“In order to forgive, something has to die.”
~ Brene Brown
All of us face the opportunity for forgiveness. Some of us can both forgive and forget, while others of us cling tightly to the wound created by sin – ours or someone else’s. We pray to forgive. We believe forgiveness means possibly exonerating someone’s horrific behavior or choosing to ignore what happened so that no ill feelings will develop.
And some of this is true, but it’s only a partial truth. Many of us find it difficult to forgive, not because the act of forgiveness itself is impossible, but because of the misnomers surrounding the concept of forgiveness. We see the “forgive and forget” mentality as falling short of some deeper, more important act – a healing act.
Perhaps the word forgiveness falls on deaf ears, because we haven’t yet understood it in its entirety as it relates to grief. The truth is, in order for us to fully discover healing and peace in the wake of abuse, division, dissension, isolation, or any other means by which our hearts and lives are severed in some way, we must accept the truth that something must die in order for us to forgive.
To pardon a person, especially when s/he has not sought pardoning, means we must allow the pain we endured, the memory of the incident, or the relationship itself to perish. Life as it once was must become something different, something new. Otherwise neither forgiveness nor healing can fully transpire. And therein lay the component of grief.
We don’t forgive, because we haven’t acknowledged what needs to change in order for us to let go of what happened to us. There’s a death and rebirth that must occur before forgiveness can take full effect in our lives. Again, the cliché, “you’re only hurting yourself when you don’t forgive” comes to mind here. But the partial truth neglects the fact that full forgiveness does, in some way, heal both the offender and the offended.
I remember the day I lost my job as a high school counselor. It was not a good fit for me, and I tried desperately to make it work. I was young, inexperienced, and overly zealous in my pursuit of reclaiming the profession as a true form of counseling rather than a glorified administrative position. I loved the kids I served, and I loved their families. Every day I went to work, closed my office door, and prayed a sincere but swift prayer to the Holy Spirit to guide my actions and decisions. I took my job seriously.
Since I had no concept that many of the staff with whom I worked closely were gossiping about me, I didn’t see what was ahead: a libelous laundry list of everything I had done wrong since I started my job. I was crushed. This devastating blow was subsequent to a glowing quarterly review. Both were handed to me by my principal. Talk about betrayal. I felt alone, isolated, and entirely shocked at some of the allegations against me. My response? Anger.
I attempted to remedy the claims against me, but I knew my reputation would never fully recover. Several weeks later, I sat down with my high school principal, who brought in the middle school principal as a witness, I suppose. I could do nothing but resign myself – both literally and figuratively – to resigning my position. I left at the end of the school year “to pursue other interests,” but I didn’t leave behind the gift of forgiveness. Instead, I felt justified in my bitterness and stewed in what I rationalized as righteous anger (more like self-righteous anger).
In typical melancholic fashion, I threw an interior temper tantrum for a few days. Nothing made sense, but I thought – at the exhausting end of my rope – that I had made peace with it all and had forgiven everyone involved.
A year later, I was pregnant with Felicity, our first daughter, and Ben and I took some time in the summer to attend a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani. I had built up the anticipation of solitude and resting with the Lord through prayer and reflection, but I didn’t realize God would give me an opportunity to forgive.
As Ben and I traveled on the elevator to the second floor where we were staying for the weekend, I realized I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the middle school principal who had been involved in my job termination only a year prior. He didn’t look at me, but I knew he knew who I was, just as I recognized him. We never spoke, never acted as if we had ever met, yet we spent an entire weekend sharing a silent retreat, sitting in the same cafeteria for every meal, and walking the grounds in supposed inner peace side by side.
I had quite the reality check that weekend, because all sorts of ugliness surfaced inside me every time I saw the man. A part of me wanted to confront him. Another part of me wished that he would have approached me and initiated a conversation of apology or at least acknowledgment that we had worked together. And still another part of me – the smallest iota – wanted to forgive him. But I couldn’t.
It wasn’t until several years after the fact that I realized why. It was because I had not allowed that part of my life to truly die. I didn’t let go of what once was. Instead, I was still shamelessly yet uselessly clutching what I hoped existed, what I wanted to happen, what I wished had been – instead of the reality of what was.
Forgiveness, then, does not only mean we must allow our memories, our feelings, and even relationships to end, but it also means we must open ourselves to the opportunity of what might begin or be renewed. When something ends, something new is waiting on the cusp of our decision to surrender to what once was but is no longer. Forgiveness is an act of courageous living. It requires the vulnerability of letting go.
I had to let my dreams of becoming a successful school counselor fade away. I had to individually name the people who had hurt me, and let go of the relationship I thought I had with them. I had to let every memory of the spiteful words spoken to my face and behind my back slip into the hands of God.
Forgiveness is an act of the will, but it’s far more than merely forgetting. It’s beyond the self-righteous act of “doing it for my own sake” rather than for the sake of the other. It means I must allow my wounds to be reopened and reexamined by the Divine Physician. And I must hand them to the God who heals. Then He who heals will extend the grace of forgiveness to the offender, too, even if I am never aware of it in this life.
If I truly desire peace and lasting healing, I have to face the grievance and sit with the pain for a while. When I make a cursory motion of forgiveness, I may momentarily feel relief. But a deeper healing requires a bold and courageous look within, and that means I must face what I’d rather avoid: the reminder of the pain.
I didn’t fully forgive my coworkers until I examined myself. That took a heavy dose of humility. But I saw where I had failed. I noticed missed opportunities for conversations that might have led to a different outcome. I realized my mistakes and misgivings. And that is what opened my heart to seek understanding rather than being understood.
That’s the beauty of forgiveness: with every painful death there is a new beginning awaiting us. When we forgive, we mourn the loss (grief) and embrace the opportunity to become something more, to grow into greatness.