Written By Rev. Jack R. Elliott, Author and Spiritual Life Coach |
Having just completed a weekend retreat, where the primary focus was forgiveness, I realized that I had been hiding out behind the role of Staff Assistant. This meant that I heard the lecture, watched the exercises from afar, but I was able to avoid doing the actual work—or so I thought.
One primary exercise was to write a letter seeking the forgiveness of someone significant in one’s life. Many participants misread the instructions and wrote a letter to someone they felt owed them an apology, rather than to write a letter to someone, seeking their forgiveness.
From my “observer’s vantage point,” I was able to see the irony of such a misinterpretation of the instructions. Often, we should be the one seeking forgiveness from someone that we’re anticipating should be seeking our forgiveness.
The main rule of the exercise was that the participant had to take 100 percent responsibility for the breakdown in the relationship. The facilitator explained that responsibly should be seen as the “ability” to “respond,” and if the participant worked with that definition, then accepting 100 percent responsibility for the breakdown would be much easier.
Even though I was merely a witness to the process, I was still working on my life—whether I wanted to or not. In fact, the epiphany I had showed me that regardless of my intention to hide, here was an opportunity to “seek forgiveness,” but I didn’t take it. Why? The answer came to me in a dream.
When the facilitator asked, “From whom should you seek forgiveness?” my friend Chuck came to mind. I immediately heard my mind chatter saying, “Whew! Glad I’m not really in this workshop. I don’t want to be reaching out to him.” And then I stuffed that thought down and distracted myself with a task that needed to be handled in my role as Staff Assistant for the training. During the last night of the workshop, I had a dream that revealed to me what was really going on. But first, a little background:
My friend Chuck had a massive stroke five years ago. Upon having the stroke, it became apparent that he would never return to his studio apartment. Therefore, it became my responsibility to empty his apartment. Chuck had lived in his apartment for over 10 years. During that time, I had never been inside Chuck’s apartment; I anticipated it was probably messy. What I did not know was that Chuck was a massive hoarder.
When I went to do the move out, the apartment manager asked me “which one” of Chuck’s apartments I would be cleaning out. Apparently his hoarding was so bad, that one apartment had become so full of stuff that he could no longer get into it. He had to rent a second apartment just to have a place to sleep. Now, that one was full too! To make a long story short…I had to hire a waste management service to take away 35 fifty-gallon barrows of trash from just one of his little apartments. There was filth, mold, bugs and trash everywhere. As I was dealing with the mess, I felt sad that I had no idea that Chuck had hidden so much stuff from me. I was also glad that it was me who found it, so that no one else in his life would have to deal with such a mess.
But back to my dream: The dream that I had on the final evening of the workshop placed me back in Chuck’s apartment, dealing with all the hoarded material. However, each time I opened a box of stuff, instead of seeing Chuck’s stuff, I saw my stuff.
Stuff I had hidden from the world. Stuff I pretended no longer existed. Twenty, thirty year old stuff that I had long forgotten about. I revealed evidence of broken relationships that I allowed to end, rather than to tell the truth about some breakdown in the relationship. I discovered broken promises that caused people to leave my life. Each box revealed unfulfilled promises, lies, broken agreements and commitments that I didn’t keep. When I dug deeper into the boxes I found “even more stuff” layered over the top of even more broken agreements. I looked about the room and all I could see were sealed boxes, stacked on top of more sealed boxes, so that others wouldn’t see my shortcomings.
All these years, I justified my behavior to withdraw from my friendship with Chuck by pretending to be angry at him for his hoarding. I resented that he put the burden on me to take care of him—to deal with his mess—when I knew I was not capable of doing so. But I tried to do it anyway, because I knew that he’d do it for me, even though I wouldn’t have wanted him to do so.
However, the exercise on seeking forgiveness and the dream revealed to me that it was I who was hoarding. I was filling my life with other stuff in order not to do what was mine to atone for. I always wanted Chuck to seek my forgiveness for having to deal with his mess. However, my having to deal with his mess allowed me to be diverted from dealing with my own mess. His hoarding became my hoarding. I was able to hide under his stuff. I took on his stuff so that I wouldn’t have to deal with my stuff. Sub-consciously, the discovery of his mess only reminded me that there was stuff in my life that I had hidden from the world. I resented him for that. I withdrew from him.
I know that I have work to do. I need to clean out all the hoarding that I have done to hide my secrets. Some secrets are just for me to deal with, but deal with them I must. I also know that instead of expecting Chuck to seek my forgiveness for the mess and work he layered onto me, I need to seek his forgiveness for cutting him off just because he revealed to me of all the mess and work I’ve layered onto myself. I too misunderstood the instructions; I was waiting for him to seek the forgiveness that I was responsible for seeking.
Rev. Jack is a Spiritual Life Coach. He was ordained in 1985 and aligns his ministry with the Centers of Spiritual Living. He serves as the President of the Board of Trustees at Heart and Soul Center of Light, in Oakland, CA. www.heartsoulcenter.org.