The Work of Forgiveness

So there’s this passage in the Bible…

Okay, wait, before I go there, let me first say… I am no Biblical scholar nor even an aggressive reader of Scripture, but having grown up in the church, spending time both loving and hating it, I have a few cliff notes that have stuck with me along the way. (There’s a pun in there somewhere because my grandad’s name was Cliff and he certainly served us earfuls of Bible verses, but until I can figure it out, onward!)

Without googling the verse so I can give you exacts and impress someone without much scripture I can recall by google, I’m just gonna go with go with what I can recall by memory and see how well that goes (or even how well some of it has stuck over the years). I don’t know chapters and numbers, but I know there are a lot stories in which Jesus and his disciples are hanging out and going over the basics of being a good human. The disciples are his closest friends and they commit their lives to doing whatever it takes for Jesus and His message of Love to be known by all (they don’t always do the best job of standing by His side, but, you know, He’s Jesus, so he gets it and He still loves them).

In this one particular story, the boys are talking about some of Jesus’ teachings, which, really, if you look at them, are radical, not just for back then, but for now… LOVE YOUR ENEMY? FORGIVE PEOPLE WHO’VE WRONGED YOU!? Naturally, one of the disciples wants Jesus to expound on some stuff, “soooo… about this forgiveness thing” (I’m paraphrasing, incase that needed to be stated), “like how many times are we supposed to forgive someone, maybe seven times?”

Jesus answered his question with a math equation “not just seven times, seventy times seven,” and seeing as math was never my strong suit, I always dismissed His answer. Some large number is what I chalked it up to. When I got a little older and would again hear this passage, I decided to figure it out. I pulled out my TI-83 calculator… 490. Okay, maybe He meant for us to forgive so many times that it’s too hard to keep track. Throw in different translations of scripture, some of which Jesus says to forgive 77 times, and I never got a clear understanding, only that I was suppose to forgive a lot!

You can find plenty of blogs (as can I, so please don’t feel the need to send them to me) with Bible scholars breaking down this scripture and helping us understand the symbolic meaning of these numbers (somehow they represent God’s eternal forgiveness extended to us). As someone who has had scripture thrown at her as pad answers and bandaids with no real meaning for how they were helpful to her personally, I’m not here to break down scripture to be used as a blanket formula for all.

These days, I tread lightly when it comes to referencing the Bible, mostly because I’ve seen the ways people use it to back up they own views (most of which are political), and while I claim the same God as the Christian Faith, the God I know is very different from the one seen on Fox News and CNN. God is in both and neither camp at the same time, and way less political than everyone thinks (also less religious but that’s for another day).

So this is a “personal understanding” story more so than a dissecting of what the Bible means. It’s my coming of age to understanding just one of the many passages I’ve read or heard since childhood, and 38 years later finally saying “ohhhhh, I think I get it.”

While I don’t know much, I know that holding onto anger hurts me way more than the person I’m angry at. I’ve let anger eat me alive before, stuffing it deep down and reaching for anything else to distract me from the pain caused by someone else. In more recent years I’ve felt the healthiest I’ve ever been, having let go of past hurts and choosing to forgive both myself and others for things done wrong.

There’s this one situation that often revisits my mind, I feel anger start to bubble up as soon as I think about it. I feel how it felt all over again to be hurt by this one person, almost annoyed that I forgave them because it feels so good (in the moment) to be angry at them. I can see why we hang onto anger, it’s so much easier, it feels a lot better to feel justified in our anger than to “let go,” “move on,” or “forgive.” Laaaaame. Where’s my pitchfork!?

I’ve forgiven this person so many times, in my head, in my heart, in my journal. I’ve “let go and let God,” I’ve “chosen Joy,” I’ve forgiven at least 76 times, perhaps having only one time left in me. I was talking to my mom about it who has become quite a place of refuge for me in our later years of life… this was not always the case when I was growing up. I relayed that I felt something must be wrong with me if I can’t seem to forgive them, “it still comes up,” I told her, “and when it does, I still feel angry! Do I not mean it when I say I’ve forgiven them? Why won’t the feeling go away?”

As my mother started to reference this 70×7 passage, I could feel my eyes rolling in the back of my head, here we go, I thought, and I interrupted her… “but I’ve done that! As much as I understand forgiveness, I’ve forgiven them! And yet I randomly still think about it, and I still get mad, and I feel like I have to start all over and forgive them again!”

“That’s the beautiful and hard thing about it,” my mom said, “70×7 means you keep making the choice to forgive, no matter how many times it comes back up. It’s not that you didn’t forgive them before, it’s that you have to remind yourself, again and again, that you already chose to forgive them.” My eye roll settled a little and I noticed my heart react as she kept talking, “life is too hard for us to go undisturbed by things that have hurt us. Feeling the hurt doesn’t make you weak in emotion or in faith, it makes you human.”

