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No Throwing Coals: Learning from the Past to Have a Present

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal meaning to throw it at someone else; you’re the one who gets burned.

–Buddha

I look at my daughter on the first anniversary of her birth and feel nothing but gratitude to the people – all of them – who were instrumental in my finding my way to her, my wife, and our present life. Without knowing these folks I’d never have gotten here at all, although it’s taken me ages to see this clearly. My life’s trajectory altered radically a few years ago when I finally realized that no matter what others did to or for me, I was the only person who actually chose my path; nobody else could have done it for me. I chose to act, to react, to judge or not; I chose it all, though in some cases I didn’t know any better. I am so deeply thankful I know a little better now.

In the past, I blamed a few people for many things. I thought some particular woes were all their fault – that I was completely innocent, a victim of their undeserved villainy. I cut entire swaths of people out of my life to avoid them, moved, hid… Ugh. It’s hard to admit it now. The only way I can bear the thought of all that time and energy I burned is that it is what I had to do to grow up. For whatever reason, I had to lead myself down to the rocky bottom and back up the other side. I stand here, dazzled by the new day and I have a choice: I can lament the time I toiled in my personal ravine or I can let the beauty of my new vista lift me up. I have decided to learn from my past so I can live today as a better person. I no longer choose to drape a veil of woes over my shoulders to grieve for dusty wounds I myself kept open.

What I have learned is this: whenever you have a choice, choose love over fear. I’m not telling anyone to subscribe to any new religion, just saying what experience has finally gotten through my thick skull: love not fear. Fear begets anger and hate, so see your rage for what it is: the slime trail left over by your own personal terror. I have always dreaded to find I was unlovable, not good enough, or all alone. When some crap went down that seemed to confirm all of this, I got angry, chose badly for a long time, and eventually made these bogeys into realities. I was only a victim for a moment in time, but then I embraced the role of hired mourner at my own private requiem. I’m not saying we should go limp, either: if someone is an asshole, remove him (or her, or them) from your life as honorably as possible. When you can, find some compassion for all involved, especially yourself. Some people have certainly done me wrong, but if I’d chosen love once I’d survived the initial shock, they would have had very little negative effect on my life. I clung to fear and keened over old pain until I had no remaining option but to try another way. It was messy, painful, and costly as hell. Maybe you can avoid that.

About a week ago, one of the people I’d once decided was so awful to me died, far too soon. I had not seen or spoken to her for years, had not really thought about her for a long time. She was an amazing, bright, intriguing person, though we had not ended on good terms in the past. When I heard she was ill, the first pang I felt was empathy. Some of the old crap burbled up a little while after like heartburn, but what stayed was tenderness and care. When I got the text saying she’d passed, I wept. I would much rather be in a world with her in it, though I’d not yet thought of becoming friends again. She’d lived a good life, loved well, had a beautiful child. She should still be here.

There is nothing to be done but to go on, and the only way to honor bygone lives and loves is to learn and do better. If I am very lucky, my own child will bury me decades from now. She will hopefully be a strong, self-actualized person, loving and living contentedly. Maybe I will get to meet her children, should she choose that path. I also pray she will say goodbye to me with an underlying joy due to our long and loving relationship. There is no guarantee of this dream coming true at all, so I must be grateful for every day I get to see her grow and do the work I have to to change. I hope to take what I’ve learned from everyone I’ve known and distill it into a little wisdom my daughter can absorb before she chooses fear. Some of the most valuable lessons come directly from those I once considered my tormentors, and for that I wish them good lives, each and every one.

Filed under: Writing

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I am Libby Clarke, an artist, designer and educator living in Brooklyn, New York. I operate under the name Monstress, which actually started out as my zine label in 1997. Since then, it has grown to encompass all my efforts.

3 Comments

  1. meredith beau says

    Libby, I couldn’t agree more. I have learned so much from the people who “wronged” me. I am a better person for it, much more compassionate and caring. A kinder self who tries to see from others’ perspectives to find their motives and realize it is not about me, but about their own fears. I accept responsibility for my role in what happens, but then move on. There is no sense dwelling there when wonderful things are happening all around.

    • Hmmm. I replied and it disappeared! Alas. Thank you so much for this, Meredith. I have to say, being more compassionate has been a huge part of a happier life for me. I still am amazed at what I realize when I open my eyes just a bit further and try to identify with the other person. And then there is the amazing fact that most of the time, the one person I am least compassionate to is me. Go figure.

  2. Shielagh says

    Libby, thank you so much for posting this. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I learned the same lesson this year, in large part from my diligent daily practice of loving kindness meditation. But you worded it more articulately than my mind had done, and you are so right. Rage is the slime left from our hideous personal terror. So true! Happy birthday to little M and love, love, love!

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