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Against Self-Righteousness: Anne Lamott on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Relationship Between Brokenness and Joy

“We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — its immediacy.”

Against Self-Righteousness: Anne Lamott on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Relationship Between Brokenness and Joy

Few things in life are more seductive than the artificial sweetness of being capital-R Right — of “winning the narrative,” as my friend Amanda likes to say. This delicious doom and glory of being Right — which is, of course, a matter of feeling rather than being it — tends to involve framing our emotional triggers as moral motives, then thundering them upon those we cast in the role of the Wrong, who may do the same in turn.

How, amid this ping-pong of righteousness grenades, do we maintain not only a clear-minded and pure-hearted relationship with reality, but also forgiveness and respect for others, which presuppose self-forgiveness and self-respect — the key to unlatching the essential capacity for joy that makes life worth living?

That is what the wise and wonderful Anne Lamott considers with uncommon self-awareness and generosity of insight throughout Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (public library) — the small, enormously soul-salving book that gave us Lamott on love, despair, and our capacity for change.

Anne Lamott

Lamott writes:

When we are stuck in our convictions and personas, we enter into the disease of having good ideas and being right… We think we have a lock on truth, with our burnished surfaces and articulation, but the bigger we pump ourselves up, the easier we are to prick with a pin. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to see the earth under our feet.

We all know the horror of having been Right with a capital R, feeling the surge of a cause, whether in politics or custody disputes. This rightness is so hot and steamy and exciting, until the inevitable rug gets pulled out from under us. Then we get to see that we almost never really know what is true, except what everybody else knows: that sometimes we’re all really lonely, and hollow, and stripped down to our most naked human selves.

It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.

To let go of the tightly held convictions that keep us small, separate, and severed from the richness of life is to let the ego — the gallows on which our beliefs and identity hang — dissolve into an awareness of shared being, or what the poet Diane Ackerman called “the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.” Half a century after Bertrand Russell asserted that the key to growing old contentedly is to “make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Lamott writes:

What comforts us is that, after we make ourselves crazy enough, we can let go inch by inch into just being here; every so often, briefly. There is flow everywhere in nature — glaciers are just rivers that are moving really, really slowly — so how could there not be flow in each of us? Or at least in most of us? When we detach or are detached by tragedy or choice from the tendrils of identity, unexpected elements feed us. There is weird food in the flow, like the wiggly bits that birds watch for in tidal channels. Protein and greens are obvious food, but so is buoyancy, when we don’t feel as mired in the silt of despair.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau.

From this recognition of the shared flow of existence — the wellspring of what the poet Lucille Clifton called “the bond of live things everywhere” — arises a calm universal compassion, which becomes the mightiest antidote to self-righteousness. Lamott writes:

Almost everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, and yet designed for joy. Even (or especially) people who seem to have it more or less together are more like the rest of us than you would believe. I try not to compare my insides to their outsides, because this makes me much worse than I already am, and if I get to know them, they turn out to have plenty of irritability and shadow of their own. Besides, those few people who aren’t a mess are probably good for about twenty minutes of dinner conversation.

This is good news, that almost everyone is petty, narcissistic, secretly insecure, and in it for themselves, because a few of the funny ones may actually long to be friends with you and me. They can be real with us, the greatest relief.

As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time, we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves, too.

Illustration by Japanese artist Komako Sakai for a special edition of The Velveteen Rabbit

Only by coming to terms with our own brokenness, Lamott suggests, can we build from the pieces a temple of joy — a state of being that is almost countercultural today, one which Lamott defines as “a slightly giddy appreciation, an inquisitive stirring, as when you see the first crocuses, the earliest struggling, stunted emergence of color in late winter, cream or gold against the tans and browns.” With an eye to the miracle of joy in a world so imperfect and strewn with suffering, she writes:

This is how most of us are — stripped down to the bone, living along a thin sliver of what we can bear and control, until life or a friend or disaster nudges us into baby steps of expansion. We’re all both irritating and a comfort, our insides both hard and gentle, our hearts both atrophied and pure.

How did we all get so screwed up? Putting aside our damaged parents, poverty, abuse, addiction, disease, and other unpleasantries, life just damages people. There is no way around this. Not all the glitter and concealer in the world can cover it up. We may have been raised in the illusion that if we played our cards right, life would work out. But it didn’t, it doesn’t.

[…]

Even with the Internet, deciphering the genetic code, and great advances in immunotherapy, life is frequently confusing at best, and guaranteed to be hard and weird and sad at times… We witness and try to alleviate others’ suffering, but sometimes it just outdoes itself and we are left gasping, groaning. And running through it all there is the jangle, both the machines outside and the chattering treeful of monkeys inside us.

