By Diana J. Ensign
“Life becomes easier when you learn to accept the apology you never got.”
“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”
Forgiveness isn’t easy to write about or to practice in our lives. When the church community I loved broke apart (not once but twice) over disputes regarding two different ministers, the issue of forgiveness was raised by those who opted to leave. I wasn’t able to tackle the topic then. Even now, two years later, I find forgiveness an unsettling area of discussion. I can’t point to one simple solution or easy fix, especially when no one admits fault or wrongdoing yet many people feel deeply hurt. I feel the same way about a Wal-Mart going up near my neighborhood that destroyed a vast area of beautiful, mature trees—along with the numerous creatures depending on that habitat. Before the cement was poured, a friend of mine went on a “Save the Daffodils” digging expedition there. And yet, I don’t anticipate any regret on the part of Wal-Mart CEOs for the devastation they caused.
Most of us, when we feel wronged, want an apology. We want recognition that we (or those we love) were treated unfairly, and we want reparation for the hurts caused by someone’s words or actions. While we might be able to quickly forgive daily slights and minor irritations that go along with being human and interacting with other people (in our jobs, our families, and our community organizations), deep wounds present a more challenging situation. When we face betrayal, discrimination, prejudice, hate, excessive greed, needless destruction of the environment, and physical or verbal violence, forgiveness becomes a messy, uncomfortable subject embroiled in hurt, anger, painful memories, suffering, and resentment. These wounds can feel like a hard, tight knot lodged deep in our heart.
So how do we unravel this knot? Where do we begin?
I am reminded of a scene in the movie, The Mission, where Robert De Niro’s character (after feeling sincere regret for his participation in slave trafficking and murder) drags behind him a heavy bag filled with armor and weapons. He lugs this burdensome load up the steep mountainside in penance. The indigenous people he has harmed cut the bag loose when they see (through his actions and humility) his heartfelt sorrow. That image is helpful for me when I view hurts as a burden I am carrying. I am the one dragging my burdens around behind me. Forgiving others (or myself) means releasing that burden. Letting it go. The space that opens up then allows me to do the work I am called to do in this world.
What burdens are we carrying? Even if no one acknowledges our hurt or suffering, what steps we can take to lighten our load?
A few suggestions come to mind:
Remember who you REALLY are. The path you walk in this life is YOUR path. Try to keep your spirit alive and your head held high. Make empowering choices. Walk in peace. Walk in love.
Make peace with the past. Healing work is not easy. Yet, to move forward, we may need to revisit the old stories we carry around in our heads. We can re-write them if necessary and make amends where needed. We can also ask for guidance in healing the wounds of our heart. When my father died in a drunk driving accident, I spoke to him in prayer, I learned more about his life, and I made a deal with the dead: “I’ll forgive you, if you forgive me.”
Seek to understand. With mindful observation (of our emotions, thoughts, and actions), we can learn to understand ourselves and other people more completely. Through understanding, we gain compassion. For instance, Al-Anon and ACoA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) are great resources for understanding the disease of addiction. Envisioning someone as a child is another useful method when in search of compassion for a person who has caused harm. When we see more clearly the root causes of suffering, we become better at implementing healthy and lasting changes.
To err is human. It helps to not expect perfection from spouses, partners, ministers, co-workers, friends, or family and to not expect perfection from ourselves. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Learn to affirm the positive in the people you love. Include yourself as someone worthy of forgiveness and worthy of love. Some of our most meaningful life lessons come from our journey through difficult events.
Release. Writing sorrows on a piece of paper and then turning them over to a higher source can be extremely powerful. I do not believe that Spirit intends for us to suffer. On the contrary, I firmly believe that the Universe is a miraculous place and our inner happiness is always worthy of pursuit. When we are truly happy, we are less likely to cause harm to others, to our earth home, and to ourselves.
Find the silver lining. When I left the church where I was married and where my children grew up, I started seeking new spiritual groups. In doing so, I’ve met incredible people doing amazing work in the larger faith community. Similarly, after my divorce, I moved to a new neighborhood and came into contact with people who taught yoga, gardened, sang, created art, meditated, and drummed. My life has expanded in wonderful and unexpected ways despite hardship.
Put pain to good use. We can use our suffering in beneficial ways. We can speak out about situations of injustice. We can channel our pain into music, art, dance, education, poetry, and paintings. We can continue to advocate for fairness, justice, love, and equality for all God’s creatures—no exceptions!
Practice gratitude. We need to focus our attention on what we desire, as though it is already so, and then give thanks for the gifts and blessings that come our way. Our larger purpose is always to learn to love more fully. We can choose to point our life in a spiritual direction. As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”
© 2014 by Diana J. Ensign and EEWC-Christian Feminism Today