Forgiveness Is Always An Option

Being told, over and over, by multiple people, that I needed to forgive was, in the end, totally counterproductive to the actual process of forgiveness.

I recently attended a six-week support group. Those brief two-hour sessions a week, and some light “homework” assignments following each session, found me freed, freed at last, from an intolerable burden that I had carried for a decade or more: unforgiveness.

Understand, it was not that I did not want to forgive the person who had, undeniably and maliciously, caused me enormous harm. Being raised in an Italian/Scottish family, I was all too familiar with the mechanics of feuding; of carrying grudges. I knew what it was to experience unforgiveness, bitterness, enmity, animosity and hostility.

Even more, I knew very well the toll these emotions took not just upon me, but upon everyone on the periphery of my life: my loved ones and family members. And I knew, as well, that not one iota, not one tiny, minute drop of the acid from those spiteful feelings in any way harmed the object of my anger. Instead, they ate away at my own soul.

Intellectually aware of all these facts, I nevertheless could not put aside the rage that scored my soul to its center. I could not forgive the individual who had wronged me.

Oh, I tried—how I tried! I prayed over and meditated on the problem. I forced myself to carefully recount all the ways in which the person who had harmed me deserved my understanding and empathy.  Each time the bitterness rose like a bile that I could taste in my mouth, I chanted to myself the words, “I forgive”. But the words were hollow and empty; the empathy a mere pretense, fleeting and unfelt. I finally created a string of beads and frequently held them in my hands, whispering my forgiveness as the circlet slipped through my fingers. The exercise did nothing but drain me. All my attempts to forgive merely induced a new anger—anger at myself—and a growing feeling of being inextricably trapped, ceaselessly beating my hands at the silken strands of a web that would not release me.

Worse yet was my reaction to those who told me what I already knew. If I had plucked a hair from my head for each time I heard someone say the words, “If you could only forgive…”, I would have been bowling pin bald!  “I’m trying,” I wanted to scream at them. “I’m trying to forgive. I want to forgive! I just can’t seem to get there.” No matter how well-intentioned, their words hindered rather than aided my healing. Rather than perceiving their concern for my emotional state, I heard them belittling my efforts. Instead of comprehending their hope that I would find healing, I heard them being sanctimonious. I shut my ears to their actual words or their intentions.  Instead, what my heart heard them saying was, “I  have been hurt and  I forgave! I am so much more evolved a soul than you!”

Being told, over and over, by multiple people, that I needed to forgive was, in the end, totally counterproductive to the actual process of forgiveness.

But what I found in those brief few weeks of spilling my guts to total strangers was the unexpected miracle that led me back to a state of grace. Finally able to speak my truth—my rage, my enduring anger, and my unforgiveness–without censure and without judgment, gave me the freedom I needed to find my way to mercy and compassion; to give pardon and grant absolution to the individual who had so grievously wounded me.

If I have learned anything on this long and twisted journey to compassion, it is that forgiveness is always an option, and one that we do not have to choose. I have learned that to tell another that they need to forgive is to stand in judgment upon them. And I have discovered that, for most of us, forgiveness can happen only after the wound we are carrying has been drained of all its poison. Then forgiveness will happen so naturally, so easily, that we will not even realize at first that it has occurred. We will simply awake one day to the knowledge that the burden of rage that we have been carrying has been lifted from our shoulders, and we are no longer enmeshed in the binding web of fury.

If I am ever faced with a friend who is suffering, trapped in the spider’s web of unforgiveness, I now know what I will say. I will tell that person only, “It’s okay. Everything you are feeling is okay. And when you are ready to forgive, it will happen. It will just happen. And that will be a wonderful day.”

The Best Revenge

Their names were (I think) Emily and Linda. Since the events that I recall transpired 50 years ago I may, perhaps, be forgiven for my uncertainty over the names of these two young women–especially as the only reason I have to recall them is that they bullied me—cruelly, continually, mercilessly, and without reason–throughout my first year of high school.

I no longer hate Emily and Linda, although achieving emotional distance took me at least 25 or more years. As adolescents, we are at our most fragile, most sensitive, and the distress induced by viciousness during that period is more telling, and harder to cope with, than it would be later in life.  As mature adults, we have usually learned wisdom, detachment, and survival skills.  Nevertheless, I’m sorry now that I wasted so much precious emotional energy on hating Emily and Linda.  Nothing I ever thought of them—none of my fury, none of my hatred—ever harmed them;  none of things I wished upon them (pain, anguish, failure) did anything more than keep me emotionally bound to my torturers.

And torturers they were.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” we used to chant as children when taunted by another child.

It’s a brave, wise shield thrown up in the face of unspeakable cruelty, but it isn’t true. Words hurt.  They wound.  They scar us, less visibly but just as deeply,  as physical assault.  And those wounds and scars can last a lifetime.

I began high school already at a psychological disadvantage, coming as I did from the household of a Borderline Personality Disorder parent.   I had begun developing acne at the early age of 11, and (although I was perfectly proportioned, as I now know from looking at old photos) was told repeatedly by my mother that I was fat.  Neither pretty nor ugly, I might have been called average.  But at 12 and 13, one doesn’t want to be average.  One longs to be pretty, and to be popular, or at least accepted, among one’s peers.

Added to the burden I would carry was the fact that I was just leaving an 8th grade in a parochial school where we girls wore uniforms; I needed all new school clothes.  This was during the height of the hippie era.  Clothes were “psychedelic”, in hot pinks and shrieking lime, and paisley; skirts were short, boots were “go-go”,  and dresses were A-line.  In the midst of all this very definitive and silly fashion, my mother decided to clothe me in my grandmother’s used Chanel knit suits. Those suits were the height of fashion—for a 40-something working woman.  On a 13-year-old teenager, they were the kiss of death.

Plain, covered in acne, in clothes that made me a laughingstock, I entered high school. And Emily and Linda, popular girls leading their clique of sycophants, made the most of it.

There is no point any longer to recalling the things they said, they did to me; the degrading tricks they played on me, the humiliation and mortification piled upon me. day after day . There is no longer any reason to recall how hard it was for me to hold my head up and pretend to ignore their bullying, nor the bitter, gulping sobs that engulfed me when I was alone, nor the many, many hours I spent plotting and visualizing terrible revenge and promising myself that it would happen.  There is no point to any of that, because I was fortunate.  In that era, the local school system considered 7th, 8th, and 9th graders to be “junior” high school.  Emily and Linda were a year younger than I.  When I began my sophomore year in the 10th grade, I was stationed across the street from them, in the high school building.  I no longer rode the same bus.  I moved on, and they were left behind, to torture some other sad victim.  And by the time they arrived at the high school, we were worlds apart, absorbed in a school of almost two thousand young people, in different classes, different rooms. I never saw them again.

Except that I did. For decades,  Emily and Linda lurked in the corner of my mind’s eye, at the periphery of my inner vision, undermining my confidence, dimming my achievements, continuing to torture me–but only, I understand now, because I allowed it.  Trapped in the memories of those painful days, continually rehearsing old grievances, I remained a helpless fly caught in their spiteful web.

Forgiveness, I have learned, does not mean forgiving what was done, but forgiving only the person. Decades later, I realized that Emily and Linda were, in a way, just as trapped in their own web as I was.  Frightened; angry as all adolescents are angry, they chose to victimize me in order to make themselves feel less vulnerable and more whole.

I wonder how well it worked for them.

I was able, eventually, to forgive Emily and Linda, and in doing so, I moved on. And yet I have finally had the revenge I promised myself all those years ago.

The best revenge, after all, is in living well.