Hot Coals

Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

-Buddha

My mother’s ex-husband has a daughter who is four years older than me. When we were younger, and our parents were married, she spent weekends at our place and would let me hang out with her and her friends. I looked up to them, developed a tiny crush on one of her friends, and generally played the role of the annoying, younger sister.

Meanwhile, her dad was a raging alcoholic who wreaked havoc on my life for seven years. His “episodes” conveniently happened when she was away (she lived with her mother) so she didn’t have the displeasure of seeing her father’s alter-ego, or my mother’s bloodied face.

The trauma was mine to bear alone.

I didn’t realize how much I resented her for missing out on all of this madness until many years later. I remember seeing her in my mid-twenties and wondering why she was talking to me as if nothing happened. I scowled, was short with her, and vowed to never speak to her again. In fact, everyone on her dad’s side of the family with whom I had a connection was summarily eliminated from my life. They were all guilty by association in my mind. They were just as bad as he because they did not intervene to save us, nor did they reprimand him for his bad behavior (as far as I knew). Their silence was complicity; tacit consent to domestic violence and the familial dysfunction that followed in the quietude of our daily lives.

Every now and then I’d receive emails from his daughter. She’d ask me out to dinner, ask about my family, and generally make a good faith effort to reconnect. In each instance I’d read the email then delete it as if it were spam; even the emails with pictures of her son who’s about six or seven years old now.

While reading through a client contract today she IM-ed me via Gmail to ask for a favor. My first response was, “you’ve got to be kidding me.” Then I leaned back in my chair, thought about all the favors, kindness and generosity that recently saved me from serious trouble.

I wondered what would happen if I ignored her request. I wondered what the cost would be to her if I pretended to not see her need. Clearly she needed help, and I was sure she’d ask someone else if she could. But here I was, available, and on the verge of withholding assistance because she failed to save me from trauma she couldn’t have prevented anyway.

Something in me changed when I decided to respond and call her mom to relay a message.

I think I let go.

I let go of the idea that she was responsible for her father’s behavior, and for my safety.

I let go of my habit of punishing her for something she did not do.

I let go of my need to be avenged by others, and my need for resolution in the wrong-doer’s sense of guilt.

I think I let go of the anger that was burning my hand as I waited to hurl it her way.

I recently read a passage in Thich Nhat Hahn’s essay, “The Six Paramitas” that probably planted the seed for the release I realized today. It reads thus:

To suppress our pain is not the teaching of inclusiveness. We have to receive it, embrace it, and transform it. The only way to do this is to make our heart big. We look deeply in order to understand and forgive. Otherwise we will be caught in anger and hatred, and think that we will feel better only after we punish the other person. Revenge is an unwholesome nutriment. The intention to help others is a wholesome nutriment.

And so it is. I feel better in the absence of revenge. I feel better because I’m no longer burning myself as I wait to throw a flame at anyone related to my mother’s ex-husband. As I look deeper into his behavior, it is clear to me that his actions were borne from his suffering. While this is not an excuse for hurting others, it is certainly a source of action that I understand.

My anger did not change the past and it didn’t enrich my present. All anger seems to do is truncate the potential of the future.

One thought on “Hot Coals

  1. patricia says:

    wow. this is powerful and helpful as i feel struggle to become aware of the angers i hold, even on subconscious levels. and couldn’t anger, along with truncating the potential of the future, and paradoxically, be a signal to us for action. for the action of letting go and opening up….? so in a sense anger is also a gift?

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