Perhaps you’ve been well aware of this for a long time, which is awesome if you have, I’m sure it does wonders for mental health, but it was the first time I realized that forgiveness isn’t a one-time job. The harm may have been done once, but the damage it can cause can last a long time, if not a lifetime. The work is not to get to a place of no longer feeling it, the work is the constant choosing to forgive no matter how many times it comes up and I feel it.

I’ll admit, this both freed me and depressed me. I want the easy one-and-done “I no longer feel it” kind of experience. The trouble is, you’ll wait your whole life for it to feel done, for the pain to no longer be an issue. While I do think you can absolutely be less affected by the pain, and live a beautiful healthy life, I think life will always catch us off guard. You never know what might trigger the memory of a past hurt, no matter how long it’s been.

So it’s depressing to me, or maybe exhausting, to think I may have to keep forgiving for a long time. But it’s freeing to realize something isn’t wrong with me just because a past hurt rears its head and still affects me.

When that trigger happens, I don’t have to add to it by assuming I must not being doing as well as I thought, or I didn’t really let it go or forgive… I can acknowledge it for what it is- a trigger, a reminder, a reaction, and I can do what I need to remind myself I am currently okay; and I can once again chose to forgive, to not let it dictate how I live my life or treat other people.

I realized I’ve been doing the work this whole time, forgiving time and time again, or at least reminding myself that that’s what I’ve chosen… forgiveness. Sometimes I need to remind myself I’ve chosen to forgive myself, and sometimes it’s someone else. Maybe one day I won’t need to, maybe one day I won’t even think about it… maybe, maybe not. All I know is, evidence of a healthy life is not one that is undisturbed by past or present hurts. Evidence of a healthy life is feeling all that life has to offer, even when it disturbs us, finding the balance between neither avoiding the pain nor being consumed by it.

I’ll admit, sometimes I still need to hide under the covers and not be so “on,” and sometimes I need to just suck it up and get a move on. There’s no blanket formulas, every day is different, and I’m learning more and more to choose to show up in that day… just as I am… forgiven and able to forgive.

Stand Your Sacred Ground

Joining a yoga class in Southern Tennessee looks a lot different than Southern California. For starters, bread. It’s often the topic of conversation in my Tennessee class, everyone salivating while in side plank. Apparently there’s a bakery in town called “The Bread Basket” that not only serves up amazing bread, but decadent pastries. Our teacher listed out each one she tried over the weekend, the cheesecake brownie not being her favorite, but it was in front of her so she ate it anyway.

“My husband does that,” a middle aged woman called out as we switched from right side plank to left, “I don’t get it, how can you eat something you hate?”

“Hate is a strong word,” Joe, a middle aged man transplanted from Chicago, yelled out from the other side of the room, “No one said they hated it, just that it wasn’t the best… but I agree, if it was just sitting there in from of me, I’d eat it too.” Most of the class agreed, and the teacher stood her ground as well, not just in side plank but in the cheesecake brownie, “if it’s just sitting there looking at you, you can’t not eat it.”

“So JJ,” Joe says, addressing me since I’m the newest person to the studio, “you’ll start to notice the only thing we talk about here is food.” I laughed, “Oh I did notice,” I said, “and I love it. In California all they eat is tree bark!” The whole class laughed and I remember thinking that felt better than most of the stretches I’d just done.

“You’re right!” Joe yelled as he pointed at me, “out there on the west coast, I went a few years ago, beautiful resort, all they served us was twigs and berries, I was like ‘where’s all the food? You call this a buffet?'” I laughed at Joe’s very obvious Chicago accent that he says “has gotten better” since living in the South. “The best class of all is next,” Joe says as he rolls up his mat, “my favorite class… lunch!”

The ladies all agreed, one mentioning she was trying to avoid Taco Bell and may have to swing by Zaxby’s instead. “See ya later, California,” Joe said to me as we walked to our cars, “see ya, Chicago!”

When class ended I thought about how funny it was to intermittently talk about bread and cheesecake brownies the entire time. That would never happen in a California yoga class, I thought to myself, and I laughed as I mimicked the conversation the whole drive home.

I love that my Tennessee yoga class is an older group of people who are trying to take care of their bodies, but can’t quite bring themselves to give up bread. As Joe says, “it’s a classic!” I hid the fact that I was gluten-free so as not to elicit any groans or typical questions like “what’s a gluten anyway?” I do enjoy finding really good gluten-free bread, but it’s just never going to sound as good as the more simply put “bread.” Joe’s right, it’s a classic.

