I’ve always thought of myself as an adaptive organism. No matter what happened, I’d adapt. Regardless of circumstances, I’d always come out okay. This sort of thinking has given me permission to walk, unafraid, into the belly of the beast against all common sense, opposed to public disclaim, and only because it feels right. I’ve often told myself that I could and would recover from anything. I’d learn and I’d grow. I’d make the best of it. Everything horrible would one day, at worst, be a funny story and, at best, a learning experience.
I moved recently and, while packing, I came across collections of various papers such as documents, cards, and letters piled arbitrarily into cookie tins and frayed shoe boxes. A process that should have taken 45 seconds at most (i.e. move piles of papers from boxes A, B, and C to box D) turned into a two-day emotion festival. There were tears, paper was torn, and suddenly music by angsty metal bands from the late nineties seemed really, truly meaningful.
At the end of it all, I began to feel a swelling feeling of peace as I realized that I was in the midst of a radical change—moving from the old to something new and beautiful. I felt like I was saying goodbye to old friends, old interests, and old loves and saying hello to my new, fresh, clean life full of hope, joy, and love. I felt really inspired.
My partner was helping me pack and, being the wonderful man he is, showing interest in all my stories even after I’m sure he lost track of how all the different characters in my life weaved together. I showed him all my pictures, letters, and cards. I found a lot of poems from my ex. I sorted through them and decided to keep just one, for memories. It was the first poem he had ever written for me. At the end of the day, he had done all sorts of things that I found it difficult to forgive him for. Post-breakup, I found this poem and suddenly saw him in a different light. The poem gave me instant forgiveness. I realized that he had the best intentions. The poem was a representation to me of the goodness in all people and the importance of forgiveness.
My partner asked to see it. I placed it in his hands and left for a few minutes to get some more boxes. When I returned, he was in front of the computer. Immediately upon my entrance, he spun around with a funny look on his face.
“What?” I asked.
He continued to look at me, apparently in some sort of pain.
“What?” I repeated, confused.
He took a deep breath. He moved out of the way and gestured at the screen.
There it was. In curly black letters on a faded salmon background, there was the poem that captured my heart and gained my forgiveness. Right there on a blog by a 17-year-old girl from Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania. My heart dropped.
Upon further investigation, which of course took place, all the poems were plagiarized. Every letter. Every line. Every poem. Every word. Lies. Lies. Lies.
Anyone who’s felt it knows that feeling perfectly. That sick, itchy, slimy feeling in the base of your gut that you get when you’ve been lied to, cheated on, manipulated. It’s enough to send anyone running for the hills in search of guns, shields, and amo. For pretty much my whole life, that was exactly what I did. I was an adaptive organism, and I responded to harm and danger by learning to protect myself from those harmful and dangerous things in the future. I adapted to my environment. I learned to hold back what I gave, and I learned to check my expectations for what I would get in return. The word forgiveness wasn’t even in my vocabulary back then. I had allotted too much brain space for control, self-protection, and fury.
A few months ago, I was up north curled up in front of a fireplace in a log cabin on an especially windy evening when a visitor came who changed my life. She was a woman in her late forties who had recently battled breast cancer and won. She was intelligent, beautiful, and had the determined, fierce look of a survivor. She didn’t appear to be the sort of woman who would ever let herself be pushed around. We connected immediately.
Then, we talked about love.
She told me that her most profound discovery in the past few years was that, when it comes to love, it’s better to be naive. Our first loves were so powerful because, in those days, we didn’t protect ourselves, she said. We were open and unguarded against love. And that’s how we should stay. We look back on our naivety and, because we were hurt, we think we were stupid, so we try to play smart. Numbing ourselves and holding grudges isn’t smart, she said, it’s poisonous.
You have to love like you’ve never had your heart or your trust broken. Otherwise, you’ll never really trust again. Otherwise, you’ll never become vulnerable again. Otherwise, you’ll never really love again.
Love, she said, is an honor reserved for fools. Those special fools who keep on trying even though everything from the media to friends’ advice to personal experience tells them they should smarten up. What makes one foolish in most aspects of life makes one a master of love.
I had no idea at that time just how right she was.
I listened and nodded saying I understood, like we do when we first encounter advice we’re not ready for.
Sitting with those letters in my lap, wiping up my shame off the floor, my partner tried to console me, but I was just fuming. All of the forgiveness I’d felt for my ex was suddenly invalidated. I felt like the poem had helped me forgive, so if the poem was fake, then certainly my forgiveness was fake too.
I felt stupid. I felt manipulated. I thought, I’ve been such a fool. I knew, from helping him with his thesis, that my ex wasn’t a strong writer. I knew that he had only given me poems in the first year and then completely stopped. I knew that. The pieces all fit. But I was so foolish that I didn’t question it, dumb and naive. How could I be so stupid?
Then, I remembered the lady from up north.
I stared at the letters, suddenly realizing that forgiveness had nothing to do with him. Forgiveness isn’t something we do for other people. It’s something we do for ourselves. When we forgive, we give each other the peace of mind to continue loving each other. Without that state of mind, we can’t really love.
So I chose to learn nothing from those poems. I forgave and shrugged it off, wishing him well in his life, hoping that he’d one day feel comfortable and safe enough to communicate from his heart instead of hiding behind the words of others. I wished him peace and self-love.
The more I’ve allowed myself to trust and love blindly, foolishly, the happier I’ve become. I’ve realized that love comes from vulnerability, and you can’t be vulnerable if you’re afraid. The only way to not be afraid is to, as the wise lady up north said, play just a bit dumb when it comes to love.
At the end of the day, it’s not like I’ve changed that much. I’m still an adaptive organism. I’m just adapting my faith in the vast healing power of love to a world that sometimes seems so cruel, counterfeit, and devoid of hope. But I adapt. I keep believing and I keep loving. Into the belly of the beast. Only because it feels right.