The biggest challenge I've faced in the last 3.5 years is forgiveness. At the end of 2011, I was deep into a book which spoke on living life with love and from the heart. When I came upon the passages that delved into forgiveness, a light went on inside of me. I had held on to so many resentments for so long, and at that time in my life was holding on to an enormous amount of pain and anger from a betrayal. I'd carried it for almost 6 years. As that light went on, I realized that what I needed most was forgiveness. A day later, I contacted those involved in that betrayal. We began a dialogue that ended in a morning tea and peace found between all of us, which still exists to this day. What I realized, in terms of these people, was that the reason there was so much pain and anger for me in this situation was because I loved and cared about them very much. For years, I told myself I hated them, that they were awful, heartless people, and in doing so denied not only the truth about these people (because as Mr. Rogers says, even good people sometimes do bad things) but also the truth about myself and my own feelings and actions. Their actions may have been the first to occur, but in the years following there were plenty of times where my own words and actions in response to my powerful emotions were also hurtful, abusive, and cruel. While I'm sure that my offering of forgiveness had an impact on the ones I chose to forgive, by far the greatest impact this had was in my own life. The lightness and freedom I felt at allowing the chains of anger and resentment to fall away was both significant and immediate. Most importantly, forgiveness allowed me to look at the larger picture of the situation, and finally offer an apology for my own actions. The understanding of just how important forgiveness is has never left me, and as difficult at it always is, it’s something I’m dedicated to reaching in every situation.
Difficult indeed. There are many situations in which forgiveness seems impossible. There are many situations, including several I’m dealing with in the present, where apologies will never come. It is absolutely possible to forgive without ever hearing “I’m sorry”, but in those moments where you find your mind, body, and spirit wracked with pain and anger, when grief encloses you in a cocoon from which you feel you’ll never emerge, it’s hard to imagine forgiving someone who carries no regrets for their actions, or who firmly believes they have nothing for which to apologize. Indeed, when the pain, anger, sadness, and grief you feel are so great, it’s often hard to offer forgiveness even when the other person has already offered their sincere apology.
Several months ago, I purchased The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, written by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho. I’ve recently experienced betrayal and abandonment by the people I held most dear in my heart. Once again I found myself filled with anger, pain, sadness, and a deep grief. I knew from my past experiences that forgiveness would ease the burden and the pain and so I made the conscious decision to forgive the ones who had hurt me. What’s been the most difficult for me is that even having made that conscious decision, forgiveness hasn’t turned on like a light as it did in the past; in fact, quite the opposite. It sputters on and off like a loose bulb. My mind grapples with this daily, knowing of the immense freedom and peace that forgiveness brings, yet finding myself, day after day, unable to reach that point. For me, this adds yet another dimension of pain and anguish to a situation: being angry at myself for not being able to offer forgiveness. It’s a terrible catch-22, knowing that forgiveness will free me, knowing that everyone is deserving of forgiveness, knowing that I too have hurt others and want to be forgiven, yet still not finding that place inside where I am able to let go. I have no problem understanding and accepting the desire for forgiveness in my mind, yet my heart and my gut feel and know that I have not yet forgiven. It is often incredibly difficult not to be angry at myself in the face of these circumstances.
Tutu’s book outlines a fourfold path to forgiveness: Telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness, and renewing or releasing the relationship. Well before setting eyes on Tutu’s book, my heart understood these steps and I was able to follow them in a number of situations. The situations I’m currently facing, however, are significantly more of a challenge due to the nature of the relationships and deep love between myself and the people involved. Forgiveness in these cases is neither easy nor immediate. It is a long, painful, and difficult path that winds back on itself, taking me in what often appears to be the opposite direction I want to be. I’ve found myself having lost the path altogether at times. Bishop Tutu makes it clear that this is normal. Forgiveness isn’t a linear progression, nor is it always instantaneous. We will and do find ourselves stuck on one or more of the steps as we attempt to free ourselves. There is no time limit on offering forgiveness. So long as we are committed to that goal, we have the ability to get there - getting to that point will take the time it takes, however long that may be. Every day I remind myself of this fact, even though I struggle with it frequently, even though I’m faced with anger from others at not being able to forgive “soon enough”, and faced with anger inside myself towards others at not being forgiven.
I am determined to keep following this path, no matter how long it takes or how difficult it may be at times. I do not love lightly or foolishly, and those who are dearest to my heart have become so for significant and valid reasons. Conflict does not erase the deep love I have for them, regardless of any present circumstances. Neither does the anger, pain, and resentment I feel towards these people. Indeed, if I didn’t love them as much as I do, the pain would not be so deep and difficult. That, I feel, has been the biggest realization of this journey: The ones we love the most are the ones able to inflict upon us the biggest wounds. My healing will not come from holding anger against those who I feel have wronged me, nor will it come by dismissing them and/or attempting to deny the realness and depth of the love I feel for them. This is not an easy path, by far. Bishop Tutu stresses that “…the preference is always toward renewal or reconciliation, except in cases where safety is an issue.” I am very much in agreement with this, even though it is not an easy choice to make. Pain can and will inhibit our willingness to work towards renewal; pride and our persistent need to be justified in all that we do will insist that we immediately choose release. I currently face a vast number of challenges manifesting physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and am well aware of how these challenges are affecting my journey down the path of forgiveness. There’s not a day that goes by when my gut screams at me to release, to run away, to avoid any more difficulty, but I know that in the long run this does not honor those whom I love but who have hurt me, nor myself, nor the trueness of the love I feel. I will not be making this decision for quite a while. I will continue to follow the path I have chosen, wherever it leads, however difficult it may be, because I know the immense power of the freedom the journey brings.
“There is no magic wand we can wave to go back in time and change what has happened or undo the harm that has been done, but we can do everything in our power to set right what has been made wrong. We can endeavor to make sure the harm never happens again. We all need forgiveness . There are times when all of us have been thoughtless or selfish or cruel. As we have said earlier, no act is unforgivable; no person is beyond redemption. Yet, it is not easy to admit one’s wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. “I am sorry” are perhaps the three hardest words to say. We can come up with all manner of justifications to excuse what we have done. When we are willing to let down our defenses and look honestly at our actions, we find there is a great freedom in asking for forgiveness and great strength in admitting the wrong. It is how we free ourselves from our past errors. It is how we are able to move forward into our future, unfettered by the mistakes we have made.” - Tutu, Desmond; Tutu, Mpho (2014-03-18). The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (p. 167). HarperCollins.