On her last night on earth, after 47 years, my mama phoned people who were weighing heavily on her heart. The ones she never planned on forgiving as long as she lived, or “until hell freezes over.”
And then there was my Aunt Vernice, who in her 80s took her grievances to the grave. Forgiving someone who wronged her meant their behavior was OK and excused.
I’ve made a commitment to start forgiving folks who hurt me, so I’ll have more inner peace.
Last year, I attended a workshop, “Race and Grace: Changing the Race Dance” in Chapel Hill.
There were 15 or 20 middle-age white adults, and one person of color: me. Over five hours, we shared encounters. Some pleasant. Most horrifying, like an assault and rape by a black man, and a fellow’s father, who named his dog the N-word. I stayed until the end.
The next day, I started a two month self-esteem support group for women in downtown Chapel Hill.
Once again, the only person of color was me. But I told them about the deep hurt that surfaced for me at the race workshop. I even admitted – thank you Talib – that I left the building mentally to protect my feelings.
Then a woman tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Anita, the N-words come in different colors, you know?”
“OK,” I said.
“No, really. There are Irish N-words, Hispanic N-words, and Jewish ones. … They’re not just black.” (Note: she didn’t say “N-words”; she used the actual word.)
I was embarrassed, so I laughed.
A facilitator asked her, “Where is this coming from?” But she rambled on, telling dreadful stories, until she blew out, and settled down with a huff and grimace.
I attempted to stuff what I’d just heard. Was there a savior in the bowed faces and fleeting eyes of the witnesses in the room? They had nothing to give. We were all badly hurting.
The facilitator switched gears, and we began writing Cinquain (five-line, unrhymed) poems.
This time, the pull to mentally check out was overwhelmed with clarity that I had to set the record straight – this time. More than “just doin’ it,” I had to forgive myself for not acting before, when I knew I was being wronged. Instead of being embarrassed, I envisioned what I wanted to become – a stand-up person.
Loving, rejuvenating, understanding.
Courageously moving through life applying healing balm to myself.
Then, to the name-calling lady I said, “I have to say this. I am really hurt from what you said to me tonight. That word is used to demoralize black people and make them feel less than human. … I don’t want any of you here to think saying that to a black person is ever OK. It’s never acceptable, under any circumstance.”
The room was silent. She grabbed her bag, and huffed again, then said, “Well, I was called “whitey” before! What you think of that?”
I replied, “It is wrong, and if I were there, I would have told the person that, and spoken up. I’m the person who stands up for others, and I am sorry that happened to you.”
Later, alone with the facilitators, I cried sounds I’ve only made at funerals. They guided me through working on my energy points, breathing and an affirmation. After an hour, my body was drained of stress and my mind was clear.
And that night, my husband asked me, “Do you think you deserve to go through more of this there?” No! When you get real support, it’s good.
That night, I forgave myself for a lifetime of feeling I had to prove that I belong, am entitled to be somewhere, even at the expense of my own emotional well-being.
I was so enlivened by the experience of loving and forgiving myself, that I decided to forgive the unfortunate Irish woman, too. I wrote her a sincere thank you note card, giving gratitude for sharing her pain. I also spoke for several hours with one of the race workshop leaders, clearing the air for making their program welcoming.
Working through this also taught me the importance of working on the inside jobs, myself. We don’t have to hold on to hurtful experiences until our deathbeds, or when hell freezes over, and we’re dead in our graves.
This summer start shortening your grudge list. Anyone coming to mind for having hurt or wronged you the most, are the strongest places to begin your inside work.
These are the folks to start handwriting thank you notes to first.
Anita Woodley is an award-winning journalist, health educational performer, literary teaching artist and keynote speaker. You can reach her at AnitaWoodley.com