Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future. – Paul Boose
My mom’s best friend died this week. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. But peacefully in her sleep.
In such emotionally wrenching times, I personally turn to faith – my enduring belief in a benevolent God who wants “goodness and mercy to follow me all the days of life.”
But I also understand that there are others who cope, without counting on a higher power to help see them through.
Still, there is nothing like the absolutism of death to make one think about their relationships with people who are still alive.
Human relationships are complicated at best.
I’m willing to assume that there isn’t a human being in the world who hasn’t been hurt by someone; or hurt someone themselves.
We’re all fallible.
Just as to live one faces the inevitably of death; to live among other people, one faces the inevitability of being disappointed, hurt and sometimes betrayed.
The ‘scale’ of these acts varies.
But each one leaves residual emotions of confusion, dismay, disbelief and often blinding rage.
What are means of not just coping with these emotions, but transcending them?
I thought about this a lot when I heard about the Newtown school shooting and even a few years back when Connecticut was home to another brutal slaying that left a man’s wife and two children dead.
According to one thoughtful report: “Words alone cannot contain the horror of violence, the cruelty of sadistic torture, the pain of bullets entering flesh, the burning of white phosphorous on a child’s skin, the sight of a beloved spouse splattered against a wall, the loneliness of a young teenager in prison, the fear of a trafficked woman in a cage…”
Yet, even as I acknowledge the searing pain of these experiences, I don’t want to place physical violence as the center of everyone’s conceptualization of harm.
There are many people who suffer palpable, although perhaps not visible, scars from physiological, emotional and spiritual assaults.
One of the best analogies I know of comes from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (one of the best books ever). He compares relationships to bank accounts.
Every affirming and enjoyable act adds to the account; every hurtful thing deducts. When there has been a lot of “trust” currency built up overtime, it’s easier to withstand misunderstandings and outright disappointments when they occur. While other relationships, especially those with a zero balance to begin with, go into the red and can leave you feeling emotionally bankrupt. Spent.
This analogy is useful, but it doesn’t explain why forgiving someone who hurt you is so extraordinarily difficult.
What do you do with the simmering resentment? The grief? The unanswered questions: “How did this happen to me?” “How could they do this to me?” And the one I obsess over most “why?”
The truth is while understanding can be a pathway to forgiveness, the answer to these questions alone rarely allows someone to reconcile with what happened.
These emotions are alive. Analyzing them won’t make them subside, and ignoring them won’t make them any less real.
As long as you haven’t “forgiven and forgotten” there is a part of you that is forever suspended in that emotional reality of pain – that moment when you felt like you’d been sucker punched to the gut.
In reality, although these are emotions we want to overcome, I also think we desire to hold on to them.
It’s not just because we don’t know what to do with these feelings, but because as long as we hold on to it, then our feelings are justified; our pain, the same pain we want to go away, is valid and real.
We want people to care that we’re hurting, and especially the person or persons who caused our suffering.
In most cases, it is an exercise in futility waiting for this to happen.
This absolution may not come.
Just ask Essie, the biological daughter of Strom Thurmond, an infamous segregationist who never claimed her, because she was conceived with a black woman.
Back to the bank account analogy, it is relevant when there was a history (at some point) of trust between people.
But what about when there is no trust and thus there aren’t obvious pathways for the sort of communication and genuine apologies that can resolve issues and balm wounds?
These are the sort of sticky questions, I grapple with constantly as a peace practitioner, because then the grievances and grief stem not only from interpersonal, but societal betrayal.
We have to remember that witnessing harm be-fall those you care about, or living with the day-to-day impact of their traumas is also distressing. Experience near and experience far, are both still experiences.
This reverberating ‘contagion’ effect is magnified in post-conflict settings.
In fact, when you talk about “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” most people immediately imagine South Africa or Rwanda where the immediacy of the need for people to move past “wrongs” is obvious.
Part of this suffering was about the huge power asymmetry. In most conflict settings it isn’t just people and groups who have to be accountable for wrong-doing, but also institutions. Which makes redress difficult, becasue it’s hard to pinpoint who is responsible.
There are not only emotional and physical legacies, but material ones as well that have to be addressed.
That’s right, sometimes reconciliation takes justice.
But fundamentally, reconciliation and forgiveness ALWAYS takes grace.
One way to forgive is to acknowledge that you suffered, that the person who did it was wrong, find peace that you may never understand why, and being willing even if they don’t ‘deserve it’ not to allow what happened to diminish what is best in you.
As Catherine Ponder noted: “When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.”
At a collective or societal level, it is knowing that even when the grievances are more than justified, a myopic focus on the struggles of the past can thwart progress.
In short, there is a real danger that we can become slaves to our own narrative of victim-hood.
This is critical, because I believe that the people who tend to cause the most harm in the world are greedy people and “broken” people, whether they run your household, school, company or country. Their emotional lives are ‘overdrawn’ their spirits wallowing consciously or unconsciously in past anguish.
We want the person who hurt us to change and we may certainly deserve better treatment from them, but it may not be what they are able to give.
People who have ‘emotional capital’ act more like philanthropist and build people up.
This isn’t to say at all that emotionally ‘healthy’ people don’t hurt people, but they often have the ability to take corrective measures to minimize the damage. They’ll own their mistakes and be patient with the wrongdoings of others.
Still, forgiving those who you harmed, or those who harmed you is still a rare thing.
That’s why it tends to be breaking news when XX forgives YY person for murdering ZZ loved one, like this mom who forgave her son’s killer. Just try Google; you’d be surprised by the number of articles dedicated to people who forgive those who killed a loved one– still considered by many as the ultimate transgression.
So it’s rare, but possible.
Like Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”