two women hiking

When Things Are Looking Really Grim, Try This One Thing First

Peggy had already packed all her clothes and most of her possessions.  At the moment, she had only one goal in life: to leave Zach.  She was not even sure where she would be going, especially with the mess created by the COVID-19 pandemic.  But she didn’t care so long as it was anyplace except Zach’s apartment.  The relationship with Zach had had its ups and downs, like any relationship.  There had been some crazy happy times, some not so happy times, but really, not many awful times.  The present, however, was beyond awful. 

Zach had gone shopping.  He liked to do the shopping—all the better.  She had other things to do.  She telecommuted and was falling behind in her work as a financial analyst.  She appreciated his doing the shopping.  He was a slow shopper, but she understood that the stores were crowded and that it was hard to find things, given that much of the supermarket seemed to be out of stock.

Or so Zach had told her.  She hadn’t thought about it until Zach came home that day—smelling, ever so faintly, of perfume.  It definitely wasn’t a strong smell.  It was the smell of perfume that someone had tried to wash off, but only partially successfully. Why did he smell of perfume?  It didn’t even make sense.  You don’t pick up that smell in a supermarket. 

She asked Zach what gave.  The story about someone bumping into him didn’t sound particularly convincing, especially in the times of COVID-19, but she was prepared to let it go.  But that night--well, maybe that night her antennae were a little bit more on the alert than usual.  Then she saw it.  She had not seen one of those since she was a teenager.  A hickey.  Zach actually had a hickey in what only could be called a compromising place.  She knew.  Now she knew.  Zach was having an affair.  And she was getting out. 

Zach begged her to stay.  He admitted the whole thing—why the shopping trips had taken so long; it had nothing to do with a crowded supermarket or a scarcity of food.  Zach was killing two birds with one stone.  He was doing the shopping and stopping off on the way home to see a lover. 

She was not interested in his crying, his begging her for a second chance, or his splitting headache.  His head could split open, for all she cared.  Ten more minutes and she would be out.  As she finished packing, she was thinking of all they had been through and what a sordid ending they were about to have.  And then one thought gave her pause.  The time she was stranded.

Zach and Peggy were mountain climbers.  They climbed with each other, with friends, and as part of a group.  Zach was far more experienced; indeed, he had introduced Peggy to mountain-climbing.  One day Peggy went climbing with her friend Noreen.  They left later than they should have but it was not a particularly challenging or long climb.  Zach could have done the climb both ways in no time.  She could do it too, just taking more time.  But near the top, Peggy twisted her foot—badly.  She had to make it to the top, she felt.  It was no big deal.  But as she walked, her foot became more painful. 

Noreen begged her to descend.  Peggy replied that they were almost at the top and it was stupid to go down without finishing when they were just minutes from the summit. Except that with her sprain, the minutes dragged on.  And then it was getting really dark and she just couldn’t go on. 

Peggy was beginning to panic.  Noreen tried to help her, but Noreen weighed a lot less than Peggy did and just could not support her.  She couldn’t descend, and the mountain, although not so cold during the day, got very cold at night.  Peggy was not dressed for it; neither was Noreen.  Crying and desperate, she got out her cell phone and called Zach to ask him what to do.  He told her just to wait.  Noreen stayed with her, which was beyond the call of duty.  Noreen refused to leave her side, even at risk to her life.

After a while, Zach came to rescue her.  He was crazy.  It was much too dark.  No one had any business climbing up the mountain when it was so dark.  It was quite safe during the day; at night, it was a potential death trap. Zach came anyway.  Maybe he should have hired a helicopter, but there was no way they had the money for that.  Zach may have saved her life, or at least saved her from a severe case of hypothermia.

Peggy changed her mind.  Just as she was about to be done packing, she turned around and told Zach he was forgiven, but that if it happened again, she would be out before he could count to 10.  Zach never had another affair and the relationship between Zach and Peggy lasted another year.

A year later, Peggy did leave Zach, although not for reasons related to the affair.  She had come to realize that Zach was not what she wanted.  Maybe it was that night on the mountain that she came better to understand herself; or maybe it was some other night.  But at some point, she began to see her life differently.  She has been with Noreen for five years and they are engaged.

Forgiveness is hard.  Especially when we are angry, forgiveness may be the last thing we want to think about.  Yet, it must be powerful, because Christianity is based in large part upon forgiveness.  Jews have a Day of Repentance (Yom Kippur), when they seek forgiveness from others on this day.  And according to the Qur’an, Allah forgives all sins and rewards those who forgive others.  There must be something really powerful to an act that is central to three and probably more of the world’s great religions.

Is any act unforgiveable?  Perhaps. That is something each of us has to decide for ourselves.  There are some things one may decide are beyond one’s powers of forgiveness—perhaps for some, an adult who has sexually abused a child; for others, maybe something else. But when we are angry at someone, we owe it not only to that someone, but also to ourselves to ask whether there is a path to forgiveness.

Our harboring anger and hatred costs not only those at whom we are angry or to whom we direct our hate; it costs us also.  It costs us spiritually and it costs our bodies too.  Anger and hatred create all the wrong physiological processes--the ones that lead to high blood pressure and even to heart attacks.

If the time ever comes when your loved one does something that makes you really angry, as happened to Peggy, ask yourself whether you can find it in yourself to forgive them.  You don’t have to do it over and over again. But try at least once: It may benefit you even more than it benefits the person or people you forgive. Nelson Mandela saved South Africa from a hate-based and bloody future by creating truth and reconciliation commissions.  You can create a truth and reconciliation commission for you own life.  You will be glad you did. Remember the first two magic words: “I’m sorry.” And remember the other two, too:  “I forgive.”

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