One of summer’s creatures can offer a few lessons on letting go and moving on.
Now that summer has officially arrived, it seems an appropriate time to pause and briefly reflect upon . . . snakes. As soon as the weather warms up in Alabama, where Recovery Campus is based, parents feel compelled to warn their kids about our slitherin’ brethren: Watch for snakes! Don’t step on a snake! Remember, the snakes crawl at night! That’s especially true in the rural South. If the number of serpents that children actually encounter came anywhere close to the number of warnings they receive, this would be one scary place to grow up. Then again, what parents realize is that the most dangerous snakes of all are the ones you don’t see coming.
What, you might wonder, do reptiles have to do with spiritual growth? Consider this factoid we stumbled across, courtesy of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources:
The outer layer of a snake’s skin does not grow. So, as the snake grows, it periodically sheds this outer layer. The frequency of shedding relates to the rate of growth.
Have you ever met a person who had a very low “frequency of shedding”? Someone who held onto old hurts and resentments for so long that anger turned into resentment, then resentment hardened into bitterness, and before long, not only had their rate of growth slowed to a halt, but they could barely move at all?
Young people often hear “you just need to develop a thicker skin” whenever they respond emotionally to a perceived rejection, exclusion, or criticism from their peers. And a thick skin is all well and good if it helps us repel negativity. But what happens when the reverse is true? What happens when we hold onto negative energy so long that it hardens us from the inside out?
Resentment seems to get under our skin most readily when someone we care about has unjustly and unexpectedly inflicted pain. We feel not just hurt, but betrayed. And that particular kind of wound is tough to heal. It is one mean snakebite. What’s important to remember in those circumstances is that when someone you’ve always been close to—maybe an old friend or a family member—seems to be intentionally striking at you without provocation, the venom is all theirs. They have their own issues to resolve, their own disappointments to overcome, their own hurts to heal. When they see the bold and brave steps you’ve taken, when they witness the complete transformation you’ve had the courage and commitment to make, they become envious of your new skin. They want to discourage you from growing more, rather than face the hard work of shedding themselves. And even though you might’ve had nothing to do with the wear and tear on their old skin, it has to be somebody’s fault, right? There has to be someone to blame. So they choose to take it out on you.
Resentment also comes from those “why me” moments we all have, moments when forces beyond our control seem to be conspiring to deny us the very thing we want most—or think we want most. Sometimes we develop a serious case of the why-me’s when the path we’ve been following doesn’t lead us to the destination we expected. Or when good things seem to be happening to bad people and vice versa. Our gut reaction is to conjure the first three words every school kid learns on the playground: That’s not fair!
Life is not always fair, and we’ll be challenged to wrap our brains around that truth as long as we live and breathe. But think about it. What periods in your life have taught you the most? When have you experienced the highest rate of growth, the highest “frequency of shedding”? Most likely, when you were challenged. When you were struggling. When your road was a little rocky.
Nobody enjoys tough times and disappointments, but they have so much to teach us. How we deal with them shapes us perhaps more than anything else.
A gifted nurse here in Birmingham said that one of the first lessons she learned in nursing school had to do with the utter uselessness of guilt. We can’t undo past mistakes, her instructor explained, but we can learn from them. Endlessly dwelling on them and regretting them, however, halts that forward motion and traps us in “Nowhere Land.”
The same is true of resentment and bitterness. They are useless emotions. More importantly, they have the power to render us useless. People who refuse to let go of past hurts and disappointments become extremely self-centered. All those layers of old skin make it impossible for them to feel others’ pain. And it is very true that misery loves company. Some people become so embittered that they actually relish the difficulties and disappointments of others. Their inner voice no longer says, “I’m so sorry you’re hurting, and I wonder if there’s anything I could do to help.” No, what they hear is more like this: “Well and good—now you’re finally getting a taste of what it’s like to be as miserable as I am.” People who heed the call of that spiteful voice have become card-carrying citizens of Nowhere Land.
Back in the ‘70s, gospel composer Lanny Wolfe wrote a song called “In Everything Give Thanks.” There’s a line in that song that goes, “In the good times, praise His name; in the bad times, do the same.” However you define your Higher Power, those words ring true. There is purpose and meaning to good times and bad. All the experiences of our lives can move us forward in a positive way if we let them. We just have to have faith in the Big Picture, even though we might be able to see only a tiny corner of it from where we stand. We have to believe that, no matter how many formidable hurdles we encounter on our journey, they needn’t divert us to Nowhere Land.
Here’s the most important thing to remember about that dreadful address: Nobody’s born there. Nobody belongs there. All of its once-productive citizens are naturalized. We can leave Nowhere Land whenever we choose, and the less baggage we carry with us, the faster we’ll travel. So take a bit of wisdom from the serpentine world: Shed frequently.