I considered letting my personal encounter with forgiveness speak for this topic itself (it was quite a moment). Much of what I’ll say will refer back to it, though here, I hope to provide something maybe a little more generally helpful.
Finding forgiveness might mean, as it did for me, fighting through a whole storm of lies and misconceptions that’s telling you one thing while people and books tell you another, more positive thing. I remember a time that the very word “forgive” gave me suicidal urges. It’s a hard place to get to, and not an easy place to stay, let alone go further into.
Soon after forgiveness finally made sense to me, the pain and the memories came back with a vengeance. In the past, (when I don’t get stuck in a rage about it) I’d just think, “STOP. GO AWAY. STAY BACK.” Doing so would squash all that bad stuff into a box, lock it up tight, and bury it somewhere to rot and fester. It wouldn’t address it. It wouldn’t heal it. I could move forward and “function”, numb to it, but I wasn’t healed. I’d also just distract myself with work, with a bad habit, with social media, or YouTube (especially YouTube). Distractions can be helpful in the short run, though not so helpful in the long run.
Then, I replaced my avoidant thoughts and habits with something else:
Something else happened in me when that became my mantra. There’s a calm that happens, different from the numbness that hurts when I move. The storm passes, and the sea settles above and below.
I tried thinking, “I forgive you,” but was met with that familiar resistance. The peace didn’t come. When I left it open, “I forgive (___),” it was curative. The words that came to mind was “hate the sin, not the sinner.” At this point of my healing, I can’t make the forgiveness personal, forgive those people at a personal level. What I can do is forgive the hurt, evil in general, and that’s worlds more than I was able before.
These healing things of forgiveness and acceptance…they can happen in moments. It might take forever for them to come, but when they come, the way they happen, it’s like 1000 years has passed overnight. I didn’t think myself at all able, not in 10,000 years, to have what I have now. The truth is I do. Not always the way I expected, or wanted, but it happened. It’s happening.
If the very thought of forgiving someone is too much, it might be helpful to make forgiveness impersonal. It’s less than perfect forgiveness, but so what? Imperfect is better than impossible.
Another thing that helped me get to that point is seeing forgiveness in a different way than how I always saw it, something that deeply resonates with me. A priest friend encountered forgiveness on a spiritual retreat one morning; knowing him as I do, I imagined it outside in nature. I encountered it in the image of rain that comes after waiting under dark clouds and heavy humidity, picturing my waiting for an apology as “watching, parched, as condensation rolled off a cold glass of lemonade, waiting for them to get it for me.” I can’t speak for my priest friend, but I know I wasn’t really looking for forgiveness; I more or less bumped into it.
It was given to me.
I wrote once that wisdom “is not something one is, nor even something one earns; [it] is a humble openness to learning, something we are given, often by way of many tears.” Maybe, looking at this, forgiveness is the same way. Makes sense, as one can’t write “forgiveness” without “give”.
There was so much pressure, from both outside and from within, to forgive. Since I was a small girl, I learned I had to be “heartily sorry” for all my sins to be forgiven, and that I had to “forgive those who trespassed against [me]” to likewise be forgiven. I was taught that I had to feel sorry, or feel forgiving (and I mean really feel and experience from the bottom of my heart) for it to count. Otherwise, it was empty and insincere. I was treated like an unforgiving monster when I didn’t allow abusers to keep abusing me, confusing me more. I’d confused forgiveness with reconciliation, thought I had to be willing to renew a relationship with those people who hurt/abused me, when I know it unwise (at worst, dangerous) to do so.
A little more on that last one; I’d go to confession (aka “reconciliation”, mind) for the same things over and over, not just because I’m addicted to certain sins, but because, I figured, since I didn’t forgive all those people, hating them instead, God didn’t actually forgive me. I’d keep going to confession carrying those old sins with the current, scrubbing at a stain long since washed clean. I’d even carry with me the sins of my abusers. On the same “Our Father” principle, I figured that if I kept on never expecting any forgiveness, I’d never have to forgive them; seemed fair, right? But at what cost? Greater than I thought, and otherwise not worth it.
Even if I wasn’t Catholic though, I can see there’s this dominant attitude of “get over it” these days. Some people would encourage me to get over it through “reclaiming” myself, often in doing the very same things that hurt me. Some would want nothing to do with me and my hurt, close their hearts to me. From where I stand, somewhere in the middle, there seems to be a universal hardness of heart, a pressure to hide or cover wounds with whatever bandages we can find when they’re infected, needing surgery.
I, and I think a lot of us, want to force ourselves better, force ourselves to forgive, just “get over it.” We have to, after all, for whatever reason we may have. Culture says so. Religion says so. Family says so. Friends say so. Spouses say so. Therapists say so. We ourselves say so. The more pressure I experienced though, I found, the tighter I held onto those offenses, and the more I hated the offenders. At the same time, I realize, if I or others enabled my hatred, encouraged me to not forgive, I’d end up just like my main abusers, who likewise never forgave, never healed.
I pass these hydrangea bushes every day in the open hallway between my apartment and my car. This past winter, I would look down at them, looking forward to see those beautiful blue, purple, and pink flowers again come spring. When spring came, the green leaves did come back on the bush, though I noticed the dead, spent flowers from last year were still there. It’d frustrate me to no end, seeing those dead flowers everyday. “If they’d just prune the dead flowers, the new ones could grow in!” I thought. A moment later, I realized I just learned a life lesson on letting go.
Summer came with another lesson: new flowers did grow in, blooming next to the dead ones. Hope can exist along with the hurt. A little rain, a little goodwill can go a long way. Then came another lesson: those new flowers, sure enough, didn’t last very long with those dead flowers still there. I can’t stop here, at this imperfect, impersonal forgiveness; I’m going to have to prune what’s keeping new flowers from thriving, and have a perfect, personal forgiveness for it all.
There’s so much evil in the world. Nature, in all its beauty, is very much “kill or be killed” – those hydrangeas I love are actually poisonous. It would sometimes seem that’s what this world is, underneath the beauty and wonder. It seems like we humans are inherently selfish, rotten creatures. It seems like all we want to do is hurt each other. It seems God is unfair; there’s not much karmic justice in this life. “He causes His sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike.” (Matthew 5:45)
But if we hate this world, humanity, God…we can’t see the good that’s there. We can think, as I have thought, that evil and suffering is all there is, and the best we can hope for is whatever comfort we can find.
I’ve suffered so much. I’ve had so much taken from me. Very little was given back, and some of what was given back was ripped out of my hands. People have been cowardly. People have been cruel. I saw it in my life, and in the lives of those around me.
There’s so much evil in the world.