22 Jun On Forgiveness
The other day I read a story about meditation that focused on the power of forgiveness. The author discussed his experience of being hooked up to a machine that measured his brain waves while he was meditating. During this particular mediation he was focused on forgiving a trusted employee who had been systematically stealing from him. The machine indicated that his brain waves that synced with deep calmness spiked dramatically as he let go of the anger. He explained that the experience of having the tools to measure his practice helped him to understand his process in a more direct way; it gave him insight that improved his practice. Later that afternoon, without the benefit of that machine, I sat down to focus on consciously forgiving someone who had left me feeling profoundly wronged.
Many years ago, I started a new music project with an acquaintance of mine, J. He and a friend had put out a record on a major label and hired me to play bass when they went on tour. Several people had warned me not to trust them, including my girlfriend who had gone to college with them. I was also on the fence about the project because, while the band had some catchy songs, they were extremely derivative of other bands in a way that felt wrong to me. However, I agreed to do it for a number of reasons. I needed the money, my girlfriend and I were having major relationship issues, and I was promised that we would go to Japan and Europe. Half the reason that I wanted to be in a band was to travel and meet people and my own band had not made it to Japan.
Their songs were fairly straightforward, so even though I sometimes struggled to play other people’s songs we pulled it together after a few practices. The two guys had played all the parts on the record and hadn’t really played any shows so they had no fans. We went out and played a series of shows that were basically showcases for industry people. Even with the major label support there wasn’t a lot of interest in the band and the shows were largely unattended. They were basically on the the label because one of the songwriters worked there and the label didn’t want his record at another company. One of the shows was at some radio station event in a small outdoor arena. We played first at around 11 am. There was no one there. We never made it Japan or Europe.
Despite the fact that things hadn’t worked out as promised, I found that it was kind of a relief for me to play in a band that I wasn’t emotionally invested in. While touring, J and I bonded over discussions about film. When we got back to NY, he was able to get us hired to make a couple short documentaries for TV. While I had made a feature film with my girlfriend, I hadn’t ever had the opportunity to shoot movies for pay so it was a pretty exciting opportunity for me. We collaborated pretty well on these projects and shared the money and the credit equally.
At that time, I had been playing with my own band sleepyhead for nearly a decade, and except for playing a few shows here and there as an extra member of other bands, sleepyhead was the only band I had ever really been in. A couple of years earlier, I had started to focus more of my energy on filmmaking. I worked very closely with my girlfriend on film projects, and that relationship had put a bit of a strain on my band (and my relationship with my girlfriend). Working on this new music project strained both of those relationships even further.
A few months before joining the band I had experienced what can best be described as a nervous breakdown while on tour with sleepyhead. For years, I had avoided dealing with deepening problems within the band relationship as well as in my relationship with my girlfriend. Rather than communicate about the problems I would internalize them so they would fester like an infected pimple. At the time of our tour, things were in a chaotic place with sleepyhead. My two band mates had been in an off-again, on-again relationship for years. During that tour, it was off, but not in a clear-cut way, and the inter-group dynamic was fairly dysfunctional. At the same time, I was struggling to find some kind of balance in my own life and in my relationship with my girlfriend. I was always the one who offered emotional support and didn’t know how to ask for or receive it myself. I found myself stuck in a pattern of offering emotional support to my girlfriend without expecting any empathy for myself.
I was in a particularly low spot when we went on tour in the Midwest, and I found myself getting more deeply depressed as the tour wore on. I can recall sitting on the ground in the foyer of a restaurant while we talked on a payphone. I listened to the things my girlfriend was struggling with and even though I felt somewhat desperately sad I couldn’t begin to articulate it. I didn’t even try. By the end of the tour, I had convinced myself that since my girlfriend cared so deeply about me, she would not only understand why I had slept with a member of the band we were touring with but that she would be happy that I had done what I could in order to help myself feel better. The drummer of my band tried to convince me otherwise but I wasn’t exactly tethered to reality at that moment.
