“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everyone.”
– Maya Angelou
I’ve been thinking about forgiveness. And while I was in the middle of writing this, my husband happened to tell me the reason* Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí stopped being friends.
In the late ‘30s, Buñuel was working at the MoMA in New York. It was the only job the director, who had a wife and two young sons, was able to find in the United States. One day, the hugely successful Dalí blithely called Buñuel an atheist in an interview and Buñuel was promptly fired. In a fury, Buñuel went to see Dalí at his hotel, ready to give him a pounding, but as soon as his best friend opened the door, he knew he wouldn’t hurt him. Instead, the two had drinks and dinner.
Buñuel never saw nor spoke to Dalí again.
Over the years, Dalí sent letters and telegrams, not fully grasping what had happened. Buñuel responded to one. Dalí had proposed a sequel to their classic, Le Chien Andalou. Buñuel’s answer: “Water that has passed can no longer turn the mill.”
In 1979, the two now-old men were to finally meet in Paris during a Dalí retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. Both were excited to see each other. Both fell ill just days before the reunion and had to cancel their trips. They died within a few years of each other without having spoken or reconciled.
The whole story is a tragedy. Not only because of the loss of time and friendship, but the art that wasn’t exchanged or created. It was obvious they both had regrets, but as with all tragedies, by the time it was realized, it was too late.
There’s something I heard recently about handling the bad situations that come your way. Very often, months or years after something has happened, we look back with more clarity. “It was good because I learned <fill in the blank>” or “Thank god that happened, my life became so much better.” The advice was to have that clarity immediately, instead of first expending precious time and energy on anger and its attendant emotions.
If I’m going to be honest, forgiveness of the eight-month-old thorn in my side is not something I’ve wanted to do. At least, not for longer than the thirty seconds the angel on my right shoulder is able to drown out the devil on my left.
That red devil is pitchforked and fiery, appealing to my sense of justice while twisting the knife in my back: “She betrayed you! Shut down your business! Lied to your face! Badmouthed you behind your back! Stole work that you created and paid for! Don’t let her get away with it!” (The soundtrack to this rant is Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.”)
Meanwhile, the softly-feathered angel flutters: “Let it go. Anger damages you more than anyone else. Be the bigger person. Move on and be happy.” (The song here is obviously “Let It Go,” since it’s been on incessant loop since 2013. Damn you, Disney… I forgive you.)
It’s the part about being happy that gets me. When you’re hurt and angry, bitter and resentful, there isn’t much room for happiness. When your head is filled with thoughts of justice being served, there’s not enough space for productivity and creativity. For the good things in life, of which I have so many.
Clinging to people’s transgressions against you is an anvil. It’s like chronic pain. You can almost forget it’s there until it flares up and makes you feel crummy all over again. Only when you release the negativity do you understand how heavy the burden was.
There’s empowerment in forgiveness. When you actively choose to forgive a person who wronged you, you’re no longer a victim, no longer reacting but acting. Power lies in agency.
I’ll most likely never receive an apology. My legal fees won’t be reimbursed. But the funny thing about forgiveness in this situation is that it’s more about forgiving me. I’ve beaten myself up plenty for trusting the wrong person. For not protecting myself and my work. For allowing myself to be manipulated and being such a poor judge of character.
At the same time, I refuse to become mistrustful, to not give others a chance because I got badly burnt on this go-round. Yes, I wanted to believe there was integrity and strength in someone I considered a good friend. Yes, I was terribly wrong. But my instinct to look for the best in people isn’t. (That I no longer have a virulent person in my life is a bonus!)
I don’t have many things on my Christmas wish list—Elena Ferrante books, cozy pyjamas—but the gift I’m giving myself is forgiveness. It is hard to let go of what’s just and right in the name of peace, but then I remember Oscar Wilde’s words, “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”
* Beyond this, Buñuel couldn’t forgive Dali for so enthusiastically promoting the Franco regime which, among its many atrocities, had executed their dear friend, the poet Federico García Lorca.