“To err, is human,” the sages tell us.  “To forgive, divine.”

I concur wholeheartedly with the first half of that statement, but it’s the second for which I’m most grateful.  I cling to the belief that the force which has an eye even on the fall of the sparrow is not the vengeful Jehovah of the Old Testament, issuing hard and fast edicts, and hurtling lightning bolts or plagues of boils and beetles at those who fail to live up to them.  I prefer my higher power a bit warm and fuzzy; more apt to understand and forgive than to judge and punish.

That being said, the human race is mortal, not divine, and so forgiveness provides me with an ongoing challenge.

Forgiveness of one’s self and one’s actions is sometimes the hardest to achieve.  I’m remembering a one-time friend with a tendency to expect near perfection in herself and others.  On holiday together, we browsed our way through a large estate in Cornwall, but on the way back to the car, my friend seemed to be traveling at that high velocity necessitated by participation in “The Great Race” when large cash prizes are at stake.  When I asked whether it was absolutely necessary for us to hit Mach 1 before reaching the car park, she tersely asserted, “Yes!  I’m cold, I forgot my jacket.”  She went on:  “And I had the perfect jacket to wear today, but I forgot to bring it.”  Then in an act of acute self-flagellation, she derided herself with a venom seldom heard outside of Shakespearean drama or Greek tragedy:  “Stupid!  STUPID!”

I learned a great deal about my friend that day … about how hard she was on herself.  I had often felt she was somewhat harsh in her judgment of me, my goals and my actions, but after hearing her castigate herself so bitterly for a simple memory gaffe, I understood that anything she thought or said about me was mild compared to what she thought or said about herself.

Personally, I once took a different route to arrive at the same destination.  During therapy, which I began after my marriage went south, I would regale my counsellor with hilarious stories of incidents from my life which illustrated with bitter irony what a crappy human being I must be, since those in my inner circle treated me so poorly.  These tales took the form of little playlets:  one woman shows, complete with different voices for the various characters and an elaborate use of body language and gesture.

“Don’t,” my therapist said on one occasion when the narrative was particularly humourous.  “Don’t make fun of yourself.”

“What d’ya mean?” I demanded.  “Everyone loves my stories!”

“It doesn’t matter,” she replied quietly.  “You’re only perpetuating your negative feelings by re-playing them  like this.”  She stopped for a moment, then, gazing at me intently, she gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten:  “Don’t make your pain into comedy.”

Well, I thought, there goes my career doing stand-up!  But I sensed intuitively that she was right.  Picking at scabs is just that, no matter how wittily it’s done.  Instead, I began to see those members of my inner circle, not just as my satellites, put here on earth to nurture and support me, but as individuals with their own lives, challenges, joys and tragedies.  I began to see them as people, and it made all the difference in the world.  Forgiveness, in a strange way, was no longer necessary.  I came to realize that we all do our best, often in circumstances that our childhood dreams find less than ideal.  When someone does their best for you, how can it possibly require forgiveness?

Oh, yes, all fine and good for the people we love, but how about the great unwashed?  Do they also require such compassionate understanding?

This question was brought into focus for me during a recent incident involving the tenants I welcomed into the home I had lovingly renovated over a decade, and lived in happily during that time frame. I had vacated in order to be free to accept teaching assignments whenever and wherever they arose, and turned over the key to this lucky couple with a sense that I was bestowing upon them the most beauteous of gifts.

The husband … we’ll call him Tom … was in poor health when I met him.  A leg wound had left him with an infection which wouldn’t heal, and he toured the house during their initial visit on crutches and carrying a continuous antibiotic feed on a belt.   A short, wiry man with dank locks of greying hair, he had a pugilistic air despite his physical condition.  Picture Popeye the Sailor Man from the Saturday morning television cartoon of yore … much easier if you’re my age or older!  Now imagine our hero having given up spinach and taken to drink, generally increasing his seediness quotient by a factor of ten in the process:  Tom to the letter.

From the beginning of their tenancy, I was besieged with complaints from Tom involving minor problems with what is truthfully a beautiful and comfortable century home:  the lower hinge on the screen door at the side was slightly sprung, so that the door didn’t close perfectly; the snow on the roof was melting too quickly, obviously indicating insufficient insulation in the attic.  But his seminal complaint was that the heat from the high efficiency furnace didn’t reach the second floor with the same force it did the first, and this just wasn’t “normal!”

Responsible landlord that I am, I instantly sprang into action.  I had the furnace serviced, the filter in the air cleaner replaced.  I even had the ducts cleaned, and felt some slight satisfaction when the gentleman performing this service answered Tom’s queries with a confirmation that a variation in heating/cooling between levels IS normal for a house of this age.  The suggestion that small heaters on the second floor would solve the problem was met with stony silence.

My efforts to appease Tom were, unfortunately, all in vain. I received a phone call from him in late February telling me that he and his wife were going to leave the house on April 1st, as his leg was poor, he might end up losing it, and would then require extensive rehabilitation in a city ninety minutes away.  Usually a compassionate soul, my reaction of empathy was lessened due to what I perceived as a lack of credibility; it just seemed too coincidental.

