Forgiveness has been on my mind lately. It seems like it ought to be easy. I mean, if Christ could forgive the ones who tortured him to death, surely I should be able to forgive a person for some lesser act, such as lying and betrayal, right? So why is it so hard to forgive, to really, totally, for-once-and-for-all completely forgive a wrongdoer and experience only love for them from then on?
I have talked to enough people about this topic to know I’m not the only one who struggles with forgiveness. But of all the things we humans grapple with, isn’t this just about the most important? We are all in this earth-life-boat together, living our human lives and making mistakes because we aren’t yet able to live completely consciously. Because we cannot avoid making mistakes, forgiveness looms as one of the key bonds to human relationship. It seems to me forgiveness is the glue that holds us together. Forgiveness allows me to accept myself and others as we are, faults and all, and to choose to stay in relationship. Is it possible to love without the ability to forgive? I don’t think so.
So I believe forgiveness is important, and I want to forgive, yet my experience is that the really big, life-altering grievances are not so easy to forgive. What happens for me is that I will work at it, and there will be a release and feeling of love and forgiveness, and then an hour or a day or a week later the memory of what happened comes up again, I feel the pain of the event, and feel like I’m starting all over again. Again, conversations inform me that I’m not alone in this. What is this about?
Several years ago I read a book that gave me some real insight into this process. I’m sorry I can’t remember the name of the book, but I can tell you it was a heart-wrenching story by a woman who grew up in a quiet neighborhood in a small town. Her father was a pastor, and her parents were both pillars of the community. One morning the grouchy old man across the street came to their house and shot and instantly killed her parents and both her siblings. For some reason she was spared. In a few split seconds, her life went from fairly idyllic to a living nightmare. The neighbor confessed and was sent to spend the rest of his life in prison.
The story of the tragedy only occupied a small part of the book. The rest was about how she dealt with it; more particularly, how she came to forgive this man inwardly, and as an adult, even went to visit him in prison to tell him she forgave him.
The main thing that I took away from this amazing story is that for her, forgiveness is a practice, something that she does over and over again. She said that each time she works through her anger to forgiveness, the pain of the past lessens slightly and it becomes a little easier to forgive him. She was not able to forgive this man in one cathartic experience of prayer or meditation; rather, forgiving him is something she has done repeatedly, and as a result of her years of effort, the painful memories have receded and she no longer thinks about it so much.
Her story made me think that forgiveness of the really big stuff is not like making a donation to a good cause at the office, and then when the request is repeated later at home, we can say we already gave. Rather, it seems to me that forgiveness in these instances is more like a savings account at the bank, where we need to keep making deposits over and over again, until someday the accumulated balance allows us to live our lives more freely.
When I read this book, a light bulb went on for me. I felt lighter knowing that if we stay with it and continue to work at it, forgiveness will get a little easier and the pain will diminish. Since then, I do my best to remember that forgiveness is an ongoing practice, and that for some events, it may take many years, even a lifetime. I try not to beat myself up for getting caught up in memories of something that I will never understand and which still causes me pain.
Instead, I try to do something similar to meditation, where we continually recall the mind from distractions: When painful memories come up, I breathe with them, allow myself to feel the pain, and then work my way through to forgiveness one more time. I do that with prayer and faith that once again, my guru and Divine Mother will come to my aid. One of my favorite prayers goes something like, “Divine Mother, I am not able to love that person very well right now. Please love them for me. Please shower them with love and let them know they are not alone. Please accept my love for you, purify it, and send it on to them. And please help me to forgive them.”
I gratefully share this earth-life-boat with my gurubhais, and hope this little blog may be of some help to someone.