The meaning of life? To walk each other home
Thoughts on forgiveness
What is the meaning of life? It feels like an overused question that will never be answered adequately, and so is reserved for philosophical ramblings.
But a few days ago, I found a pithy answer that has deeply moved me: The meaning of life is to walk each other home.
I don't know much for sure, but I do know that we're all going to die. The few days we have on earth are all we can be guaranteed of, so it makes sense to make the most of it.
But what exactly does making the most of it entail? How do we optimize this impossible, multivariate, simultaneous equation?
I think that might be asking the wrong question, though. Maybe it's not about optimization at all, but rather about playing nicely with the other ‘variables’ as they journey alongside us.
The walk home is not easy, after all. We're all subject to the human condition. While on the positive side we can experience wonderful emotions—joy, satisfaction, gratitude—it seems like we are wired to feel the lows more intensely—fear, grief, despair. In addition, however good our intentions may be, we will make mistakes and trip others up along the way. Being good company on the walk home therefore requires grace, and a great deal of forgiveness.
This post comes in the midst of a particularly challenging time for me. A number of my actions have caused great harm to someone I love. That person has been unable to forgive me, which has led to the dissolution of the relationship. Despite my heartfelt apologies and clarifying the reasoning behind my actions, there is a chasm that has formed between us, that they are unable to cross. I've found myself at wit's end, trying to figure out how I will ever make up for it. Letting go is the only option I have left, but it's breaking my heart.
Why is forgiveness so hard? There's a deep truth at play here: we all want to protect ourselves from further hurt. My therapist recently challenged me to see how I do the same thing, albeit via different avenues. I tend to isolate myself and withdraw from relationships in which I experience discomfort. I can be intolerant of the missteps of others, and live with a fear of being disappointed (a self-fulfilling prophecy, as humans are imperfect beings and are bound to disappoint us). I also obsessively try to control my environment intellectually. These are all simply defense mechanisms, attempting to avoid the negative emotions associated with being hurt.
I ended up doing a moral inventory of all the people I was harbouring resentment for. It turns out that I have a pattern of unforgiveness in my life. In some cases, the people weren't even aware that I was holding on to any bitterness. In others, I had expressed my views, and subsequently distanced myself from those people, without having the compassionate conversations to hear their perspective. With the benefit of hindsight, I realized that this was unkind, and left the other parties without closure.
There's nothing quite like the abrupt end of the walk home to shine a light on this. Just over two years ago, a good friend of mine from my early 20s committed suicide. We hadn't spoken in a few years, but it was jarring. We'd studied and started our careers together, and gone away on numerous trips. We had also shared a deep Christian faith at one point.
Another friend from this season of life spoke at the memorial service. We had also been very close, brothers of sorts. But about two years prior to the other friend's suicide, I had broken off all communications with him. The exact details of the story are not important, but I'd set a boundary that I didn't want to talk about my spiritual beliefs with him. He went firmly against that, and decided to warn me about my "sinful choices".
I recognized his good intentions and zealousness. I've been there, too. If you truly love someone, and you believe that their actions will lead to eternal damnation, the most loving thing you can do is convince them to change their ways. I laid out how I clearly understood his intentions, but did not ever want to discuss it again. But he could not accept this, and there was no possible way for me to continue the relationship. After one infuriating phone call, I clearly laid out my position via email and asked him to not contact me again.
But when he spoke at the memorial service, I suddenly imagined what would happen if he or I passed away. I realized that I still harboured resentment, and that I'd never given him the opportunity he asked for to apologize in person. I imagined he'd feel terrible if I died, because I had not truly forgiven him. I called him the next day and we had a clearing conversation, with a subsequent in-person meetup. Our friendship hasn't magically re-bloomed, as he finds it impossible to not talk about his faith. But at least he's aware that I hold no further resentment towards him, and that I cherish the times that we had together.
There's another lesson in this: we don't have to walk everyone we meet the whole way home. A natural drift in relationships is part of life. Sometimes we hold too tightly onto relationships that were only meant for a season. (I blame social media and the virtually zero cost of long-distance communication.) It's natural to have nostalgia for the good times that have passed, but it doesn't mean you need to catch up over the phone every few months. But let it be a drift, rather than a rift, that ends your relationship.
I believe forgiveness is especially important in family relationships. This is also where it's most complex and layered. You can't choose your family after all, and by definition, you're almost forced to walk the whole path with them. It's also where so much of our being gets shaped. As children, we internalize so many things from our primary relationships, and the actions of our caregivers often have a myriad of unintended consequences.
I'm a sensitive soul, and growing up, I internalized beliefs that have caused difficulty in how I move through the world as an adult. I recently had some difficult conversations with my parents, bringing up all the resentments and negative narratives I had internalized in childhood. To my parents' credit, after an initial period of defensiveness where I made it clear to them that I was not attacking them and holding it against them, they were able to listen empathetically and acknowledge my words. How can they be held to blame for my sensitivities? It was a relief to voice so much of the baggage that I've been carrying, and our relationship is so much better for it. There's still work to be done, though, in repatterning the beliefs.
Unfortunately, not everyone will have the same safe space. Imagine a case where there was true malevolence involved, such as abuse or a clear violation of boundaries. Is true forgiveness possible without the offender confessing to, or acknowledging the impact of their actions? While I have opinions on this, these are admittedly complex situations beyond my scope of knowledge. Ultimately, we cannot take responsibility for the actions of others. We can only respond in the best way possible for ourselves.
Sidenote: My style tends to be to get things out in the open—I feel like it sends an internal message to your nervous system that validates your needs as the most important, bringing greater clarity to your relationship with yourself—but this may not work for everyone. If you'd like to explore this topic further, I listened to an impactful podcast that delves into these topics a few years ago.
I have had to scrape the barrel for the positives in this situation, but I am thankful for the mirror that has made me address this pattern of unforgiveness in my own life. When he was crucified, Jesus is believed to prayed to God, "Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” Charles Eisenstein expands on this eloquently:
“Real forgiveness is not some kind of indulgence, where we hold ourselves superior to those who have wronged us. It comes from the recognition that we might have done the same, had we been in the shoes of perpetrator rather than victim.”
Going forward, I can only hope to learn from my mistakes, and have grace for the mistakes of others. Implicit in this, is the acceptance that everyone makes mistakes. I'm convinced that the more open and honest we can be in our closest relationships about the impact of these mistakes on us, and the less judgement we can hold for them, the more freedom we will have in this lifetime.
Over the last few days, I've sent a number of emotional messages, re-opening communications with some people I haven't spoken to in months and years. My whole being feels clearer for it. I'd encourage you to try the same.
Reach out your hand, and take the next step on the journey home.
If you found this impactful, I’d love to hear your feedback. Please also consider sharing it with a friend.