For the past several months, “forgiveness” has been on my mind and I have been looking for as much information as possible about what it means and how to go about arriving at this place called “forgiveness”.
Do I have to be asked for forgiveness before I begin the work of forgiving?
Do I have to be in relationship with a person in order to be able to forgive?
Is forgiveness for me or for the other?
Is it NECESSARY?
For a long time, I said to myself, “I don’t even have to think about forgiveness until I’m asked for it”. That way of thinking just left me nothing to do with my hurt and anger. Those feelings are big and heavy. So I decided I had better get at least a little curious about forgiveness.
I read some articles (which I won’t even bother to link because they were so ridiculous) to the effect of “Forgiveness in so-many easy steps”. They were good for a laugh, but just not consistent with my experience and not helpful.
I went looking for books on forgiveness, and I’ll have to say, I didn’t find anything very good. I’m sure good books on the subject are out there (because I am pretty sure most of life’s answers are in books). I just didn’t happen to find them.
But then I found helpful thoughts on forgiveness in very unlikely places entirely by accident. It is such an important piece of the human experience, that I found threads of it everywhere! When reading a bedtime story to my children:
Forgiveness, reader, is, I think, something very much like hope and love, a powerful, wonderful thing.
And a ridiculous thing, too.
Isn’t it ridiculous, after all, to think that a son could forgive his father for beating the drum that sent him to his death? Isn’t it ridiculous to think a mouse could ever forgive anyone for such perfidy?
But still, here are the words Despereaux Tiling spoke to his father. He said, “I forgive you, Pa.”
And he said those words because he sensed that it was the only way to save his own heart, to stop it from breaking in two. Despereaux, reader, spoke those words to save himself. (From: The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo)
Right there in a children’s book, pretty much all my questions answered. Forgiveness is powerful and wonderful and ridiculous (I had suspected so) and it’s for ME. It isn’t a gift to the other. It isn’t about letting the other off the hook. Rather it is letting myself off the hook, preventing my own heart from breaking. Big, huge wisdom in that children’s bedtime story.
A friend recommended Jan Karon’s Mitford series for a fun read. It is fun, and very, very sweet and wise. Father Tim, the main character, is an Episcopal priest in the small town of Mitford. As he takes care of his flock, he has a great deal of exposure to people who are suffering. He even talks quite a bit about his own pain and his process of forgiving his father. It struck me that Father Tim is in his 60’s and has been carrying around his hurt and anger for decades. Though his father passed long ago, Father Tim still finds himself unexpectedly heart-broken over and over again and having to work through his thoughts and feelings yet again. This reminded me of what I already knew, that forgiveness can take a long, long time and that it is not a straight and direct path. Hurt and anger pop up over and over again. Even when you think you’ve worked through it and you are over it all, there it is again and there is more work to do.
I also decided to look in some of the books I already know I love in case there were some goodies I had missed back when I wasn’t thinking about forgiveness.
From Anne Lamott:
“Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare…” (From: Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)
“Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
(From: Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith)
Ah, well…..yes, forgiveness as a giving up, a letting go. Letting MYSELF go from the nightmare. Stop poisoning MYSELF.
And of course I got out all the Pema Chodron books, and wouldn’t you know they all said exactly the right things? I couldn’t quote them all. I will say it again because I could never say enough times, I highly recommend keeping When Things Fall Apart on the bedside table and reading it again and again. My particular take-aways from re-reading my Pema collection are the ideas of leaning into difficult feelings and being curious about the human experience of grief, anger, forgiveness, etc. Rather than trying to fix things when I experience hard times, I am working on just paying attention and learning about this piece of the human experience. Also, I am learning to appreciate ALL of it, because it all comes together to make life rich.
I am not so sure anymore that forgiveness is a destination. I think it is a practice, one that I will be called to repeatedly and forever. My reading confirmed everything I have learned from experience. Sometimes I will be in a good place and other times I will feel like I have made no progress at all. Though the practice is hard, I feel committed to it because it is important, heart and life saving work FOR ME and there are times I experience an opening, a softening which just feels easier and lighter.