Lamott reflects on the improbable relationship between brokenness and joy:

The lesson here is that there is no fix. There is, however, forgiveness. To forgive yourselves and others constantly is necessary. Not only is everyone screwed up, but everyone screws up.

How can we know all this, yet somehow experience joy? Because that’s how we’re designed — for awareness and curiosity. We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — its immediacy.

Art by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

More than a century after Alice James — Henry and William James’s brilliant, underappreciated sister — observed from her deathbed that “[this] is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Lamott adds:

We see this toward the end of many people’s lives, when everything in their wasted bodies fights to stay alive, for a few more kisses or bites of ice cream, one more hour with you. Life is still flowing through them: life is them.

[…]

That’s magic, or the human spirit, or hope — whatever you want to call it — to captivate, to share contented time.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly splendid Almost Everything: Notes on Hope with Joan Didion on learning not to mistake self-righteousness for morality and Ann Patchett on why self-forgiveness is the pillar of art, then revisit Lamott on friendship, finding meaning in a mad world, how perfectionism kills creativity, and her magnificent manifesto for handling haters.

BP

Anne Lamott on Love, Despair, and Our Capacity for Change

“We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.”

Anne Lamott on Love, Despair, and Our Capacity for Change

We go through life seeing reality not as it really is, in its unfathomable depths of complexity and contradiction, but as we hope or fear or expect it to be. Too often, we confuse certainty for truth and the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence. When we collide with the unexpected, with the antipode to our hopes, we are plunged into bewildered despair. We rise from the pit only by love. Perhaps Keats had it slightly wrong — perhaps truth is love and love is truth.

That is what Anne Lamott, one of the rare sages of our time, reminds us with equal parts humility, humor, and largehearted wisdom in Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (public library).

Anne Lamott

Lamott writes in the prelude:

In general, it doesn’t feel like the light is making a lot of progress. It feels like death by annoyance. At the same time, the truth is that we are beloved, even in our current condition, by someone; we have loved and been loved. We have also known the abyss of love lost to death or rejection, and that it somehow leads to new life. We have been redeemed and saved by love, even as a few times we have been nearly destroyed, and worse, seen our children nearly destroyed. We are who we love, we are one, and we are autonomous.

She turns to the greatest paradox of the human heart — our parallel capacities for the perpendiculars of immense love and immense despair:

Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.

So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks?

We just do.

To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.

Illustration by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

And yet, in the wreckage of this hardship, we find our most redemptive potentialities:

There is the absolute hopelessness we face that everyone we love will die, even our newborn granddaughter, even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth, miracles, and resurrection. Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope. Yet no matter how much we recycle, believe in our Priuses, and abide by our local laws, we see that our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day. Fear, against all odds, leads to community, to bravery and right action, and these give us hope.

In a sentiment that calls to mind what psychologists call “the vampire problem” — the limiting loop by which we fail to imagine transformation because the very faculty doing the imagining can only be informed by the already transformed self — Lamott adds:

We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.

Nothing keeps us from changing more than our tendency — our willingness — to remain locked into versions of ourselves, into personae and identities barred in by heavy leaden rods of self-righteousness. Too often, we’d rather be right than understand — ourselves or others or the world — but it is only understanding, which only grows by leaps and bounds of wrong guesses and failed theories, that firms our grasp of reality.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Lamott addresses this tragic self-limitation in the opening essay, titled “Puzzles.” With an eye to “the fleecy cloak we’ve made for ourselves, the finery of being right,” she writes:

When we are stuck in our convictions and personas, we enter into the disease of having good ideas and being right… We think we have a lock on truth, with our burnished surfaces and articulation, but the bigger we pump ourselves up, the easier we are to prick with a pin. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to see the earth under our feet.

Half a century after Joan Didion reflected on learning not to mistake self-righteousness for morality, Lamott adds:

We all know the horror of having been Right with a capital R, feeling the surge of a cause, whether in politics or custody disputes. This rightness is so hot and steamy and exciting, until the inevitable rug gets pulled out from under us. Then we get to see that we almost never really know what is true, except what everybody else knows: that sometimes we’re all really lonely, and hollow, and stripped down to our most naked human selves.

It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.

My hand-drawn map based on Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Utopia”

The problem, of course, is that truth remains slippery, making our entire existence a giant slipping slide into what the poet Wisława Szymborska called “unfathomable life.” Still, somehow, we slip and slide and get by. We swim through the world, fragile and disoriented, buoyed only by love, transformed only by love.

Nearly a century and a half after Nietzsche considered truth and lies in a nonmoral sense, Lamott writes:

Scientists say we are made of stars, and I believe them, although my upper arms look like hell. Maybe someday the stars will reabsorb me. Maybe, as fundamentalist Christians have shared with me, I will rot in hell for all eternity, which I would hate, because I am very sensitive. Besides, I have known hell, and I have also known love. Love was bigger.