“You’ve signed a lease,” I reminded him. “A legal and binding contract.  And unfortunately my financial situation doesn’t allow me to let you out of our agreement on a month’s notice.  I’ll be forced to take you to court.”  This made little impression on my pugnacious tenant.  He informed me that they were going to move out on April 1st, lease or no lease, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

I pondered the situation.  When they had first approached me about renting the house, Tom’s wife has told me they were looking for a place they could live for three to five years, perhaps even more.  On the basis of the lease, which ran another eight months, I’d made certain financial arrangements which would prove ticklish without that rental revenue.  I could try to find another rentor, but at this point, my heart wasn’t in it.  Perhaps I should just sell the house.  Alas, I’d taken their desire to find a long-term home as an opportunity to downsize:  I no longer owned enough furniture to stage the house properly for sale.

From my point of view, it was a mess.

Nonetheless, had Tom come to me, explained his situation, which was most likely that he had simply taken an irrevocable dislike to the house, and offered to meet me half way with the funds owing on the remainder of the lease, I might well have let him out of his lease with no penalty, despite the fact that it would have harmed my finances considerably.  But his complete lack of respect for my needs, or the legality of our relationship, quite frankly pissed me off.

As their moving day approached, my suspicions regarding his credibility were proven justified.  Several days before the end of March, I drove by the house to see a U-Haul the size of a commercial moving van parked in the driveway, half-loaded.  I rapped on the front door for an explanation.  Were they leaving two days early without so much as a how-d’ya-do?  “Oh, no,” explained Tom.  “I’m not moving furniture today.  It’s just the boxes and small stuff.”  My curiousity aroused, I parked around the corner and instituted a clandestine surveillance operation.  From this vantage point, I observed Tom, a man who feared his future involved life as a uni-ped, carrying large boxes and smaller pieces of furniture out of the house, placing them on the truck bed, then clambering up the four feet or so into the interior to move them to a secure position.  He was jumping up into the body of the truck, if not with the nimbleness of a mountain goat, then with an agility unusual in a person facing amputation.

The crowning event to this frustrating relationship was a call I received from the power company which supplies my little town, confirming that electrical service to the house would start being charged to my dime contiguous with the closing of the tenants’ account … on March 31st.  The day before they were actually leaving.

Now, I have to say that this burnt my toast because, in order to make things easier for their move into the house scant months before, I had allowed them full access five days early free of charge, and I’d paid all utilities during that time to boot!  Now they wanted me to cover them for their last night and day in the house as well?

Nefarious but fully legal schemes raced through my vengeful grey matter.  How about I just let the power service lapse?  Then they’d spend their last night with no heat, their last morning with no coffee!  Ha haaaa, that would show them!

I discussed the matter with sensible friends.  “Let ‘em freeze!” was their advice, delivered in a tone which left no room for argument.  I was all set for ‘payback’ with a capital P.

And that, ladies and germs, is when a life lesson sashayed into the room, made an elaborate curtsey in front of me and proceeded to kick me in the teeth.

“Is that the kind of person you want to be?” it asked.  “In ten years, you’ll have forgotten all about how Tom treated you.  But if you do this nasty thing, you’ll remember it the rest of your life.  It will define you as a small-minded, vindictive human being.”

“Is that who you choose to be?”

Hmmmmm.

“Is there another option behind Door Number Three?” I queried testily.

Sighing with resignation, I reminded myself that I had little control over how people treated me, but a great deal regarding how I responded in turn.  I embraced the wisdom of the life lesson, and called the power company to ensure that the heat and hydro stayed on for Tom’s final night and morning.

And then the life lesson turned sneaky.  It didn’t confront me directly, it wheedled and coerced.  Was it actually worth the aggravation to take these tenants to court?  Did I really want to harbour the negative energy of this incident for the next several years?  After all, it was only money … a sizeable amount of money, but only money nonetheless.  It wasn’t health or happiness or a friend’s life that was at stake.  Better, I decided under the subconscious manipulation of this wise universe, to move forward in joy and optimism, and to let this anger go.

Sigh.  I hate it when that happens.  Strange as it may seem, there’s a perverse pleasure in holding on to a grudge.  It gives you something to percolate on while waiting for your morning coffee to drip.

But … it’s not good, it’s not healthy, and it’s small.  I had let it go.

Now, I have to confess that for a while, I became as sneaky as the universe in the manner of my letting go.  “That’s fine,” I snarled in the direction of my departing tenants.  “You’ll get what’s coming to you.  What goes around comes around, and Karma’s a bitch!”

Of course, this had all the logic of the Buddhist priest turned Mafiosa.  Karma isn’t a tool of vengeance for the passive-aggressive, and I was definitely NOT letting go, I was just turning to Big Brother Universe to do my dirty work for me.

Sigh and double sigh.  Alright, alright!

I’m letting go.  I’m sending out positive thoughts that the universe will offer a lesson to my tenants regarding fairness, but only as much as they need.  A gentle lesson.  A lesson with no intention other than their spiritual evolution.

In fact, I’m wishing them the kind of lesson I ask for myself.

And here it is.

Universe, God, Jehovah … be kind to all of us here on Planet Earth.  Give us our lessons just as Mary Poppins did, with a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.  And if that doesn’t work, then and only then, smack us in the head.

I promise I will try to learn.

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