Wash Day, or Why I Love Unforgiveness
Why I love unforgiveness. Happy New Year.
I lied, almost.
I had planned to write you to encourage you to check in with yourself, and I had some lovely questions for you (questions like: What are you feeling in your body? How does your body react to your attention? Which movements bring joy or healing or good challenge? Which movements cause you to recoil? Does the way you spend your time line up with your values? What has brought you unexpected delight? What did you think, create, believe, or do that you are most proud of? I adore these questions. I love the quiet, encouraging evaluation of them).
The questions are true but I am lying to you—or, rather, I would have been lying to you by pushing them forward like a cushy, bubbly gate to push you further from me.
For me, the last day of the year ushers in introspection, terror, self-critique, and rarely, contentment. The day opens up a liminal space where the things that matter chafe against what is.
My mentor encouraged us to stop and forgive so we don’t bring the baggage of grudges into the New Year, and before I began writing, I was working on this forgiveness list (which, in order to be accurate, she said, must include myself).
I wanted to write you to encourage you to forgive yourself and to forgive others, and the words caught in my fingers and throat and burned in my stomach, because I don’t get to tell you to do something I haven’t done myself, and because I love unforgiveness.
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Unforgiveness—remembering wrongs and holding on to the bilious anger associated with each and every one—has been my compass. It has shepherded me away from making the same mistake twice, shielded me from added hurt from the people who maligned or exploited me before, and saved me from my former self.
If I forgive, who will defend me? Unforgiveness is its own vindication; it reminds me that I matter and what happened to me matters. Other people say that unforgiveness is drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick—but I have experienced unforgiveness as the only witness to a pain that the rest of the world has moved on from; the one who will sit with me and say, “yes, this happened to you. This horrible thing. I remember with you.”
I wrote the list of people and organizations to forgive, and every name, including my own, comes with a story, or many stories of harm. Harms that I do not want to let off the hook. People I want to enslave with accountability, even if only inside my head.
Right now, my hair is divided into two huge puffs, asymmetrical and unflattering (even though they do amuse my children). There’s still a lot of body and curl in my hair. It looks good. But my scalp is itchy. These puffs in my head are my visual prelude to wash day: section the hair to more manageably and thoroughly cleanse it. Prepare yourself. Wash Day is not my favorite; my arms ache with the effort and I turn into a human prune because of the time it takes to cleanse, rinse, repeat, condition, detangle, and moisturize.
I finally make Wash Day happen days and sometimes a week after I need it, because I simply don’t wanna. I want the weightless, glossy, coily hair and minty scalp, but I don’t want the labor. It takes so much time to extract build-up and dirt and yet be gentle with each strand; to carefully work from the bottom to the top of each fragile section of hair and brush out the tangles; to shed what’s dead without taking the living with it.
At some desperate and unbearable point, the effort of Wash Day makes more sense than living with dirty hair. Can you relate?
There are some of you who don’t struggle with forgiving others, and this ain’t for you. For my kindred, I want to tell you this while we’re all inhabiting the liminal space that is the end of the year: trust the Spirit. The Spirit won’t let our hair stay a dirty mess forever. The Spirit won’t let unforgiveness be the only witness of our grief.
But also: forgiveness is meaningless without consent - we have to want to. Forgiveness is a practice that we must participate in willingly or not at all. It is not a thing to be coerced or guilted into. God does not take forgiveness against our will—other people certainly shouldn’t. I am hoping that God is a doula through this labor of letting go.
I believe that this day is the day that I go through my list in prayer and untangle my validation, my grief, my value from the dirt that was done to me and by me. I don’t know what’s on the other side of letting go, because so much of my safety was wrapped up in the hypervigilance of not forgiving or forgetting. I want to be clean and unencumbered but I fear the trembling, wet nakedness of vulnerability.
I won’t judge you if you need your unforgiveness a little longer. I know how great a shield it can be. And I also believe that the Spirit is at work in us, and she won’t leave you. The Spirit is our witness, too. And, I hope—I believe—our Comforter.
I need to go wash my hair.
I’m currently plowing through Stephanie Foo’s book on her journey of recovering from C-PTSD (because I need someone to bear witness that I too can recover and can avoid being permanently weighed down by things that went off the rails in my childhood and set me up for a lifetime of repetitive trauma), What My Bones Know, and then I’m planning to read Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving. Then I will return to and finish The Brothers Karamazov. It’s all quite a journey! Grace and peace to you in your own travels through the human maze of pain, discovery, forgiveness, and release.