A therapist once put down her notebook, recrossed her legs and said to me, “You have an extraordinarily high tolerance for the intolerable,” and I thought, “I do? Cool! But wait! Is that a good thing?”
When I was 10, and my parents’ marriage was failing, they sent me to summer camp at River Valley Ranch. Horses, Jesus, and cowboys were the competing stars of this rodeo. A non-denominational Christian camp, I’m pretty sure my mother imagined it would be a wholesome environment while providing equestrian entertainment and she was right. For two weeks, we attended chapel in a rustic barn three times a day and rode horses every afternoon. The highlight of our experience was the trail ride and overnight campout where we sang about Jesus while roasting hotdogs on sticks around a campfire until they plumped, glistened, and split dripping into the flames. I was one of about forty-five 10-year-old girls livin’ the dream.
The day of the big campout we were riding single file, the winsome cowboy counselor with the dimples ahead of me by about 8 horses, when my horse, a chestnut mare, stopped in her tracks and without warning, went down on her side and rolled belly up! Right over the saddle.
Miraculously, I was able to step out of the stirrups before being crushed. I stood there in the purple chicory on the dusty side of the trail as she got her feet under her again and continued along the path.
I don’t think she looked at me as I scrambled back on but now, she was totally into it—like it was Fire Prevention Week and she was demonstrating stop, drop and roll. This went on for hours. It was my new norm. I said nothing. The riders behind me murmured quietly, their horses swaying along like a convoy of docile ships, rocked by a gentle current. I’d feel her start to lean, I’d slip my sneakers out of the stirrups and step off just as she crashed, crushed, and rolled. It was actually quite a coordinated ballet now that I think about it.
So, I did what I do, what a lot of us do who harbor a high tolerance for the intolerable. I normalized something unacceptable because I perceived the horse’s need, and the need of my fellow campers, was greater than my own.
Oh, and I didn’t write home about it. My mother had a lot on her mind. Her need too, was greater than mine.
I had done the same thing in second grade. Barbara, a scrappy classmate who was no bigger than I but who possessed the inexplicable motives of my horse, would slip up behind me just before the Pledge of Allegiance, wrap her little hands around my neck and do her best to choke the life out of me. I don’t know what went on in Barbara’s homelife, but I thought it would be impolite to resist since maybe Barbara needed to strangle me. Mrs. Ballman, our teacher, would hear the small scuffle, (me struggling for air), glance up from her lesson planner, and sigh, “Oh Barbara! Not again! Stop strangling Laura!” I mean those were her exact words! “Stop strangling Laura.” Who does that? I didn’t tell my mother. She had a lot on her mind, and yes, I’m starting to see a theme here.
Then there was Paige Williams, also at Lake Shore Elementary. Paige was a pale, thin redhead with a menacing spatter of freckles across her narrow face.
About twice a week Paige would sidle up to me as I bounced down the school bus steps in the morning and whisper, “I’m going to beat you up after school today.” No explanation as to why, what I’d done. Since I didn’t know her, we were not in the same grade, did not live in the same neighborhood, and were never on the playground at the same time, I don’t know to this day what inspired her.
I’m staring in the mirror right now. I don’t know. Maybe I can see it.
What I do know is I didn’t do anything about it. I hope I didn’t say, “Ok” but I might have. I did however, live in fear of how I was going to get safely to my bus every afternoon. Never mentioned it to Mom. You know why.
The thing is that because I wasn’t mad at Barbara, Paige, or my horse, it never crossed my mind that I could simply say, “Not okay.” I think maybe I had learned that you only set limits if you are angry when in fact you set limits because you’re whole. Yeah, I’m laughing too.
But I do see people around me who are capable of this and I’m in awe, intrigued and okay, a little squeamish when this is demonstrated in my presence.
I’ve noticed, however, that you can do for someone more vulnerable what you can’t do for yourself. I may have had to let Barbara strangle me because it would be rude to resist, but had she been strangling someone else, I know in my second-grade heart I would have thrown myself into the breach, spun it up, been a fierce little brave-heart. And had she mistreated a dog? Well.
The narrative at the ranch was that my fellow cowgirls and I were deeply flawed and in need of forgiveness—like major scale forgiveness—like divine from-the-sky-forgiveness and we had been from the get-go. As if we’d been born with some kernel of innate worth that we’d blown upon arrival.
The call to confess was contagious as we gathered every evening for chapel. The music made young hearts soar, dissolving boundaries. Our beguiling cowboy counselors gave testimony. I was so in need of a good father, a cowboy Jesus, I couldn’t resist. On the last night, at the last possible opportunity, I answered the altar call. I knelt among other bright-eyed, tender ten-year-olds. Looking back, I wonder if I thought Jesus’s need was greater than mine.
But deeply, intuitively, I couldn’t reconcile the narrative I was being offered with the memory I still had. Because I could remember what I was feeling and thinking shortly after said arrival–before I could verbalize thoughts. And I remember wanting to help, to serve, and only to love and be loved at the core of my two-year-old heart. Which must have been the same heart beating in my second-grade chest and behind my ten-year-old breastbone —and surely that heart beats in me now.
I know it beats in you.
So. A book I’m reading says try believing not that you must be forgiven, but that you did nothing wrong. What?? you ask, immediately resisting that notion. How arrogant, how in denial, how unaccountable! How lacking in humility. Any original innocence is a ship that’s sailed.
But stay in your curiosity for a minute—try it on for size if you can. You’re a storyteller. Tell yourself this story. Life is an unfolding plan. Let go of your need to discipline yourself and judge others. Let go of the notion of schoolhouse earth, of love and forgiveness as earned commodities, available upon request, or even as gifts freely given.
Imagine that in ways you cannot fully understand now, you did nothing wrong. Is there any way this could possibly be true?
What if there were no options on the menu? The only selection open to you was the best you could do at any one time, operating from the highest form of consciousness you had access to.
Matt Kahn, who threw this idea out there, and of course, it isn’t new, says take in that everyone in your life was doing the best they could do, from the highest point of awareness and growth they possessed at that time–even those who hurt you profoundly. And this was not without purpose.
“In order to be who I was born to become, life couldn’t have happened any other way,” he says.
So, I try that idea on, too, just to see how it feels. Alone in my office I look out over the white roses on my desk at the puffy clouds drifting over the brick house across the street and I whisper, “In order to be who I was born to become, life couldn’t have happened any other way.”
That’s not an excuse, it’s a thought experiment. It’s a way of looking back over the trail that led you here, reviewing the conflicts, the losses, each and every relationship, to say had even one thing been different, had even one person or experience been missed, including an altar call, you would not be the person you were born to become.
Healing the world you cherish with your stories.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.