Shortly after my girlfriend arrived in Philly to meet us for our second to last show of the tour we went to dinner. I had spent the previous hour covering my bass amp with duct tape. It was torn up from being slammed in and out of the van but the taping had more to do with my emotional state than anything else. When we got the restaurant I almost immediately told her about the girl from the other band. I kind of whispered it because she had brought our downstairs neighbor from Brooklyn. Unsurprisingly, she was a bit shocked and she let me know that she was leaving. I knew that if I did not leave with her, the relationship was over. She left. I left. We left. Our neighbor was left to fend for himself.
That night, and for many days afterwards, I slept in the hallway of our apartment. There was a lot of apologizing as well as a lot of fighting. While one part of me knew that I had totally screwed up, another part knew that there were problems within the relationship that were not entirely my fault. It was clear to me that if our relationship was going to continue, those problems would have to be addressed. At the time though, this idea was an amorphous feeling rather than a cogent series of thoughts that I could explain so there was a lot of fighting and trying to make up. There was a somewhat misguided effort to bring emotional balance to the relationship. I filled a full notebook with thoughts and titled it “Do you still want to know me?” She said that she did.
My break with reality had helped me to see that I was repressing my own needs at an alarming rate and I was able to begin the process of learning how to articulate what I needed from the relationship in order for it to work for me. It was about two months into this process of trying to re-orient the relationship that I was asked to tour with the other band.
As I said before, the tour was a bit underwhelming and the band broke up shortly after it ended. However, one of the short films that had made was invited to a festival in Europe so we decided to play some shows as his band while we were there. I got a friend of mine in Belgium to play drums, and we had a great time. We heard a lot of interesting music that wasn’t really song oriented and we talked about incorporating electronic beats and loops into what we had been doing. We were both interested in making music in a different way than we had in the past. J was kind of a chameleon, skilled at aping other band’s sounds. I was more interested in coming up with things that didn’t sound like anything else. It was a collaboration that sparked creativity for both of us and within a couple of months, we had knocked out half a dozen songs and found someone who wanted to put out a single in England.
By that point my girlfriend and I had largely sewn our relationship back together and we were in the midst of preparing to make a new film in Spain. She and I were also putting together a massive wedding (our own) a week before we were scheduled to leave for that shoot. To top it off, I was also working on songs with my other band for a new record. I was too busy to focus on the single and left the details up to J.
Just a couple of days after the wedding (at which J was one of a half dozen best men), J showed me the cover artwork for our single. He had listed himself as the sole songwriter. I was hurt and angry. I decided to cut my losses and quickly washed my hands of him and the project. I was busy and productive in other areas of my life, so I resolved to simply move on. In fact, it was somewhat of a relief, as the strain of balancing out the different relationships was becoming overwhelming.
My wife and I went off to make our movie (a ridiculously difficult process) and shortly after I returned, J begged me to rejoin him in the project. He explained that in my absence he had found a top tier manager and met with several major producers. However, he was stuck creatively and had come to realize how important my collaboration had been to the work. After some back and forth, I agreed to work with him and we settled on an arrangement where I would get a slightly less than even songwriting split and an even more equitable partnership in terms of the band itself.
To make a long story short, we worked very hard on the band for nearly a year. The project took more and more of my time and my resources, and once again put a major strain on my other relationships. In fact, after recording my bass tracks for the sleepyhead record, I had to leave the recording session to go to England to play a showcase with the other band. My long time band-mates felt abandoned. I felt pulled in many different directions.
The showcase went very well. I had shot a lot of slides and we projected those behind the band which was exciting for me as I always wanted to expand what I did musically into the visual realm. The high-powered manager got us a deal with a major label in the UK with a fairly robust advance to pay for the recording. I was pretty excited until my partner faxed me a document that broke down each song giving me almost no credit. It also said that I would be a paid employee rather than a partner.
