What the La Brea Tar Pits taught me about forgiveness

My son, he’s five, wants to be a paleontologist. What five-year-old boy doesn’t dig dinosaurs? Actually, he revised his ideal job description to be a paleontologist-artist, and I might have been a little overjoyed about the artist part, but I tried hard not to let on. Anyhow, he asked to go on a dinosaur dig. Dinosaur fossils are in short supply in our area and the nearest dig I could find was in Wyoming in the summer and required us to go along (um, a day digging in rock-hard dirt on a flat expanse in Wyoming under the blazing summer sun for hundreds of dollars? No thank you). So, I took him to the next best thing, or the only real option in the area, the La Brea Tar Pits.

I was in a mood that day. I’d tried to put on a good face, tried not get annoyed when all he wanted to do was run a fast loop around the Page Museum to get to the store so he could extort over-priced trinkets out of me. I tried to sound chipper when I said, “Well, I guess this is all there is. Why don’t we check outside?” But, the truth is, I was in a funk.

A few days before, I’d listened to Marianne Williamson’s A RETURN TO LOVE. In it, she mentions the need to forgive someone for standing her up. It occurred to me that I was overflowing with forgiveness opportunities (and, as a result of the weight of them, drowning in self-induced misery). She opted to say, “I forgive you and I release it to the Holy Spirit,” or something along those lines every time her anger flashed or her hurt jabbed and twisted. Easy enough, I thought. I was raised Catholic, so the Holy Spirit vernacular wasn’t necessarily a problem for me, but I did a more general, “I release it to you,” because I’m still swimming through the depths of what I believe.

For anyone who’s started a spiritual practice like this, it should come as no surprise that each moment a new opportunity to declare my forgiveness and release it all came my way. It was like popcorn. Bitter, muck-covered, movie theater popcorn that had been on the ground for months and trampled by countless dirty shoes. 

Day 1, I tried to handle each one with a smile. Oh, hello there, I’ve been expecting youI’d say in my mind, much like Schmidt on THE NEW GIRL would say. Seriously, it’s his voice in my head.


GIF viahttp://schmidtappreciationsociety.tumblr.com/page/2. How awesome is it that there’s a Schmidt Appreciation Society?

By day 2, I was getting sucked under. See, the thing with opening yourself up to forgiveness is that it’s not just recent things you have to forgive. Sure, those ones you could see coming because you’ve been feeding those wounds and nurturing them for days, weeks, months, and they are top of mind.

What you might not see coming is a decade-old popcorn kernel that got stuffed down into the bottom of your purse and now it’s seeking its liberation. You’d completely forgotten it existed. And then you open the door and say, “Come on, it’s a party! Everyone’s welcome!” And no one loves a party like an old, festering, popcorn kernel (gross, yes, but I didn’t want to switch metaphors just yet since I’m about to do that in a minute). And they all pop up. Most of all, you get the batches of popcorn that are all about forgiving yourself. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I didn’t expect those ones to far outweigh the others. So that was a surprise. An unpleasant, definitely not tasty surprise.

Day 3 had me brooding at the La Brea Tar Pits. My son and I walked outside and found what he was looking for – the actual tar pits. I sat down on a bench in one of the observation stations while he looked down into the pit and yelled to me that there were markers for things far below the surface. I slowly got up and walked over and stared down in to the black mass and couldn’t imagine being able to find anything in there. Every so often, a bubble would rise to the surface.

And that’s when it hit me. This forgiveness practice I’d started had me feeling like an animal stuck below the surface in the tar pits. I had hoped it would release me and each time I thought, That has got to be the end if it, something else bubbled to the surface. (Apparently I’d held on to an awful lot.) But it wasn’t the practice of acknowledging and releasing the things that trapped me under the surface. It was my grasping at the stories I’d told myself about each of those situations, or about their rising again after I’d forgotten them. It was the need to feel liberated and happy after starting this practice. It was my expectation that this was my ticket to unbounded joy and bliss.

