The Ungrateful Jar

A friend told me she was going to set up an ungrateful jar for Lent, the season that is observed during the forty days before Easter. “What?” I thought. “Why do that? Do we really need a jar to help us whine and complain more?” I googled ‘ungrateful jar,’ but my words were corrected by the computer and the only thing I could get to come up was ‘grateful jar’ as well as quotes about being ungrateful like, “People are so ungrateful. No one ever thanks me for having the patience not to kill them.” 

So why did my friend think an ungrateful jar was a good idea? The story spurring her plan went something like this:

A young girl we’ll call Sally was excited because her family received a package in the mail.  She was thrilled about opening the gift until her mother told her it was from their church. “Oh, darn,” Sally responded. “I suppose they’re going to tell me to count my blessings and be grateful. They do that all the time and I’m tired of it.”  Her mother responded, “Well, do you want to be ungrateful?” “Yes,” Sally said. “Okay,” replied Mother. “Let’s set up an ungrateful jar.”

Was Sally’s mom being a bad parent? How could depositing words with things we don’t like into a jar be a good thing?

When we have a physical wound, the first thing we do is clean it to get out the dirt and germs. We want to be sure there is nothing in the wound that could be infectious and toxic to our systems. After that is done, we put on the antiseptic and whatever else is necessary to heal the wound.

Mental wounds work in a similar fashion.

“Don’t put on a happy face because you think it’s expected. Grief denied is grief unhealed,” Barbara Bartocci noted in Nobody’s Child Anymore.

Sally felt pressured to put on a happy, grateful face because others expected it. However, that wasn’t working. Her unhappy face needed to be seen and comforted before her happy face could make an appearance. Sally wanted to be genuine and was tired of pretending. She may have needed to talk about her annoying little brother, problems with friends, difficult schoolwork, secret fears she was holding inside.

The Lakota combine sage and sweetgrass in their ceremonies. An Elder explained to me, “In Lakota tradition, burning or smudging with sage symbolizes healing and taking the negative off, while sweetgrass represents blessings and putting on something positive.”

We need to clean our mental wounds before we apply our healing medicine. We name those things we are not grateful for so they can work their way out of our bodies. We count our blessings so they can find their way into our hearts.

There are numerous ways to approach Lent. One way is to reflect upon mistakes and hardships and seek deeper intimacy with God. Historically, people have wept and lamented, seeking freedom from long standing issues and hope for a new beginning. My friend planned to take the notes she’d placed in her ungrateful jar during Lent and, on Easter, a time of renewal and rebirth, have a ceremony to burn them.

My friend and I don’t dwell on our troubles, but we’ve learned it doesn’t do any good to pretend we have no troubles. We’ve learned to sit down to coffee with our hurts and work on understanding them. We advise, “Go ahead and cry. Crying releases pain.” We reassure, “It’s okay to feel resentful instead of grateful, and I’m here to support you while you work on transforming your pain.” We enlist the help of gratitude because we know counting our blessings helps us keep positive and hopeful. Gratitude provides light in the darkness.

There’s a wisdom tale generally contributed to the Cherokee called the “Tale of Two Wolves.” I found several versions of the story and what follows is my adaptation of those versions.

The Cherokee Tale of Two Wolves

A Cherokee brother and sister had been fighting and were struggling with their feelings. They went to their grandparents to ask how to handle their competing emotions. Grandfather advised, “We all have a battle going on inside of us between two wolves. One wolf is mean, angry, and greedy. The other is kind, peaceful, and generous.”

“Which wolf wins?”  Grandson asked.

 “The one you feed.” Grandfather replied.

Grandmother was listening and added, “If you feed both wolves well, they both win.”

“But why would we want to feed the evil wolf?” Granddaughter inquired.

“Our bad wolf will not go away. If we ignore it or pretend it isn’t there, it will just become hungrier, more uncontrollable, and will be sneaky in looking for attention and ways to get fed. Both our good and bad wolves need to be attended to and guided. When we take care of both wolves, they can work together instead of fighting, and we can lessen the burden of internal struggle and find peace.”

We may repress our feelings because we think we shouldn’t feel the way we’re feeling or because we don’t know how to handle our disturbing thoughts and reactions. But if we can safely express genuine emotions, we may be able to better understand them and keep them from hurting both ourselves and others. One woman I interviewed for my forgiveness research described how she felt after confronting her true feelings. “I could finally breathe with a full heart and full lungs. I could free myself from the horrible pain that had been locked inside me.”

Until we know what’s in our ungrateful jar and have been able to let it go, we won’t know true joy. Sally was wise and bold because it’s not easy to throw off society’s expectations and admit everything’s not always fine, admit we don’t have everything under control.

The ungrateful jar is not really about being ungrateful. It’s about being honest and strong enough to confront what pains us, hopefully with compassionate connections supporting us. That’s something we can definitely be grateful for!  

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Forgiving 2020

The year 2020 has been the most maligned year I have experienced in my many decades here on earth. People were cheering on December 31, 2020, because they could finally be rid of the horrible, terrible, no good year 2020. Good riddance!

