I bought a small book in 2008 that changed the way I think. Most of us can recall a similar event — a point in time when we’ve seen, heard, read, or just noticed something that altered our outlook or the way we do things.
The book was “Native Wisdom for White Minds” by Anne Wilson Schaef. The back cover describes a "white mind" as one that was raised in Western society or influenced by Western culture. It's characterized as being “trapped in a closed system of belief, ... hierarchical and mechanistic,” among other things.
The book, published in 1995, is organized in the format of daily entries consisting of a phrase from a native or aboriginal elder (“wise person,” if you will), an expansion on the phrase by the author, and a final affirming statement.
For whatever reason, this small pocket book spoke to me from the spinning stand in an airport gift shop, and I spent a year reading the entries on the designated dates. My life as I had known it was rapidly disintegrating, and the book provided little seeds of hope for me during a very dark time.
I latched onto an entry attributed to Australian aboriginal elders as told to Marlo Morgan in her novel, “Mutant Message Down Under.” The elders were said to have taken the position of not judging humans for their destructive ways; they prayed that people would wake up and change before it was too late.
Schaef expanded on this, exhorting us to not blame or judge each other. She wrote that we are “being called to live another way ... with loving prayers.” This message resonated with me, as I was drowning in a sea of loss and illness in which blame and judgment were my daily companions. I blamed others and judged them as incompetent or malicious, all the while knowing that there were plenty who were blaming and judging me.
I kept going back to this entry, and made a conscious decision to try to get through each new day without engaging in these behaviors. As an extra challenge, and for reasons unknown, I decided to add forgiveness to the mix.
When the book resurfaced after a recent move, I searched out my favorite passage and was stunned to realize that it was the entry for Sept. 5, the day my twins were born. That made it even more poignant.
I was dismayed though when I learned that the “wisdom” was pure fiction, a fact that I was unaware of when I read it a few years back (Morgan's book has been banned in Australia because of controversy over its pseudo-authenticity).
Nevertheless, I still believe in the profundity of the message, and in Schaef’s exhortation that as humans we must look at what we are doing, examine things deliberately, and be accountable for the results of our actions.
I asked myself if I’d made progress in using my three chosen words to guide my path, and decided that I had. Blame (the verb) is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as to “feel or declare that (someone or something) is responsible for a fault or wrong.” It means “responsibility for a fault or a wrong” in noun form, of course, and can certainly be useful when one accepts or recognizes his or her part in a bad outcome.
But in my opinion, making a habit of blaming others deprives you of valuable lessons that can be learned through self-reflection. It can engender a sense of being victimized. Although we don’t think of it as an evil word per se, it originates from the Latin blasphemare, meaning to reproach, revile, or to speak evil of. There’s certainly nothing nice about that!
So I stand by my decision to either keep this word out of daily consciousness, or to at least use it in the most constructive manner possible.
I’ve also made progress in avoiding judgment. To judge means to form an opinion or conclusion about. It derives from the Latin root judic-, a combination of jus ‘law’ + dicere ‘to say or proclaim’.
How stern and legalistic this is! Is that why judging others unfairly can so often have negative consequences, especially when our own beliefs limit our opinions? Who are we to conclude why people act the way they do? When I focused my attention on judgment four years ago I began to remind myself that I do not walk in others' shoes.
Although "others" judged my situation without knowing many background details, I took comfort in the thought that they had drawn their conclusions without walking in mine. Somehow, it made their opinions less painful to me. Perhaps you don't think too much about judgment, but I did, especially because it effected me in the most vital ways. I endured devastating losses due to bad legal advice, which wiped out the resources I had built for me and my children. I had to process "judging" in a new way in order to minimize the power is seemed to have over me. This fresh viewpoint helped to minimize its negative impact.
And forgive? That magical word that all major religions point to as the critical element for spiritual enlightenment? Well, I’m still working on it. We are always told to forgive from the heart, not just from the head.
This is a big source of confusion for me. Could the word itself give me some clues? The OED definition of forgive is to “stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offense, flaw or mistake.” Easier said than done!
The etymology didn’t help me either, as it stems from the combination of 'for' + 'give'. But is that the hidden secret in the word? I’ve successfully forgiven many in my mind, and asked forgiveness of others with varying results. Either way, it does create a tremendous sense of freedom — it takes away the huge burden of outrage and bitterness that can consume us after a hurt. We have, in effect, given ourselves a tremendous gift. That made sense to me. I'm still working at "heart" forgiveness, but I know that the effort I'm making is bearing fruit in general, even if it's hard for me to see sometimes.
Of course Shaef's book is full of additional knowledge and life wisdom. After all, I only focused on one day's entry! Down the road, I'll look at all the other days and find much more to work on, I'm sure. But by taking a bit of advice given on my children's birthday, I feel like I've come a long way. And by choosing to focus on forgiveness, I've managed to help my own healing process move forward as well.