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I was sitting under a tree on a hillside in Southern France, staring into a lush green valley.  Idyllic? Peaceful?  Hardly.  I couldn’t see it.  I was fuming.  I was smoke-coming-out-of-my ears fuming.  Don’t-touch-me-I’ll-flatten-you fuming.  I-better-take-a-time-out-for-several-hours fuming.  (I was angry.)

The setting.  Taize, a spiritual retreat in France, run by brothers of various Christian denominations.
The cast.  A couple thousand people from all over the world speaking dozens of languages.
The routine.  Simple meals, assigned chores, meditation and chants five times a day, daily lessons given by the brothers.
The weather.  Beautiful sunny days, star-lit nights.  Just right for sleeping in tents.

The lesson had started out innocently enough.  A story I had heard many times.  Maybe something about neighbors or forgiveness.  I don’t know.  I can’t recall.  All I remember is the assignment.  Think of someone who wronged you, he said.  Find a quiet place by yourself and write a thank you letter to this person.


I had just come through what I still refer to as the worst year of my life, working for a maniac in an impossible situation that tested everything I thought I was.  And this brother who lives in a sheltered environment and knows nothing about the real world wanted me to write a thank you letter to that crazy person?  Really?  Who did he think he was?  What did he know about life on the outside?  NO.  I would NOT.  It was too personal.  It was too shattering.  There was no way in hell (could I say that there?) I would write a thank you letter.

I must have sat under that tree for an eternity.  Staring into space.  Empty pages in an empty journal.  Holding on to my anger.  Holding on to my pain.

Finally, a little niggle in my right hand.  My deepest thoughts come through my writing.  Through ink onto paper.  Not from my logical brain but from somewhere else.  Something wanted to come.  All right, all right.  BE the obedient student.  Take the pen in hand.  Open the journal.  See what happens with this stupid assignment.

Dear Person who tore me to shreds, stomped all over my self-esteem, chewed me up and spit me out in a very public way.  Thank you.  Thank you very much.

I had begun. So there.  More time passed.

All right, all right.  I’ll quit with the sarcasm and take the assignment seriously.  I’ll BE the obedient student.  What do I have to lose?

Dear (______),
Thank you for all that you taught me this past year.  It was an extremely hard year.  I am glad it is over, but I wanted to take a few moments to think about it and to thank you for all that I learned.

And I wrote
and wrote
and wrote.

Page after page after page.  My guts spilled out on those pages.  Raw emotions.  Naked.  That’s what that experience felt like, like I had been exposed as the emperor with no clothes.  So how could everyone else just go on as if nothing had happened, as if the world continued to turn and the sun continued to rise?

This brother gave me a radical assignment: Thank someone who wronged you.  It was so dramatically different from the advice of others who said, “Let it go, forget it.”  When hurts are soul-deep, “let it go” is a band-aid on a gaping wound.  “Let it go” makes me think it is, once again, me who is lacking because I’m not able to add that injustice on top of injustice.  A cherry on top of a soured milkshake.  I knew I needed to let it go, but saying and doing are not synonymous. I have not been someone who easily lets go.  I tend towards analysis, judgment, justice, right, wrong.  I have held on to hurts as purple hearts to share and compare.  I have never thought to thank someone for hurts, slights and betrayals.  Why would I?  Why should I?

But that day, on a hillside in Southern France, a wise brother gave me a different lens to look through.  Not “How was I wronged?” but “What did I gain?  What did I learn?”  What I learned as I wrote and wrote and wrote was that the world did indeed continue to spin, the sun did continue to rise.  Like Humpty Dumpty I had been shattered, and it wasn’t up to all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to fix me.  It was up to Humpty to get up off her dumpty and glue herself back together again.

That assignment offered me the glue. Until we are tested, we do not know our strengths and weaknesses.  Until we are tested, we do not learn.  Until trust is challenged, we do not learn boundaries. At least that has been true for me. I’m a hands-on learner and until it happens to me, myself and I, I can exaggerate my capabilities to me, myself and I.  I had been through a firestorm that had burned away assumptions, innocence, ego, simplistic thinking.  I had been humbled.  But that letter, that day on a hillside in Southern France helped me recognize what I had gained.  Strength to get up.  Knowledge of human nature.  Better boundaries.  The courage to ask better questions the next time around.  The importance of collaboration.  The confidence to listen to my gut when it sends me warnings.  Patience to take time in making decisions.  A dab more skepticism with less blind trust.  Discernment.

I’m not going to say that everything changed in that moment, that I instantly felt better about the experiences and the people involved.  Understanding and grief are not like that.  They continue to teach long after an experience.  I did feel better about myself.  No more self-flagellation to the tune of “How could I be so naïve?”  The Humpty-Dumpty glue given by that wise brother helped me get up off the ground and take stock of the journey of learning itself.  I cannot know something until I learn it.  I had had a crash course in humility and came to understand many things better, including my own limitations and strengths, neither of which was what I knew it to be, and both of which were changed by the experiences of that best-worst year of my life.