To be honest, I thought my transition from California to Tennessee would be a lot harder. I miss the ocean and still feel it tugging at my heart from time to time, but knowing I have planned visits keeps me sane this far inland. Outside of that (no ocean), I really love it here. It’s more simple and laid back. The people are kind and not trying to compete with each other. The pressure I always felt to do more, be more, make more has gotten quieter. It’s not that I don’t feel it at all, but I feel it much less, and certainly not on a daily basis.

This past weekend I got to perform in a comedy club for the first time since COVID cleared my calendar two years ago. I was excited to get to perform in my new town, but also nervous because even though I now call Chattanooga “my town,” I’m the new kid on the block. Deep down, I didn’t yet feel the right to call it my town, but also deep down was the desire for the neighbors to welcome me in and affirm I’m home.

I worked Thursday, Friday and Saturday writing, editing, crafting and reciting my 10 minute set. Three days of work, all for ten minutes.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to be received by the crowd, no “unknown” comedian ever really is. That’s currently what I’m called in the entertainment industry, “unknown,” whether for writing or comedy or art, it’s always the same response to any submission I turn in… “being an unknown, we can’t risk not having a guaranteed audience.” My favorite was from a publisher who said, “your writing is strong and stories are relatable, but being an unknown, I’m not sure who would care to read your work.”

Yea. That one stung a little.

So in order to become known, you can’t be an unknown? Did we all not start somewhere? I hear older comedians or even musicians complain about how easy kids have it these days to make it big, “we didn’t have social media,” they say, “we had to do real work out on the road.” Though social media has given comedians and musicians an easier platform, it’s also given everyone an easier platform, making the market so saturated that the standard to be noticed is a minimum of 300,000 followers (and that’s for an “unknown”).

With people scrolling and swiping through content so fast, it’s less about talent and more about statistics– most of those stats being your social media following and what you can already bring to the table aside from your talent.

But! I was given a shot this weekend. Without having a huge following in this particular area, The Comedy Catch in downtown Chattanooga took a chance on me. Okay, they actually had me audition, but it was in front of a live audience, in the hopes of getting booked as a headliner in the future. That’s good enough for me and all the chance I need!

I’m not sure how to describe it other than I felt like I had finally found my people. The crowd was electric! And as I navigated through my transition to Tennessee, growing up Southern Baptist and surviving middle school, it seemed the audience had been through it all as they keeled over in laughter; almost making me forget what I was going to say next because I was caught so off guard by the volume of their laughter. The show went so well the club asked me to stay and perform for the late show which I was not originally scheduled for.

While that sounds like a dream, I almost said no because I had not mentally processed performing twice in one night. I get anxious easily and I was feeling so good after the first show that the thought of performing again made me nervous… again. Plus what if I didn’t do as well? I wanted to end on a high note.

It’s funny how I can complain about not being given a shot and then as soon as I get one, I realize how late it is and how much more comfortable my bed sounds. Josh encouraged me to stay for the second show, “I really think you’d kill it twice,” he said. I nervously agreed, and he was right- I realize unknowns probably aren’t supposed to say this, but I killed… twice.

I was flying high on adrenaline Saturday night and well into Sunday evening. But so it goes with entertainment that by Monday I was starting back over, submitting footage to clubs, asking to get booked, only to be met with the same term, “unknown.” The higher you ride on the adrenaline, the harder the fall when you come crashing back down to reality. Even now I feel like a total basket case, the paranoid kind that Green Day sang about in the 90s: “Do you have the time to listen to me whine, about nothing and everything all at once?” My mind playing tricks on me… I killed, right?

I had to remind myself that just because I worked up the nerve to perform two back to back sets (and kill both of them), it didn’t mean every club in America needed to line up to book me, though sometimes it feels like they should. I pulled out my journal this morning and noticed a quote I had written in it last year by Brene Brown, “Don’t shrink back. Don’t puff up. Stand your scared ground.”

“Yep,” I said out loud, responding as if Brene had just said it to me, “I didn’t shrink back this weekend, I showed up! And then I think I puffed up.” Which is why I was feeling so discouraged, it was the puff deflating, reminding me I still have work to do. “Now to live in the tension of the two,” I said, “neither shrinking or puffing.” I took a deep breath and laid on my sacred ground that is the bed, “I just gotta keep plugging away.”

I checked my email and received two more rejections. “Don’t shrink back,” I whispered.

And now, on with day…

Stand your sacred ground.

———————–

*As a Tennessee resident, I’m trying to book shows here, so if you live in the Nashville area and would possibly like to see me perform live, please consider emailing Zanies Nashville at boxoffice@zanies.com and request JJ Barrows as a comedian. Clubs only book who people want to see, which more often than not translates to… “knowns.”

**Or if you have a club or theater anywhere in your area, please consider emailing them and requesting JJ Barrows as a comedian. The audience holds way more power than the comedian does.

***Should I hear from Zanies or any club in your area, I promise not to puff up!