This was a while ago and I’m happy to report, I’m not drowning in it all anymore. That doesn’t mean that I don’t daily have to say, “I forgive you and I release it.” That still happens. Often. And I still tend to be the one I am forgiving the most (aren’t we all the stars of our own drama?). But I don’t feel trapped by it. I can see how this loosening of the desire to hold people accountable for mistakes they may not have even realized or intended to make will allow me to escape the tar pit of resentment and righteous indignation. Even if they did intend to hurt me, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about me. Moreover, as Lewis B. Smedes so eloquently put it, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to discover that prisoner was you.”

It’s also is a way of making me more mindful about my own behavior without shaming myself for my misdeeds. This is another easy trap to fall into, and, again, it comes back to the stories we tell ourselves about our actions and the actions of others. 

I heard it said recently that enlightenment is destruction. It feels that way to me. My process has me feeling a lot like this wooly mammoth, actually. (The one in the muck, not the bystanders on the sidelines.)

It requires us to tear up the fabric of how we view ourselves and others, of the way we view connections and lack of connection. And even though those old stories and the grasping to a way we know doesn’t suit us anymore hurt, those things are familiar and we cling. Or at least I do. Sometimes the ego just SO wants to be right. I have to pull her in close, kiss her forehead, and say, “I KNOW! But we don’t know what’s going on there and being right isn’t lashing out or holding on to it.”

Given all I got out of that trip, I no longer begrudge the $30 photo of my son and me. (I wanted the photo, I just didn’t know it was going to cost $30.) And I’m trying very hard not to begrudge anything else. I’d like to fully emerge from the muck one day and be one of those mammoths on the side.

4 comments on “What the La Brea Tar Pits taught me about forgiveness

  1. Huh.
    My post on the tar pits is 100% completely opposite. It is about not forgiving. It is about holding a grudge for 30 years. It is about a mother who was NOT like you; she did NOT take her wannabe paleontological child to CA to see bones and tar and plants.
    See? https://006point7ekgo.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/was-boring-code-for-a-sort-of-fun-you-will-never-know/

    I fear you are going to get a lot further in life in most of us. Ok, it’s not a fear; I am not afraid of this possibility at all, actually. You’re so … self-aware! There’s so much realization in you. I never remember to work on myself or to try to be a bigger, better, stronger person. And that is why when I am old and doddering, I’m going to ask you to take care of me because I will be a pruney, bitter little shrew and you will be a strong, compassionate, Buddha-like person and you will feel compelled to help me because you’re good and I’m old and feeble. So keep working on yourself…so I can use you later! Mwahahaha!
    Man. I am evil. But you can forgive me, yes? >:D

  2. I believe that that photo of a emerging tar blob was where I lost my sandal when I was about ten years old. I live within walking distance of the pits, and I’ve spent a lot of time speculating, wondering and trying to wrap my head around the fact that mammoths were probably walking through my apartment site hundreds of thousands of years ago.

    The Smedes quote is a stunner, and so true. So many miseries that we live through, are of our own making. Ego, shame, resentment – necessary in tiny proportions, but in the end they are our own wicked little creations.

    Boyfriend and I drive by that trio of mammoths quite often, and invariably he’ll shout: “What are you doing in there you silly mammoth – get out of there!” (I usually say that it’s probably the male that’s stuck – drunk and staggering home from a night of billiards and booze with the boys)

    • How am I just now seeing this comment? And how am I just now realizing how close we are? I’m about an hour from LA now (well, have been for the past 3 years).

      I can’t imagine being that close to the pits because I would be given over to those kinds of wonderings as well. As it is, I often look around and wonder what it was like before “civilization”. People lived in the caves I hike past. The sky here must have been such a brilliant blue before the Industrial Revolution and all that followed. I never really get back to the mammoths and the smilodons because I’m stuck in a more recent past. It is such an unbelievable thing to contemplate.

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