What comforts us is that, after we make ourselves crazy enough, we can let go inch by inch into just being here; every so often, briefly. There is flow everywhere in nature — glaciers are just rivers that are moving really, really slowly — so how could there not be flow in each of us? Or at least in most of us? When we detach or are detached by tragedy or choice from the tendrils of identity, unexpected elements feed us. There is weird food in the flow, like the wiggly bits that birds watch for in tidal channels. Protein and greens are obvious food, but so is buoyancy, when we don’t feel as mired in the silt of despair.

Echoing philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s beautiful and discomfiting assertion that “to be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control,” Lamott adds:

How can we celebrate paradox, let alone manage at all, knowing how scary the future may be — that the baby brother will grow, and ignore you or hurt you or break your heart? Or that we may die, after an unattractive decline, or bomb North Korea later today? We remember that because truth is paradox, something beautiful is also going on. So while trusting that and waiting for revelation, we do the next right thing. We tell the truth. We march, make dinner, have rummage sales to raise relief funds. Whoever arranges such things keeps distracting us and shifting things around so we don’t get stuck in hopelessness: we can take one loud, sucking, disengaging step back into hope. We remember mustard seeds, that the littlest things will have great results. We do the smallest, realest, most human things. We water that which is dry.

Almost Everything is a buoyant read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning and Zadie Smith on optimism and despair, then revisit Lamott on forgiveness as the root of self-respect, how we find meaning in a crazy-making world, the greatest gift of friendship, how perfectionism kills creativity, and her superb manifesto for handling haters.

BP

Hallelujah Anyway: Anne Lamott on Reclaiming Mercy and Forgiveness as the Root of Self-Respect in a Vengeful World

“Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.”

Hallelujah Anyway: Anne Lamott on Reclaiming Mercy and Forgiveness as the Root of Self-Respect in a Vengeful World

There are certain words — large, beautiful, buoyant words — weighed down by a heavy religious inheritance that make the nonreligious among us uneasy. Soul is one of them — a word whose secular redemption is more needed than ever. (Redemption, it occurs to me, is another — one which David Foster Wallace successfully secularized.)

But hardly any word is more unnerving yet more urgently needed today than mercy — a word steeped in scripture yet almost biologically encoded into human nature; a word deceptive in its seeming softness, for beneath its surface radiance lurks a dark core: the very concept of mercy only exists because of and as a counterpoint to our capacity for cruelty. Mercy is the conscious choice to be kind when one can be cruel — without cruelty, there is no mercy.

This is why the redemptive and rebellious practice of mercy is so immensely needed today, in a world that serves us evidence of cruelty daily, and its practice is what Anne Lamott sets out to reclaim in Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy (public library) — a slim, powerful book about the ways in which we harden against life and the ways in which we can soften through forgiveness, kindness, and all those splendors of spirit which, in denying others, we deny ourselves.

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott

Lamott, the patron saint of our fallible humanity, writes:

There are times in our lives — scary, unsettling times — when we know that we need help or answers but we’re not sure what kind, or even what the problem or question is. We look and look, tearing apart our lives like we’re searching for car keys in our couch, and we come up empty-handed. Then when we’re doing something stupid, like staring at the dog’s mismatched paws, we stumble across what we needed to find. Or even better, it finds us. It wasn’t what we were looking or hoping for, which was usually advice, approval, an advantage, safety, or relief from pain. I was raised to seek or achieve them, but like everyone, I realized at some point that they do not bring lasting peace, relief, or uplift. This does not seem fair, after a lifetime spent in their pursuit.

In a testament to how trauma muffles our senses and sensitivity, she considers our greatest stumbling block to mercy and forgiveness. Echoing the beautiful opening lines of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness”“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing” — Lamott writes:

We’re so often rattled by lingering effects of trauma and paralyzing fear.

At first glance, they seem inextricable. Trauma, which is sorted differently in the brain than memory, seeps out of us as warnings of worse to come. Our self-centered fears whisper at us all day: our fear of exposure, of death, and that we will lose those we love most, that we will lose whatever advantage we hold, whatever meager gains we’ve made. We live in terror that our butts will show and people will run from us, screaming.

But let’s say we believe that mercy and forgiveness are in fact foundational, innate, what we are grown from and can build on; also that they are hard to access because of these traumas and fears. What if we know that forgiveness and mercy are what heal and restore and define us, that they are the fragrance that the rose leaves on the heel that crushes it?

What makes Lamott’s writing so wonderful is that her deep and nuanced wisdom comes not from a preachy place but from intimate contact with her own unconcealed human imperfection, which she acknowledges with unselfconscious lucidity and, in the act of acknowledging it, alleviates our own self-consciousness about the myriad small-spirited, begrudging tendencies by which we fall so woefully short of our ideal selves.

