I grew up learning that forgiveness comes from the Lord. So I spent a lot of years thinking about my internal sins—bad thoughts, selfishness, and rebellion—and felt thankful I could find internal absolution. “Dear Lord, forgive me for how I talked to my parents,” I might have prayed. But only in the last few months have I felt sorry for my external sins—wastefulness, entitlement, and gluttony—and sought absolution from the universe. “Why do I think I need so much food?” I think as I look in the fridge at all the bottles and plastic wrap. “Why haven’t I taken care of myself,” I think as I throw away a box of cigarettes and pull on my running shoes. Today I’m thankful that the universe is a forgiver, too.
I’m sitting on our front porch enjoying my complete lack of responsibility today. My feet are sweaty, my hair is unbrushed, and I probably need to be wearing deodorant. I don’t remember the last time I read my bible or said a prayer. I’m not a star human being. I’m not a model citizen. I make a lot of mistakes. And as the cool afternoon breeze whispers through the front yard, I’ll admit I’m more inclined to think about mowing the grass than I am adult, important things—like how I’m going to pay off student loans or who I’ll spend the rest of my life with. But somehow, despite how many things I fuck up or leave to chance, the universe hasn’t kicked me out. I still exist in a great many ways. I still get to make choices and breathe air and scratch my cat under her chin. I can refocus and try again, and that’s where absolution comes in.
When I go to yoga class on Tuesday nights, our instructor begins each class with a reminder to pick an intention. In the past I’ve focused on staying calm, staying balanced, or staying in poses a few seconds after I start to feel like I’m dying. Sometimes I just look at a crack in the wood floor until I forget that I’m trapped inside a body that is trying to breathe, trying to grow despite the years I’ve spent harming it with my carelessness. And as we move through the class and my body opens up to new positions and challenges, my intention whispers quietly to me, reminding me that I’m there for a reason. And that while I’m there, I should try hard to accomplish something contrary to what I normally am. And when my body begins to bend, I feel my spirit uncoil slowly and forgive.
As a part of apologizing to myself and the planet for the way I’ve lived, I recently and enthusiastically adopted a vegan lifestyle for both moral and health reasons. But change must necessarily happen slowly, and I’ve often gone through the last few weeks feeling tired and grumpy because of all the adjustments I’ve had to make to my shopping. And when I’m feeling sorry for myself (or even when I’m feeling a bit prideful for the courage to try something new) I think about the Five Pillars of Islam, and how one of them states that Muslims must fast every day during the month of Ramadan from sunrise to sundown. It’s a test of their faith, to see if they trust Allah to sustain and comfort them in times of need. And maybe it’s also a test of accountability—to think about how they have unjustly used food or other pleasures to meet needs they should have filled in other ways. I imagine them turning toward the holy city of Mecca, falling down on their faces, their lips moving in silent prayer, their hearts reflecting their desire to live differently. And then they stand up and try again.
All of us are looking for absolution and the strength to do better today and tomorrow and the next day. I see that in the jogger sweating his way down my street in the evenings and the parishioners walking into mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. We humans are self aware, rephrasing confusing sentences, apologizing for unintended harm. We speak to gods, cuddle with animals, gaze up at the stars in a universe bigger than we’ll ever comprehend. And I think as long as we do that, there is hope for our lives, hope that we won’t waste our time here and fail the lives nearest us. Maybe that starts with the food we eat, the things we refuse to consume, or how long we decide to hold ourselves in a posture that will momentarily hurt. But one thing’s for sure: even though we sin, the universe forgives.