mind, we regain agency, head space and energy up to focus on other more important things.
I think of all the years Richard Nemko could have kept his Nazi captors alive in his mind. Remembering their names and evil deeds. Reliving the horrors they inflicted and the damage they did. What courage it took to leave them in the past where they belonged and walk forward into the world without them.