Forgiveness is a hard thing. Someone slights you on social media. A co-worker talks about you negatively behind your back at work. A family member fails to keep a promise made to you. A close friend ‘unfriends you’ for no apparent reason. When any of these things transpire, it hurts. You can feel like a snow-blanketed and barren tree on a grey, raw, and chilly morning in late February. Alone like an unloved and frozen sentry against the dim February sky. Imprisoned in your own pain and felt betrayal. When it happens to us, it’s a lonely feeling. But each of us has been there along the way. Because being hurt by another is an unavoidable part of ‘being’ in our world.
And being hurt is, more than ever, an omnipresent phenomenon in our society today. For we live in an age of technology and information. Every slight, rebuke, disagreement, or feud is ripe for public display through social media. Nothing feels private any longer. Word travels fast. Our anxious, angry, overreactive, tightly wired, and even violent world doesn’t help matters either. When someone wrongs us, it’s far easier to fight back, impugn, and discredit than it is to forgive. And there are multitudes of dysfunctional ‘role models’ around us in this regard at all levels of society and government. Further, when every personal hurt is magnified and exaggerated in our increasingly nihilistic world, even a small thing can easily become a massive affront to us these days. So, is real forgiveness even possible anymore?
I think it is, however difficult and challenging it may be for us. We can be guided by many examples of it in our past. October 2, 2006 marked an unspeakably horrific milestone for Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Charles Roberts, a 32-year-old milk tanker truck driver, walked into a small Amish schoolhouse armed with three guns. Roberts released some of the children and adults, but he held a number of girls (all under 14 years old) as hostages. In response to the arrival of law enforcement officers on the scene, he shot eight of the children. Five of these girls died in the schoolhouse or later in the hospital as a result of their injuries. Roberts also shot and killed himself at the scene. Based on the notes he left behind, the killer had been angry at God and himself over the death of his own baby daughter years before. But here’s the miraculous thing that grew out of this devastating tragedy: some of the community’s Amish members (including family of the diseased children) visited the killer’s widow to comfort her. Many attended Robert’s funeral to add their further support. They also established a charitable fund for the widow’s family. Amidst their own immeasurable grief and loss, they understood the deep, inherent dynamics of forgiveness. Countless parents, siblings, other family, and friends have faced the same dilemma that the Amish community did in 2006. Could they ever forgive such a heinous act? Could they forgive right now? Some of these surviving victims chose forgiveness despite every possible, logical reason not to. So, forgiveness is possible. But why and how?
The capacity to forgive another is an essential component of our human, spiritual DNA. We have the innate capacity to forgive small, large, and unspeakable wrongs done to us in their scale and impacts. But this begs the question: what is forgiveness? Definitions such as ‘pardon, mercy, clemency, leniency, and absolution’ are thrown about as we describe what it means to forgive another. And we say variations of the word all the time:
- “I forgive you.”
- “You’re forgiven.”
- “I’m going to let it go.”
- “Time will surely heal.”
- “Let’s forget about it and move on, shall we?”
- “I’m choosing to show leniency.”
- “I’ll let God judge his or her wrongs against me.”
We say these things. Over and over. And we honestly believe that we’ve forgiven the transgressor, whatever the offense may be. Perhaps we’ve put the whole thing behind us. We may think we’ve actually let it go. But it’s still in front of us. It’s still walking with us. It’s still holding us. Or we’re still holding onto it consciously or even sub-consciously in our souls. And, as such, we’re the victims two times. Once from the hurt inflicted on us. And a second time from the hurt that we continue to inflict on ourselves. All is not forgiven, after all, it seems.
We don’t forgive until we affirmatively decide to do so. Then not until we do the actual healing work of forgiveness. This means that we acknowledge the hurt caused to us by another. Yes, we have to ‘own’ and ‘name’ our feelings about the hurt… and the reasons for these feelings. Further, real forgiveness means that we try to enter into the ‘life’ and the heart of the one who’s hurt us—attempting to see the hurt from the other’s perspective. To walk in their shoes for a minute. To reflect on what might have been going on in the person who’s transgressed against us. Perhaps their intent wasn’t egregious at all. It’s possible that they simply made a mistake.
Further, forgiveness means that we accept the hurt without the need for revenge or returning the hurt to another in some way. At some future time. In some place. Of our choosing. In this sense, forgiveness means that it no longer matters whether the person deserves to be forgiven—or whether we ever get an apology back from the offender. Finally, doing the work of forgiveness means that we share our feelings with the other. Then communicate our forgiveness to him or her. Then extend compassion and good will to the other with proper, clearly established, and healthy, ‘boundaries’ for us in the future. Then forgive ourselves for own past inward and outward anger.
Make no mistake here. The work of forgiveness is difficult. It’s really, really hard. It can feel excruciating. It’s a journey of days or months or years or decades. Sometimes we can do it with our own resources. Sometimes we need help from others. Sometimes we choose not to forgive at all. Or to remain a victim. That’s our choice. It may actually feel more comfortable doing things this way. Or seem to anyway. But, in the end, failing to forgive is a prison of our choice. A ‘cancer’ that grows within us. Until it consumes us. The person who hurt us may never care. But we should. We should care about ourselves. For we have been hurt. And we need healing. From within. We need a real gift. And that’s where for-‘Give’-ness comes in.
Forgiveness of self and others is freeing, to be sure. But, even more importantly, it’s a gift from ourselves to ourselves and to others. In this sense, for-‘Give’-ness is like a bird. More specifically, it’s like a cardinal that ‘lights’ upon a naked, barren tree in the midst of the final throes of winter’s snow. The cardinal’s brilliant color stands out ever-sharply against the colorless, dim background of the sky. A joyful contrast unfolds before our eyes as the bird’s feathers paint a winged portrait of bright red. But something else happens here, as well. The cardinal’s presence changes everything around it. The colors of this avian ‘visitor’ seem to bring new light and life to the empty branches around the spot on which it has landed. Our hearts lighten and soften as we see the bird. And, in a way, we become that bird. For when we choose to forgive, we’re like the cardinal on a cold, late February day. Everything within and around us is changed for the better in response. Because we’ve embraced the precious, loving gift of for-‘Give’-ness from God to us.
Then, like the cardinal, we fly away… not to flee… but to bring this gift to others.