I was more devastated in that moment than at any other point in my life. I don’t think I even expressed anger or rage. I just fell into a resigned sense of shock and hurt. I lay in bed feeling like I could not even move. It was a powerful blow partly because almost like a horror film, the situation was sudden and unexpected on one level, but a part of me had known that it was coming. When it came I felt embarrassed, stupid, and worthless. While I had been slowly pushed to the edges of the process, I had convinced myself that my partner could be trusted even though I knew from my own experience that he could not. I had blinded myself to protect that part of me that felt worthless. I had done so in order to avoid having to confront those uncomfortable feelings. Now, I was overwhelmed by them.
That was 15 years ago and while I rarely, if ever, think about it, I couldn’t say that I had ever worked to forgive him. From time to time, thoughts of that betrayal drifted into my consciousness or dreams, but I had done a pretty good job of burying it. After reading the piece about meditation and forgiveness, I lay down on the couch and I concentrated on finding empathy for him, truly forgiving him, and letting go of the pain that the situation had caused me. It was a pretty uneventful experience – partly because I had repressed those terrible feelings so much that I had a hard time connecting with them. The clouds didn’t part, and I got no jolt of renewed awareness. However, I did feel relaxed after I was through in the way that I often do after meditating.
The next day my wife and I blasted through an edit of the film that we had been working on. Then we gathered our kids up and drove to the beach to be with old friends of mine from high school. About two years ago, after we moved to North Carolina where I grew up, I reconnected with a lot of people that I hadn’t seen very often over the years. Many of them had stayed in the area and remained quite close with each other and several of their families went on a yearly trip to the beach in October. We joined them for the first time the previous year.
I slept very well that first night at the beach. When I woke up the following morning I remembered a dream in which I saw that partner who had betrayed me so badly. When he saw me his eyes darted left and right as is if he wanted to escape but I walked right up to him, gave him a hug and said “I truly and completely forgive you”. Then I looked him in the eyes and kept on walking. I had a profound sense of calm in the dream and I still felt it when I woke up.
It was gray, drizzling, and early but I wanted to be outside so I grabbed some coffee and started to go for a walk. My friend’s 9 year-old son Ivan tagged along. This kid loves to be contentious, especially with his parents, just as his dad used to be with his mother and father. He’s a wild kid and I like him a lot. As we were walking I started to tell him about my dream and about the importance of forgiveness. About halfway through the story I looked down and I saw the largest fossilized shark’s tooth that I had seen on the beach in 25 years. In fact I didn’t even think there were sharks teeth at this particular beach.
Sharks teeth loom very large in my memory of childhood. Each summer we would go to the beach for a week and we spent a good part of each day looking for sharks’ teeth and other fossils. When I picked this one up I immediately thought about giving it to my daughter. There is such a thrill when you see something like that on the beach; it’s like finding a buried treasure. My friend’s son looked at it with wonder and I immediately offered it to him instead. He refused it at first. I became conscious of my own childlike impulse to possess it- to own it. Recognizing that feeling allowed me to fully let go of it and I offered it to him once again, truly meaning it this time. I hoped that taking it would connect him to that idea of forgiveness that we were discussing. This time he accepted. The day remained cloudy but we swam, hot-tubbed, played volleyball, and swam some more. I even learned how to paddleboard. I also took time to meditate even more on forgiveness and to dictate these thoughts.
The next morning we hustled around cleaning up, as we had to be out by 11 am. On the way out of town we headed over a go-kart track and got in a few bumpy rides with all of the kids before driving off towards home. However, we first decided to caravan towards an upscale diner in Kinston, NC. It was slightly out of the way but we had stopped there the year before and the food was great.
The place was packed so we had to wait for a bit. I walked around the empty streets by myself and made some images. There were nearly 20 of us so they sat us in groups as tables opened up. Soon we had all eaten and we wandered around town. There’s a full size replica of the civil war ship, The Monitor, just across from the restaurant and Ivan grabbed my hand and pulled me towards it. I don’t remember my daughter Harper running up to me, but she must have darted across the street after us. As we moved towards the ship I heard several people scream for Ivan’s little brother Avi to stop.
