To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that prisoner was you - Lewis B. Smedes
I used to think of myself as a brain in a jar, my body some other being that I had nothing to do with. Who I was could be found in my personality and my intellect, but not in my physical being. It was how I had learned to cope with a body that from childhood had been highly committed to sending me messages of pain, a body that couldn’t more often than it could. So I made it irrelevant to how I defined myself, separated me from it and although I did my best to ignore my body altogether, the truth is, I hated it.
When you have a chronic illness or disability, it’s normal to feel betrayed by your body. It’s not supposed to be like this, is it? Your body is supposed to carry you through life, jump and skip and run, your mental impulse expressed physically in an instant, your interior and exterior seamlessly integrated. And then you get rheumatoid arthritis and start learning about the difference between want to and can do, about not jumping, not skipping, not running. About the dreams of the you inside and how the you outside cannot follow them. The trust that you used to have in your body is broken, the unspoken promise of health vanishing like a mirage in the desert and when betrayal happens, the anger comes, hot on its heels.
But who do you get angry at? Fate? God? At first, yes, but as time passes, as every day you fight against your body, as the pain becomes your constant companion – there when you get out of bed, there when you pull down your pants to go to the bathroom, there when you eat an apple, there when you hug a friend – it gets more personal. Your body becomes your enemy, keeping you from doing what you want and the anger shifts and now you are furious at your body because every day, it betrays you. And as it continues to betray you, to hinder you, to harm you, the anger builds and what do you do when you have to live with something you hate this much? You disassociate from it. Pretend it’s not there. Suppress the anger.
A few years ago, it became clear to me that I had to change my approach. After a big flare, I was slowly regaining my strength and no longer had the energy to suppress the anger. We are the sum of many parts - mind, heart, soul and body - and hating one of those parts means you hate yourself. Suddenly, I realized why my self-esteem had been in the toilet for years and close behind came the beginnings of insight into why I had never really been happy. So I tried something new.
I sat still and listened to my body. Treated it as a friend and gave it my full attention and I discovered it was crying. When I opened up and truly listened, my body told me how hard it was trying, how difficult it was to get through the day, how much it hurt and I realized that my body had not betrayed me. My body was doing its damnedest to get me through each day despite the constant pain, an autoimmune system that was out of whack and a mind - my mind - that only demanded more, never cooperated and only hated my body for its efforts. And then I gave my body the comfort I would give a friend, thanked it for getting me through the day and most importantly, I forgave it for not being able to do the impossible. And when I forgave my body, when I forgave myself for not being able to cure the RA with enough willpower or heart – or maybe magic? – decades of anger and tension swept out of me and I began to find my way to reuniting with my body, becoming a whole person. To find my way to freedom and the happiness that comes from deep within.
Forgiveness is a powerful concept, part of most religions. Easy to say, so hard to do. We speak of love, we speak of kindness, but are we ever taught how to forgive? Is that why so many of us carry around past hurts, hold on to the pain, somehow believing that to contain it, to control it, is the way to cope? But it isn’t.
Holding on just ties you up in knots and solidifies the pain. Forgiveness enables you to let go, opens you up and cleans you out and no matter which pain needs to be set free, it has to start with you. You cannot find peace if you are at war with yourself. You cannot lead with kindness if you are not kind to yourself.
You can read more of Lene’s writing on The Seated View.