If you have been reading my other blog posts about the Pacific Crest Trail you may have picked up on the fact that prior to starting my adventure I was in a bit of a rough patch. I was yearning for health and vitality and for space to do some soul searching. I realized at the time I started planning for the trail that I was holding on to a lot of anger and I wondered how the trail was going to affect that. There were people I needed to forgive and I didn’t even want to think about it.
So, I didn’t think about it . . . Until a few weeks into the journey. Well, technically I did think about it every once in a while before then. I just chose not to engage.
As I traveled, my soul felt lighter and stress melted away. I enjoyed the wilderness and rhythm of life on the trail. However, I noticed that every once in awhile a thought would creep into my head about a situation and I would get so angry thinking about it.
I had been ignoring the anger, trying to push it aside so I could go on my merry way along the trail. I had acknowledged pre-trail that working through my hurt and anger on this trip would be important and necessary. Some days it seemed easier to just ignore it and move on. My prayers sounded like, ” No, I don’t want to think about this. I don’t know where to start. Just let me hold on to it.”
Sometimes holding onto my anger helps me justify things. I feel justified in my actions and words towards people who hurt me, making things seem acceptable even when they aren’t. My anger fuels me and even gives me the idea that I’m right about a situation. This seems okay for a while until I take a good look at how the anger is affecting me, my relationships with others and my connection with the Divine. I knew I couldn’t go through this whole experience and waste the opportunity for healing. As Richard Rohr says in his book Everything Belongs, “In terms of soul work, we dare not get rid of the pain before we have learned what it has to teach us.”
Dealing with it meant I would probably hurt. Wading through the darkness meant I might cry (well, knowing me I would definitely cry at some point). It meant I would have to process why I was angry. I would have to willingly open up my heart to be changed.
The fourth quote I memorized on the trail, for my spiritual discipline of study, was what finally pushed me toward really engaging with my hurt and anger. It is from a passage of scripture–Ezekiel 36:26. “And, I will give you a new heart and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive one.”
While daily pondering and memorizing a quote like this about new hearts and new spirits, about the transformation of a stubborn heart to a tender heart, it soon became impossible to not look introspectively at my own stony, stubborn heart. And, when looking so closely at a stubborn heart but knowing this gentle promise for a tender heart is offered, how could I look away?
So, I looked long and hard at my anger and hurt over the course of my time on the trail. I was nervous about this process and was honest in my prayers about not knowing where to start. Last week, as I re-read my trail journals, I found this simple prayer I had written in May, “Lord, bring to light the things I need to process.”
Two specific things were “brought to light” as I examined my heart. First, I realized one of the key pieces here was my stubborn heart. I was placing a lot of blame on other people but, when I honestly examined situations, I realized I also had played a role. It wasn’t until I could acknowledge my own actions, which were not always honoring to people, that I then could look at things with different eyes, with empathy, understanding, and a desire to let go.
Second, I realized I was grieving. My hopes and heart had been wrapped up in something that didn’t end up working out how I had wanted. I was sad and hurt. In acknowledging my grief, I also knew that I had to allow myself to feel it, and maybe continue to feel it for a long time, as I walked through the pain. In Everything Belongs, Rohr goes on to say, “Don’t try to rush through it; we can’t leap over our grief work. Nor can we skip over our despair work. We have to feel it . . . Yet this sacred space is the very space we avoid. When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation. We avoid God, who works in the darkness–where we are not in control!”
As I allowed myself to grieve, I noticed my anger controlling me less. I found my heart was more open to loving people I felt hurt by. After being on the trail for three months and processing so much, a friend came to visit me in Central Oregon and asked how I was doing with all of this. I was so happy to find I could talk and think about things without anger in my heart and vindictive words spilling out of my mouth. I was on the pathway of healing and forgiveness, to new life.
During my time on the trail I’m not sure I could have put in words how this grieving process was helping me move towards forgiveness. It wasn’t until a couple weeks ago that what had happened on the trail really clicked. I was watching this video by Work of the People, in which Brené Brown talks about her research on forgiveness. Brown quotes her pastor at one point saying, “In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die.” Brown found in her research that “grief is an inherent part of forgiveness.” That sometimes we have to kill off something (perhaps the power that comes from being right), or recognize the death of what was, for forgiveness to happen.
What clicked with me as I watched the video was that during my time on the trail I recognized the death of what I had hoped for. I felt the pain. I decided to bury being right. I had needed to get to a point of relinquishing control and not avoid God working in the darkness. These things were essential on my pathway towards forgiveness.
There was something about moving through the physical wilderness of the PCT that drew me towards recognizing the wilderness I was moving through in my own soul, where there was a need for watering, pruning, weeding, and planting. The physical wilderness offers so many insights and parallels into our spiritual life. For example, one of my favorite things about the northwest forests in the spring is the new bud growth on pine trees. As you walk through the rainy forest you see dark green branches and then light green, soft, fuzzy buds of new growth on the tips of the branches. If you touch the tips they feel more fragile than the older needles. Seeing this new bud growth is always a reminder to me that we made it through another winter, through a season of death and cold. The roots are reaching deeper into the ground each season, offering nourishment and steadiness to these trees.
New growth in my life often feels more fragile, too. The journey to forgiveness and healing on the PCT is still fresh and new, needing tending and care. But with each season of death, of grief, of relinquishing control, and choosing to not avoid God, my roots grow deeper and the new growth offers hope. Hope that the cycle of transformation will continue with the seasons I encounter in life and the reminder that walking through the darkness of winter is worth the life and joy that spring brings.
Are there places where you are avoiding the darkness, moving around the pain instead of through it? What have you learned on your own path towards forgiveness and healing that gives you hope? As you are on your journey, may you know the peace that can come from embracing soul work and embracing God’s promise of a tender, responsive heart.
Addendum: This past week, after a long day of work, I was in an elevator with a group of people. A man that I don’t know was trying to be funny and made a comment to me that was actually hurtful and inappropriate. I reacted to that situation in a way that made him feel small and insignificant and probably shamed. The words that came out of my mouth were angry, which I justified in the moment by the fact that his comment was not okay.
I felt so ashamed by the way I reacted to this man. That evening as I processed, I confessed to God my wrong in the situation. In my tiredness and narrow margins from the day I was not operating out of my best self. There was definitely a better way to handle the situation.
However, as I continued to process it that evening I realized that what I was most sad about was I had made someone feel insignificant and hurt. This is the opposite of what I want to be about. People don’t need or deserve to feel more smallness and shame in this world. There is plenty of that going around all ready.
I had just been on my own journey of forgiveness and healing from people who made me feel insignificant and hurt. And, now I have placed those hard things in someone else. What a reminder of the power I have to be light or darkness in someone’s life. What a reminder that I am never done learning and growing. What a reminder of how easy it is to tear someone down and how long the journey can be to healing and forgiveness. My only landing place in moving forward from this situation is trusting that the mercy and love of God are more powerful than my angry words.