I turned to see what the commotion was all about and I heard the impact milliseconds before I actually saw Avi hurtling through the air. In that moment time as I normally knew it ceased to exist. He moved simultaneously with great speed, but also in slow motion. I saw it at both speeds at the same time as if my mind was furiously working to reverse his path while also trying to make sense of something that I did not want to see nor believe. Before I could consciously comprehend what was happened part of me was furiously willing it to un-happen. I was on the ground screaming with terror as he continued to float through the air. Harper later told me that she had turned just in time to see him get hit and it was she who told me to call 911. I was processing so many thoughts and emotions that I could barely pull myself back into the present. One of those thoughts was that I had to pull myself together for my daughter. Time was out of whack and the sound was fractured. I heard wailing and I heard other people yelling for people to call 911, but in between the shouts was a heightened awareness of the silence of a small town on Sunday. It was eerie to hear these disparate shouts cut through the expected silence. Instinct kicked in and I got the emergency operator on the line. My voice cracked so much as I gave her the cross streets that I had to repeat myself several times before she got it. I heard my voice, but it didn’t feel like my voice, and I heard it long after I said it. There was a distinct time lapse between my speech and my hearing. I was conscious of taking extreme care to talk calmly and clearly, but I was also still on the ground trying to find my breath. I felt as if I had personally had the wind knocked out of me by the impact of the car. Perhaps 10 seconds had passed, or maybe it was 30- all sense of time was lost. Harper was starting to get a little panicked and this pulled me into the present. I picked her up and carried her towards her mother. She was shaking like a leaf and I held her tight to calm her down.
It was the most horrific thing I had ever witnessed and it threw me so far off balance that I felt like I was wading through the kind of surf that I had been in that morning. I had lost control over my visual and auditory attention. Sound came in waves and I had a panoramic tunnel vision. I know that I saw my wife and handed off my daughter but I can’t fully remember doing it, or even checking in with my wife. I was torn. I felt as if I should somehow go and help at the site of the child’s impact, but also felt that I would be useless in my current state- and that I had no skills to provide. I also had the sense that I could not bear to see a broken Avi. I was almost positive that he could not have survived the impact.
I saw the driver of the car huddled with her family and my instinct once again kicked in. I moved towards her and I could see the terror and shock on her face. I took her in my arms and hugged her and I told her that it wasn’t her fault and that even if it was, that we all forgave her. She was stiff at first, resistant to my hug, but then she began to sob and slowly relax. “I didn’t even see him. That poor baby,” she wailed. I held her and told her that we were all in shock, and that it was ok. Speaking was a way for me to slowly unwind from the terror of the situation; to make my way back to the present.
Nine and a half years earlier my father was hit by a car. He ended up crashing into the windshield and was most likely killed instantly. The driver thought that he had hit a deer. I now realize that when I witnessed the impact a part of me was aware of the nature of my father’s death; something I had not fully processed. I think that’s why I turned and screamed with such abject horror and it’s also why I needed to comfort the woman who was driving the car. When I was in high school a friend of mine hit and killed a pedestrian who was walking in the road. He didn’t tell me what had happened but I heard about it a few days later at school. I know that this accident haunted him for years, that it probably still haunts him on some level. A couple of days after my father’s death we met with the man who had hit him. He came over as people were gathering for a memorial service and my brother and sister and I hugged him and told him we forgave him. I knew how devastating it could be to carry that guilt and I didn’t want my father’s death to lead to even more pain. In fact I was never conscious of feeling mad at the driver. I probably should have been angry with my father.