Once again extending that supreme “me, too” gift of unjudgmental recognition, Lamott writes:

So why today is it absolutely all I can do to extend mercy to myself for wanting to nip an annoying relative’s heel like a river rat? Forget extending mercy to this relative, who has so messed with me and my son — she doesn’t even know she needs my mercy. She thinks she is fierce and superior, while I believe she secretly ate her first child. Horribly, she is perfectly fine. I’m the one who needs mercy — my mercy. The need for this, for my own motley mercy, underpinned most of my lifelong agitation, my separation from life itself.

[…]

I came here with a huge open heart, like a big, sweet dog, and I still have one. But some days the only thing that can cheer me up is something bad happening to someone I hate, preferably if it went viral and the photo of the person showed hair loss and perhaps the lifelong underuse of sunscreen. My heart still leaps to see this. I often recall the New Yorker cartoon of one dog saying to the other: “It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.” This is the human condition.

Mercy, Lamott observes, can be difficult to conceive of, much less practice, in a world rife with “Rwanda, Nixon, ISIS, malaria, your father, and your wife’s god-awful sister, and what children did to you or your own kids in the playground.” And yet the musculature of mercy, she suggests, is what holds erect the skeleton of our humanity. She writes:

Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten.

[…]

Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves — our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice. It includes everything out there that just makes us sick and makes us want to turn away, the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

With an eye to a central ambivalence of the human condition — the same ambivalence that accounts for the fact that “we are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us,” as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor have memorably observed — Lamott writes:

Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all. Do you want this, or do you want to be right? Well, can I get back to you on that?

I want to want this softening, this surrender, this happiness. Can I get a partial credit for that? The problem is, I love to be, and so often am, right. It’s mood-altering, and it covers up a multitude of sins… I know justice and believing that you’re right depend on cold theological and legal arguments where frequently there is no oxygen, but honestly I don’t mind this. I learned to live in thin air as a small child.

Reflecting on the tumultuous and traumatic environment of her childhood home, she adds:

I can be a hero in my storm, which is where I found a sense of value as a child, as the tense little EMT in a damaged family. Crisis, self-centered fear, and saving people were home for me, with a wet bar serving up adrenaline. The quiet, tranquil room of just being was boarded up. But love reaches out and reaches out and reaches out. It is staggering that it is always giving me another chance, another day, over and over and over.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Joan Didion’s abiding assertion that “character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Lamott returns to mercy and its irrepressible resilience even in the most battered of spirits:

When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves, we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp. It gives us the chance to rediscover something both old and original, the sweet child in us who, all evidence to the contrary, was not killed off, but just put in the drawer. I realize now how desperately, how grievously, I have needed the necessary mercy to experience self-respect. It is what a lot of us were so frantic for all along, and we never knew it. We’ve tried almost suicidally for our whole lives to shake it from the boughs of the material world’s trees. But it comes from within, from love, from the flow of the universe; from inside the cluttered drawer.

Complement the thoroughly fantastic Hallelujah Anyway with Lamott on how perfectionism kills creativity, the greatest gift of friendship, how we endure with sanity in a crazy world, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing, then revisit Ta-Nehisi Coates on choosing kindness over fear and Carl Sagan on meeting ignorance with compassion.

BP

Anne Lamott on the Life-Giving Power of Great Teachers

“All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life.”

“You try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone,” the great civil rights leader John Lewis insisted. A century earlier, Helen Keller, a supreme optimist of the human spirit, asserted that “the highest result of education is tolerance.” It can be said, then, that if we are bent on building an ennobled world of dignity for all, nowhere is the urgency of not giving up on any human being greater than in education.

That’s what Anne Lamott explores in a beautiful passage from Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library) — the miraculous little book that gave us Lamott on how we endure with sanity in a crazy world and the essential difference between routine and ritual.

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott

Lamott writes:

People who teach others to read or to navigate a library, who don’t give up on slow or challenged students, will get the best seats in heaven. I don’t know a lot, but I know this to be true.

My brother teaches special education at a local high school. I think he will be seated near the Godiva chocolate fountain on the other side of eternity. Our father taught English and writing to the prisoners at San Quentin in the fifties and sixties. All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life — a person with hope of a better story, who has allies, and can read.

Echoing Parker Palmer’s luminous wisdom on education as a spiritual practice, Lamott adds:

To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It’s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin.

You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch — teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte’s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you’re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning.

Complement this fragment of the wholly magnificent Stitches with John Dewey on the proper purpose of education, Nietzsche on its true value, and the beautiful letter of gratitude Albert Camus sent to his childhood teacher shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, then revisit Lamott on how perfectionism kills creativity, the greatest gift of friendship, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing.

BP

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