“Aw get over it.” “Hey, let’s just forget this whole thing, okay?” “I’ve moved on.” “Forgive and forget.” “Won’t you please forgive me?” “I just want you to know that I have forgiven you.”
The key to any of the above is that sometimes we crave forgiveness and sometimes we have to be the one to forgive. The latter can be very hard to do.
As a child, I often experienced the need to say, “I’m sorry.” Being a Catholic and thus experiencing Confession or Reconciliation from the age of seven on, the focus was always: what did you do wrong that you have to ask forgiveness for? Fortunately, those things on my list were minor. And when I had to say to someone, “It’s okay, I forgive you” —the hurt or the incident was also minor.
But as I grew into young adulthood and adulthood, either my thin skin got thinner or more likely, the issues on either side of the forgiveness question just got bigger and more complicated. They caused actual pain. Issues where forgiveness is necessary can weigh anyone down; they can create depression and rip dangerous holes in relationships.
So I was probably in my thirties when I heard these words: Forgiving is not for the one who needs to be forgiven—it’s for the one doing the forgiving. Where did I hear that—on Oprah. Yes, the amazing woman who in the 80s and 90s got people to read more with her Oprah’s Book Club, and to write, as she encouraged her viewers to journal, had offered me some golden advice.
But even so, we all know—the issue of forgiving is a very complicated one. And though I still believe that forgiveness is for the one doing the forgiving—those of you reading this who have been living in pain because of something someone did to you or to someone you love—you know that forgiving is a process and not an easy one.
I was recently reminded of this when reading Lewis B. Smedes book: The Art of Forgiving, When you need to forgive and don’t know how. A core debate in the text centers on the story of Karl, a German soldier during WW II who killed many innocent Jewish men, women and children in a Russian village, and then, before he was to be executed, desired the forgiveness of one Jew. He grabbed the wrist of Simon Wisenthal, who was then a young architect, asking him to represent all Jews and forgive Karl. Wisenthal writes of the incident in his book The Sunflower and states: The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.
Thus Wisenthal refused to forgive Karl and over the years wrote and struggled with his decision.
Smedes writes that after the publication of The Sunflower, distinguished men and women from many walks of life were asked to comment on Wisenthal’s ultimate decision. “Most of them believed that it was right and good for Wisenthal not to forgive Karl. Here are some of their answers:
You would never have been able to live with yourself had you forgiven him.
To forgive everything means that one is lacking in discrimination, in true feeling, in reasonableness, in memory…
One cannot and should not go around happily killing and torturing and then, when the moment has come, simply ask and receive forgiving.
I believe that the easy forgiving of such crimes perpetuates the evil it wants to alleviate.
When examining Wisenthal’s dilemma in her essay, “The Ultimate Moral Question, Wendy Cooley ends with the following statement: They (the Jews in that village) were the ones who were murdered and brutalized and only they have the power to forgive those who have done them wrong.
Smedes also presents that idea: that no one has a right to forgive someone unless he himself had been injured by that person. Something to ponder.
But the true purpose of Smedes book, and maybe Oprah read it, is to stress the following aspects of being able to forgive. As you read them, try to apply some of them to events in your own life. There may be readers who have even had to deal with the arrest and incarceration of the person who hurt you or your loved one. Some of you will only see in the list aspects of personal relationships that were hurt by abandonment or betrayal or other inter-personal issues. But each of the following are basic aspects of forgiving.
- Forgiving someone who did us wrong does not mean that we tolerate the wrong he did.
- Forgiving does not mean that we want to forget what happened.
- Forgiving does not mean that we excuse the person who did it.
- Forgiving does not mean that we take the edge off the evil of what was done to us.
- Forgiving does not mean that we surrender our right to justice.
- Forgiving does not mean that we invite someone who hurt us once to hurt us again.
This is heavy stuff, but it can lighten the load and it definitely leads to healing.
But then there are times when you hear: “Move on, move on,” and you just can’t. You’re stuck. Do the words get even come to mind? Of course they do.
Smedes writes: “Vengeance is the only alternative to forgiving. It is, simply put, a passion to get even. We have been unfairly hurt. … The scales are unbalanced. The only way to balance them and get life back to normal is to inflict as much pain on our abuser as he inflicted on us…”
But we can’t. As Smedes writes, “…we are doomed to exchange wound for wound…pain for pain forever.” And when we stay away from vengeance and forgive, we are expressing our true and best nature. Smedes: “..forgiving works on both sides of the street. It is a reciprocity. We do ourselves good only when we wish good for the other. And we do the other person good only after we have healed ourselves. Forgiving has to be both ego-centered and other-centered. Otherwise it cannot work.”
Finally, Smedes and other writers on this issue would conclude that forgiving is a journey. Like all things in life, there are stages: the initial pain, the anger that pain brings, the utter change in a relationship because of the pain, the relapses—one day the pain is light, the next it hits again like a brick—and the need for help from a friend or counselor. One comforting concept is Smedes approval of anger. He breaks it down this way:
“The enemy of forgiving is hate, not anger. Anger is aimed at what persons do. Hate is aimed at persons. Anger keeps bad things from happening again to you. Hate wants bad things to happen to him or her. Anger is the positive power that pushes us toward justice. Hate, by that token, is the negative force that pushes us toward vengeance. Anger is one of love’s good servants. Hate serves nobody well. So if you get angry when you remember what he or she did to you, it does not mean that you have not forgiven him or her. It only means that you get made when people do bad things to you.”
Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and author of Eager to Love, has also written about forgiveness and I find him an incredible thinker for everyone, religious or not given to some organized faith. He writes: “Forgiveness is a decision, but making that decision doesn’t override the emotional residue that often takes much longer to release. That feeling of wanting revenge or wanting to assert your rightness or your victimhood—depending on the depth of your wounding—can take days, weeks, months and even years to dissipate. On certain days, when you’re in a down mood, your psyche will want to grab onto that hurt. You have to go through that necessary period of feeling half dead, half angry, half in denial—this is the liminal space in which we grow for some reason.”
Many of us live in liminal space–the space of unknowing. It’s the desert and we desire the green land with flowing water. But moving through that space can heal us and as Rohr says–we grow–and that might be the very reason we are challenged by our neighbors, by our very living to experience the pain of hurt and to eventually known the peace of forgiving.
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