On the day of Avi’s accident I was also dealing with the heightened awareness about the importance of forgiveness because, as I explained earlier, I had been writing and thinking about it almost the entire day before. I probably held the driver for a few minutes. When I opened my eyes and became more present with what was going on again, I saw that half a dozen cop cars had arrived and that the noise had become chaotic and deafening. Where there had been an eerie silence there was now a cacophony. I moved away from the driver and briefly approached the scene of the impact. Avi was whimpering and his mother was comforting him, but careful not to move him until the ambulance arrived. I went to look for my wife and kids and found my wife holding them. As I headed in their direction I found another friend huddled with Avi’s siblings, shielding them from the chaos of the scene. I scooped up Ivan while my friend grabbed Avi’s twin sister. I held him tightly, like a baby monkey, as we moved away from the noise. Sitting down on a bench I rocked him slightly without speaking very much. There was not much to say. I probably told him that it would be OK. It was not ok though, and I wasn’t sure when it ever would be.
At that point, even though I had seen him on the ground breathing and alive, I didn’t think that it was possible that Avi would survive. The sound of the impact was so profound and he had flown such a great distance that it was hard to imagine that he would ever be able to walk or function even if he did. I tried to orient myself to a new reality; of parents without a child and siblings without their brother. I imagined the different things that could be done to ease the transitions that would be taking place; I was acutely aware of the profound effect that adverse events like this can have on people. We sat that way for probably 5 or 10 minutes. After Avi was loaded into the ambulance his parents came over and calmly explained to their other kids that they were taking him to the hospital. The kids would go home with our friend. I quickly jogged over to the scene of the accident to check in with the family who had been in the car. I got their number so that I could keep them up to date about how Avi was doing.
The mood in our car was somber as we drove back home. I slowly came out of the shock of the situation and we talked about what we had all seen and felt. As terrible as the situation was there was something comforting about the fact that we were together and able to help each other deal with how it all felt.
That evening I drove back to the hospital to pick up my friend who had stayed with the family. I brought along another mutual friend. From everything he had heard he was under the impression that Avi had not survived. He was incredibly relieved to find out that he was alive. When we got to the hospital Avi was awake and crying. He had fractured his skull and his pelvis, but the prognosis was cautiously optimistic. The next morning he stood up, and he ate food.
His siblings stayed with our other friends while Avi was still in the hospital and we stopped by a couple of times to say hello. One night we all went out to pizza and Ivan asked when his parents and Avi were going to get there. He had forgotten that they were still in the hospital. When he realized he kind of chuckled but he was also feeling the strain.
Over the first few days we got a steady stream of positive news and I passed it on to the driver of the car. We both thought of it as a miracle. Being able to share this news with her only increased the sense of awe at his progress. In just over a week after the accident Avi came home. Two weeks from the accident we were all together carving pumpkins and it was hard to believe that anything had even happened. While he had been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury that was meant to require months of physical therapy, he seemed more talkative and connected than before the accident. A couple of days later he was back at school and even though his parents had previously been told that he would have to have months of therapy he was told that he didn’t need to return.
Right after the accident, I worried that my expression of pain and anguish might have had a negative affect on my daughter who was standing with me at the time. I quickly realized that in fact, my honest expression of my emotions was likely much better for her than if I had stifled what I felt. I wailed and then I recovered. I then set out to do whatever I could to help those around me, and that too was meaningful to my children. It was a tragic accident but it was not a tragedy. In the end, everyone involved grew a little wiser, and a little closer. It took me a few weeks to shake the event, but I know that I did not bury it. Forgiving others is healing, but forgiving ourselves is even more profound.
I still need to do a little bit of work to connect with my own emotions about my father’s death in order to fully forgive him. Playing music again has helped me to let go of some of my anger about having been screwed over my music partner. I don’t think of forgiveness in terms of blame, but instead in terms of letting go. Too often we are the ones who need to let go of pain and anger; to forgive ourselves. When we hold ourselves to some kind of impossible standard, like trying to be a perfect parent, or blaming ourselves when something happens to someone else, we hold onto that pain and carry it with us. There is no benefit to holding on to that pain.
When we are working on our film editing program we sometimes have re-connect the media to the timeline that we are working on. Often times if we can find one clip and connect it- everything else on that drive will also re-connect. In writing this piece I was reminded that I have a lot of pain and conflict to “process”. It would be nice if it worked a little bit more like my editing program, and perhaps it does.