Forgiveness. Wow, that is the big one. My son emailed me once asking my advice: “Mum, how do you forgive?” Me, as a muddled human being, often in a trough of confusion, old hurts lapping round my heart, sharply spiking into my awareness when least expected? Or how a saint forgives? Because there is a huge difference.
How do people forgive horrendous wrongs, how do they find the grace in their souls? How did the Amish forgive Charles Roberts when he shot their children? (Link). I can't begin to know, but am humbled by the greatness of their souls.
For most of us, the wrongs that eat at us are far less, but they burn inside us. Our hearts speed up in dread when we meet our transgressors and we wear our wounds as a shield against more hurt.
I was once trying to put behind me a lifetime of hurts and spite from a family member. I didn't like how it knotted me up, how my heart felt bruised, how I cowered inside like a kicked dog. The main problem was that the situation was ongoing. If it had been over, I might have put it behind me, but I had to go back into it again and again.
And I wanted to behave well – not be dragged down to their level. I tried to “rise above it” and ended up an emotional punchbag. Then one day, weighed down with the burden, I said to God, “Help me to forgive. I don't see how to go ahead.” Swiftly the words formed in my head: “Why not!”
Why not? I thought – and like a light turning on, I saw: as long as I don't allow their words or acts to define me, I can forgive. I realized I was unable to let go because deep inside I was afraid that would mean I was accepting abuse as deserved – all I was worth. I had to keep my grievance as a shield.
Yes, I could forgive and suddenly, clearly, the behaviour belonged to the bully, not to me. They were whirling in their vortex, dark with their despair and self-hate, separate from me and I could see them compassionately.
Then take the push-pull relationships common to many families, a recipe of manipulation and guilt. A friend, Annie, finally found a solution with her controlling mother. On her next visit, she ran a mantra through her head: “I am nice because I am nice, not because you dictate my reaction.” Her mother was past master at the cleft stick: battering her with commands, worded so that she had only one way out – her mother's way. Often, in fact she would have taken that action of her own volition, so if she did what she thought right, she ended up obeying her mother. “I knew you would see sense,” her mother would say complacently.
For the whole two week visit, Annie behaved as her best self, not because she was kowtowing to authority (at age 52!), but because she was true to herself. It hurt her, because she felt closed and separate. That's the worst of the push-pull, you love and resist till you feel schizophrenic. But something extraordinary happened: her mother stopped driving and manipulating. After Annie left, her mother wrote,”You have given me so much this visit.” The visit that Annie had felt was cold and arid had, in fact, been the richest her mother had known. Sad that it had taken her over 50 years to find the key – and that her mother died 6 months later.
This centred feeling works for so much more than forgiveness, though in many ways that is the key. When I forgive myself, I simultaneously forgive others for the same act – and my heart of softens. When I forgive myself (so much harder), I find I have forgiven others who have hurt me the same way. Suddenly my heart is a great circle, giving, taking, understanding – indeed, “no man is an island.” And I start to see, not me defensive against attack, but each of us as separate, muddled and hurt, and yet so similar that my distress could be yours, your act mine.