“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” Unknown
Forgiveness is giving up the possibility of a better past. It is the path of redemption where life can move forward from the present moment, where the past fades with memory and we have the internal space to accept the daily imperfections of life with those we love as they are. It is a true forgetting, this forgiveness that frees the victim as deeply as the perpetrator. The relationship is new, starting fresh, without the burden of selective memory. This is not a path that we command; it is one that we serve.
Forgiveness does not come easily and for many it is an unknown emotional story. It requires patience and is rarely a hasty proposition. It cannot be forced but it is a way of thinking that has to be chosen. The most arduous and sometimes insurmountable part of forgiving is that one must fully feel the injury and acknowledge it before anything can be forgiven. This is why so many families never heal; the children don’t have the language and emotional maturity to express themselves. The parents, often suffering with their own unresolved childhood pains, have little insight into the damage they have done. As a parent myself now, I often and painfully bear witness to the enormity of the task and even with my best intentions I fall short. Some days there are too many unmet needs and not enough resources and it is impossible to not inflict some harm on the way to raising another human being.
I have been working toward forgiveness, which has been called the final form of love for much of my adult life with my original family. I knew it was a real and promised place from the forgiveness that had transformed my marriage but still on every family reunion it has eluded me and inevitably something in me would crack, destroying the tentative approach we were all making. I haven’t had the heart to love the most broken places in me that are so loudly mirrored in these interactions
Each meeting becomes more poignant and urgent as all the participants age and each time together has the potential for being the last. I long for the freedom to open my heart in these moments but mostly am faced with all of my worst and ugliest character traits that are mirrored and louder in the previous generation. As I witness the source of all my most unwanted behaviors; the ones that stick to me regardless of how much or for how long I push away the relationships they came through, I understand finally that all of this brokenness is not about them anymore, my brokenness is mine alone.
Still the crass and unforgiving language, the negative spin on whatever is happening, the fear of lack which precludes any real giving- these traits that I know intimately bring up a deep revulsion in me. My children see me wince at his casual disregard for one of my own children which is at once so blatant and so comfortable for him that he is not even aware of it. They hear the tension in my voice when I try calmly to instruct him on the etiquette of sharing a meal with a family, of something so basic as limiting your portion so there is enough for everyone. They hold their breath wondering if this will be the trigger that leads to the explosion that generally accompanies our rare family reunions. My twelve year old son slides in next to me and gives me his knowing smile at yet another oblivious blunder. My eldest daughter cues me to breathe.
Then there is the glimmer of goodness as my father teaches my son about the stock exchange, a piece of my own education that has stayed with me for decades coming through direct to my kids. He starts recounting stories from his own broken childhood that I remembered fragments of, but now I get the missing details, the names and places that made him who he is. Tenderness catches me off guard around my father; it has rarely been safe to have my heart unprotected near him. I sit, waiting to serve forgiveness, to have the chance to be free of the years of not good enough that I have lived out far from his sight.
There have been no explosions on this reunion and it is thanks to my own family that I can inch closer to the edge of forgiveness. My eldest son, who knows me well and is unaffected by my father’s offenses told me the other day that he thought “it was refreshing to hang around grandpa.” In response to my incredulous face he offers “He has no idea how he affects anyone else, it’s funny.” I can see his point, but stubbornly remain attached to the small girl that I was at the receiving end of his lack. My son acknowledges how that would have sucked to be the kid and something softens in me.
This is perhaps how forgiveness happens; a few strands of a thick cord tying you to your wrongs are worn away through the courageous process of feeling and acknowledging until you can see that the injury holding you has less to offer you than the freedom of carrying your brokenness tenderly on and away. It is a real beginning for the New Year.