Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Practice of Forgiveness

I saw an old boyfriend of mine yesterday. He was smiling and raising his arms to the sky and talking about what a beautiful spring day it was. Maybe a little irony there, as it had poured rain all day. I smiled and exchanged a bit of small talk in passing, and we went our ways.
Afterwards I thought about how differently I perceive things now than I did all those years ago. I was in my 20s then, and I was madly in love for a few months, and then he dumped me. I grieved the loss deeply and went around cursing men in general and him in particular for the next year or so. Gradually I moved on to other disasters, and I got over it.
When I saw him yesterday I smiled at his upbeat goofiness, which was always one of his most endearing qualities. Then I remembered his deep depressions. Almost 40 years on I felt compassion for his suffering, and whispered a prayer for his ease of mind, and marveled at how easy it is to forgive now.
What seemed like the end of the world 40 years ago is now the understandable passion of a young person who was subject to the whims of loneliness and hormones and insecurity. I was afraid no one would ever love me. I was afraid I'd never marry, or have children, or experience the fullness of family life.
I got over that, too. Forty years down the road the marriage, the children, and the fullness have all come to pass. Wow. Especially the fullness. Many people are experiencing this unexpected fullness of family life in these hard times, but that's another story.
The thing is, I worked hard on forgiveness over the years. I worked at learning how to forgive and let go of old hurts and resentments. The first time I was able to say I had forgiven someone who had scarred me in childhood, I felt such a lightness of spirit and joy, and thought, boy, if people knew what a selfish act forgiveness is, they'd do it a lot more.
What I had not understood is that in forgiving you are not letting someone off the hook for their sins; you're letting yourself off the hook of carrying your resentment for their sins. I've learned that you can't forgive out of hand, immediately or because the preacher says you have to forgive. It's a mistake to try to forgive without dealing with your feelings about what you're forgiving. Forgiveness is not an intellectual choice. It's a shift in the gravity of the heart.
It gets easier with practice, and with time. The hormones and loneliness and insecurity lose some of their power to whack you around. When you're an adult most people are hesitant to be abusive to you, but when it happens you're more likely to realize that it's about them, not you. It still hurts, because you're human and you have feelings, but you know it's not your fault.
I'm not saying you never do anything wrong – don't go down that road. You and I and all the world will be screwing up until the day we die. That's another thing I've learned in 60 years. When I screw up, I try to make amends, except for the times when I really don't give a rat's patootie. Not giving a rat's patootie is another gift of age, by the way. At long last I do not have to be responsible for everyone and everything. Ah.
It's always a good day to stop carrying around something that's weighing you down. Start small. Forgive someone for getting in your way in the grocery store. Not out loud – that would attract attention you don't want. Work your way up to old lovers and abusive family members. It won't undo anything, it won't erase the scars, it won't make life easy, but it will make your heart lighter and your life a little happier.
And that's worth a whole lot more than a rat's patootie.

1 comment:

S. K. said...

Well said, as usual. I've known for a while that forgiving people feels good, but never thought about why until you said it so eloquently. Thanks, as usual.