Last year certainly wasn’t what any of us expected. We knew viruses could cause pandemics, but microscopic organisms weren’t supposed to outwit modern science and cause such hardship, grief, and uncertainty. We knew politics was becoming more divisive, but our dreadful manners and unfounded conspiracy theories weren’t supposed to result in organized efforts to overturn the democratic process.  We knew natural disasters were possible, but they weren’t supposed to become as ferocious and deadly as they demonstrated they could be in 2020.

Life in 2020 wasn’t predictable and stable for any of us. Change happened rapidly and severe suffering and death occurred that no one knew how to prevent. And that naturally made many of us anxious, confused, and distressed. Those twelve months contained a lot of pain that we won’t soon forget.

I don’t think we should forget 2020, but I do think we should forgive it. Forgiveness means letting go of the desire for a different past and accepting whatever happened that wasn’t supposed to happen. It means having the courage to talk honestly about why we’re justifiably upset with 2020, but also being mature enough to take responsibility for our hurt and pain instead of spreading blame and spending useless hours feeling sorry for ourselves. We have every right to be unhappy with 2020, but if we want to pave a heroic path forward in 2021, we need to learn from our disappointments.      

The Buddha used two words together to describe forgiveness: forbearance and compassion. Forbearance means patient self-control, restraint, and tolerance. When we don’t choose forgiveness, we give in to our default setting – our instincts – and forbearance exits while anger and bitterness rush in. If we’re not careful, schemers and tyrants will use our fear, confusion, and victim mentality to manipulate us because they seem to have the power and control we crave. They appear strong and certain and provide simple solutions we can easily buy into. Unfounded conspiracy theories take root, creating what the World Health Organization calls “infodemics.”

Forbearance is needed so we can calmly and rationally find a positive path forward, but we also need compassion if we want to create a year of healing, not hurting. Sometimes compassion is thought of as pity, but that is not the definition that helps us beneficially forgive. The compassion we need to make 2021 better than 2020 is an active process. A compassionate 2021 means a year in which we are energetically working to understand different perspectives and alleviate pain. Author Glennon Doyle Melton described compassion as, “a choice we make that love is more important than comfort or convenience.”

If we’re not careful, we can be persuaded to restrict our compassion to those who think and look like us – who are part of the “good” group. The “bad” group is deserving of blame and derision, not compassion. However, compassion means caring about others – all others. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” He didn’t make exceptions.

The year 2020 was disappointing and sometimes tragic. People lost jobs, lost elections, and worst of all lost loved ones. I help facilitate a grief group and one of the women in the group commented. “In 2020, people have been grieving so many things and not everyone knows how to grieve. We are so fortunate to be in a supportive group that allows us to express our genuine feelings and learn how to deal with loss.”

We need time to grieve when life deals us painful situations, and there is no timetable for grieving that works for everyone. When we suffer loss, we have to enter what is sometimes called “The House of Sorrows,” but at some point in time we want to leave that house so we can feel joy again.  

Losses make us sad and they may also make us angry. The good news about anger is that, if we do it right, we can channel the energy it provides into productive behaviors.

Angry feelings are like alarm bells that tell us there’s something wrong in our lives. Our instincts may tell us to fight or flee when angry energy surges through us, but we can upshift our thinking to our cerebral cortex and problem solve instead. We can practice forbearance and convert our fury into creativity, discovering ways to advocate for our causes peacefully – sharing solutions and responsibility, not hurt. We can surf the internet for verified facts and heart-warming stories of people helping people, not fear mongering. We can control our anger, so our anger doesn’t control us.         

We are naturally yearning for normalcy, but I agree with the cartoon that says, “Normal is only the setting on a washing machine.” When I’m struggling to adjust to change and find some vestige of stability, I like to think of myself as a turtle. Turtles have been around for millions of years and are notoriously slow paced. I watched mother sea turtles giving birth on a beach in Florida last year. They had to dig holes for their eggs before birthing them, but they rested in between surges of energy. The work was exhausting but they didn’t give up as they covered their eggs with sand and then made their way slowly back to the ocean, ready to start anew.

I also like to remember that what makes life exhilarating, as well as challenging, is lifelong learning. Singer Nia Peeples said, “Life is a moving, breathing thing. We have to be willing to constantly evolve. Perfection is, in fact, constant transformation.” Forgiveness is all about learning from our past struggles so that we have the courage and capability to move forward with hope, not fear.

If we can journey through 2021 like a turtle, keeping calm and resilient, pursuing admirable goals but letting ourselves rest and recover when needed, then we’ll be able to keep moving forward. If we truly are all in this together, we’ll strive to be compassionate and will give just as much attention to our responsibilities to others as to our own personal rights. We will forgive 2020 for the pain it caused and be grateful for the lessons we learned as well as the many acts of courage and generosity that occurred. The year 2021 will bring us new challenges, but we can resolve to greet them with a spirit of optimism, innovation, and fortitude.

 (Photo by Nagatoshi Shimamura  on Unsplash)