There’s a place in our garden where we remember all the pets that have graced our lives. Not surprisingly, it’s likely the spot with the most nutrient-rich soil in the yard, but we don’t do a lot of planting there.

When my child was little, we’d gently bury his pet fish that had been his pride and joy but didn’t make it for lack of food, too much food, various fish-borne diseases and other issues that arise when children are given their first responsibilities.

There were the fancy-tailed goldfish that paraded their beautiful fins across the tank, and Mr. Zippy the horse-face loach, an eel-like fish that spent much of its time below the gravel zipping from one side of the tank to the other.

Then there were the triops, tiny crustaceans that have three eyes, breathe through their feet and eat almost anything, including each other, going back to the time of the dinosaurs. And many more creatures that blessed our home for several weeks, several months and some as long as several years.

We’d paint a small stone in their memory and hold a tearful ceremony recounting their personality (not always an easy thing for a goldfish), and sing songs attesting to our love and our sense of loss as we laid them to rest to enjoy their days in their eternal aquarium in heaven.

Amid the tearful goodbyes would naturally come remorse. Had we fed them too much? Too little? Not cleaned the tank often enough? Not supervised our child well enough so he could become a good steward to his pets? But we buried the critters as well as our guilt in the rich, dark mulch of our memories.

Many of us live our lives holding onto terrible guilt for things we did, thought we should have done, or believe we might have done, which festers inside of us. It’s not easy handling all these emotions and the pain that comes along with them, so we tend to project our guilt out at others, both consciously and subconsciously, to people who didn’t really do anything wrong. Yet we all are doing our best to survive in this crazy world.

As summer changes to fall, maybe it’s time to find that special place in our yard, in our heart or in our minds to release past guilt and remorse. Therapists say holding all of it in can be both destructive to ourselves and those who come in contact with us.

Maybe it’s time to forgive ourselves for things we might have done better, and as a friend often reminds me, stop “should-ing on ourselves.” I’ve found that to be very good advice since we’re all doing the best we can.

We can also turn to family and friends, neighbors and acquaintances and forgive them as well. Bury the hate and dissatisfaction, worry and fear in that special place in the garden.

When our time comes to say goodbye to our loved ones for the very last time, few of us will wonder if we should have gotten angry more and held grudges longer. Better to forgive them now when we still have the chance. For we are all doing the best we can.

What I’ve discovered is that carrying remorse and anger is a heavy burden. So heavy that it tends to erupt in places that can be both surprising and unnecessary. Like my frustration last week with a certain rental trucking company in town that knew how to take a reservation, but not to keep a reservation.

Where dysfunction really rises to the top in me is when I think about politics and politicians. If my son, now a teen, curses or talks poorly about others, he knows I’ll make him wash his mouth out with soap or he gets punished in other ways. But what do I do when the television blares with politicians who do exactly that to their political enemies? Do I wash his ears out with soap?

How do I show him that he should treat everyone he meets with respect when our political “leaders” deride each other in the nastiest ways? Or the current trend of putting the word “illegal” in front of people’s names who are fleeing horrors in their home country, and then not having the decency to treat them as human beings?

These are some of the things that are most difficult for me to bury in my backyard. But what I’m learning is the serenity prayer; namely, to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Courage and wisdom. Who knew?

 

David Weintraub is a cultural preservationist and environmental troublemaker who runs the Center for Cultural Preservation. He is reachable at 828-692-8062 or saveculture.org.