Reminder: Hurt people hurt people

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three. Finally the younger monk couldn’t contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted a woman! How could you then carry her on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?”

In July, I wrote about grieving the people we purposely cut out of our lives or with whom we limit our contact (see Grieving the Living). Although an act of self-kindness, it’s rarely a one-and-done. Those people often filter into our lives, like sand through a sieve, and we feel their presence like a ghost that reaches into our memories to remind us how they were once a part of our lives.

In those moments, we have a choice: engage as two young monks, firing how-could-yous at each other; or recognize, without engagement, that they are still carrying the past on their life journey.

I don’t always make the right decision when this happens. Recently, I allowed someone—with whom I’m semi-estranged—bait me with hateful political rhetoric, and I fired off a defense, only to realize it was the same, tired argument as before. In that moment, I forgot that “Hurt people hurt people,” and I let him hurt me…again. I’ve since retreated to my safe corner, where I hope to remember to stay.

Carrying the past is a heavy burden. To lighten their load, people often unload it onto those of us they profess to care about or want to punish (usually both). Their pain/regret/anger/self-hate drives them to remind us how—in their worldview—we’re stupid, wrong, bad, ungrateful, or—a revolving favorite of mine—going to hell.

It reminds me of a line from the song “Mr. Brownstone” by Guns N’ Roses: I used to do a little but a little wouldn’t do, so the little got more and more. This kind of aggression is the reason for disengagement and self-preservation.  

If this happens to you, don’t be like Captain Picard! Do not engage! Find a way to leave that baggage behind. Dump coffee grounds on it if you’re tempted to dig it up and eat it again. No one is worth your self-worth, and remember, no one can drag you back into their pain or regret without your permission.

Be like the senior monk. Set the woman down and move on with your life.

8 thoughts on “Reminder: Hurt people hurt people

  1. I love the story of the two monks! I first read about it in the book Zen Shorts by John J. Muth – a wonderful children’s book with Zen stories nestled into everyday lessons for kids. It’s definitely something I ask myself often – “why am I still carrying this?” I find that I open myself up for re-engagement most often when I am tired or depressed. You would think I’d get better at spotting the red flags, but no. Very much still a work in progress! Good luck laying that burden of the past down and moving on.

    1. That’s a wonderful book! I think I first heard the story during a Tara Brach dharma talk, though. I love when a story sticks with you, you know?

  2. Interesting story. So true, what the older monk said. I’ve found the biggest and best thing I could do in relationships with those who have hurt me is to forgive. Whether I ever mention it to that person or not is not as important as for me to know I have forgiven that person. It has freed me and allowed hurtful memories and thoughts to dissipate so that I am no longer hurt.

    1. I know it’s not the exact same thing as forgive, or maybe on some level it is, but after I get over being angry/hurt, I meditate on that person and wish them happiness, peace, and to be without further conflict. I can usually find compassion somewhere in me (i.e. I feel “sorry” for them), and that feels a lot better than anger.

  3. I could really relate to your essay today. My brother lashes out at me about politics. It got so bad that I needed to block him. I never engaged with him when he was being rude and nasty and that made him even madder.

    1. It’s like I wrote that comment! Sorry you have issues like that, too, but it helps knowing I’m not alone. Like I told a friend, I know I don’t hold the record for awful people in her life, but there are days when I feel like I do.

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