by Carole Duff
Cato puppy and I picked our way down the icy, snow-packed mountain road to the mailbox. After storm clouds had cleared, neighbors with tractors and trucks plowed the road, but residue remained in shaded areas and on slopes. Walking the flat straight-away near the foot of the mountain, I listened for bird-song, caught the sun glint off snowy tree limbs, and relaxed my guard.
Then I slipped.
The puppy shied and pulled on his leash, which threw me further off-balance. I yanked his leash to gain some slack, regained my footing, and fumed. Black ice was not what I’d expected, and Cato’s reaction hadn’t help. If I’d fallen because of my inattention, I probably would have resorted to self-pity and blame—not blaming myself but Cato. As I already had.
I’d slipped again.
“Life doesn’t always give us what we expect,” wrote Jonathan Merritt in Learning to Speak God from Scratch. Of course, he wasn’t referring to accidental slips but to human selfishness and sin. Merritt: “People fail us. People hurt us. People lay us on the altars of their own selfishness. When you don’t get the desired result—you experience what researchers call a ‘reward-prediction error’—not only do your dopamine levels fall, they plummet from the heightened level generated by your expectations.”
To make matters worse, we don’t know how to talk about or even acknowledge our sinful human slips in spiritual terms. According to Google’s Ngram statistics, words like love, patience, gentleness, and faithfulness have decreased in usage significantly in the past several years.
“When we lose our spiritual vocabulary, we lose much more than words,” Merritt stated. “We lose the power of speaking grace, forgiveness, love, and justice over others.”
I grew up in a very loving family. But as non-practicing Christians—atheists, truth be told—we didn’t use words like sin, faith, grace or mercy. Of course, there were times when we owned up to our transgressions and said, “I’m sorry.” But I don’t remember asking for, receiving, or granting forgiveness, as in, “Please forgive me” or “I forgive you.” Until I became a believer, I didn’t even know that forgiveness was required of Christians. To forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13)
Prayer, Scripture, and Bible study in community have increased my ability to forgive—and my awareness of how difficult it is. We all struggle, especially when life does not give us what we want or expect. There are many study resources; I found these three particularly useful: Donna Pyle’s Forgiveness: Received From God, Extended to Others; Leslie Leyland Field’s Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate; and Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. Tutu’s forgiveness cycle is Christian-based, though he stated that forgiving does not require faith. Yet I wondered, what if words of forgiveness aren’t part of our vocabulary?
What if we never learned how to speak forgiveness?
Before resuming our walk, I stroked the puppy to calm his fear, especially his greatest fear: abandonment. “It’s okay, you’re okay, we’re okay. Good boy, Cato, good boy.” Then I prayed, “Forgive me for losing my temper, Lord, and thank you for your protection.”
For the rest of the walk, I attended to where I placed my feet and didn’t slip again. But my thoughts turned to the selfish slips I’d made in my relationships. With my husband, children, siblings, friends.
So many slips, so much need to name the harm and ask forgiveness. Even if I’m on my guard, I slip anyway. What to do? Shine a light on expectations and illusions—what I hope is true rather than what is—then follow the path to forgiveness and say those powerful words.
Over and over and over again. Not seven times, but seventy times seven. For as long as it takes.
Note: A version of this post first appeared here: https://caroleduff.com/2018/10/01/life-doesnt-always-give-us-what-we-expect/
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is working on a book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir About Finding Grace in the Third Stage of Life. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and three overly-friendly dogs. You can find her website here, and her Twitter feed here.