Looking Out for Forgiveness
Where can I learn how to forgive?
“You don’t want to hold onto that hurt. It’s only hurting you more.” My dad was quoting my grandmother. Not his mother (who would not have been inclined to such insight), but my mom’s mom. From the time I was in elementary school, one of the bits of family wisdom that was passed along had to do with forgiveness.
In the first years of my parents’ marriage, my dad had been an auditor who traveled frequently from San Antonio, where they lived, to towns along the border between Texas and Mexico. One of the businesses he audited turned out to be involved in financial practices that were dishonest. When my dad pointed this out to his own boss, he got in trouble. The quagmire of dishonesty eventually led to Dad’s moving on to another job.
But the injury of his mistreatment stayed with him. One day a couple of years later, Dad was telling my grandmother this story. It was not the first time that she’d heard it. In fact, she had heard it a lot. He got more heated, more wrapped up in the history every time he recounted the events. Golda, my grandmother, apparently decided enough was enough. In her common sense, Methodist way she said, “Stop. Listen to yourself. You don’t want to hold on to that hurt. It’s only hurting you more. Every time you relive it, you are playing the part of the victim.”
When I was young, this story became part of the family tradition. It had a formative nature. Dad would listen to my heated accounts of being hurt. If I seemed caught in an eddy of resentments, he would repeat Golda’s advice.
Over the years I have read a lot about forgiveness. I have listened to a variety of speakers, and tried a variety of prayers. All of that has been helpful in its own way. Yet what has made the real difference has been learning from people who, in Gregory Jones’s words, “embody forgiveness.” In learning the way of forgiveness, it has helped to have mentors—those people whose demeanor, whose way of living, is singularly marked by a forgiving spirit. My grandmother was one such person. One of my high school teachers was another. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is another.
In each case, these are people who know the essential need to name the offense as precisely and as honestly as possible. They are also people who know that out of that truth-telling, something new may happen. Forgiveness may take root and begin to grow up out of the soil of telling the truth in love. In the naming, letting go of old hurt begins. In the naming, something new begins to stir. We taste the freedom of being unstuck from old hurts, and we grow out of the strange contortions of spirit that lack of forgiveness creates.
We need mentors when it comes to forgiveness. We need to notice who in our respective communities bears this gift. And we need to have the humility to become their apprentices, learning by practicing and hoping. I have started watching for those whose presence brings forgiveness into a room, or into a meeting, or into a community. I have started observing, hoping to learn something about this practice of forgiveness. On occasion I have asked specifically for guidance and for insight. I am on the watch for people whose forgiving spirits transform polarized discussions and acrimonious debates.
If you grew up with familial mentors of forgiveness, help pass that formation
along. We can teach one another how to forgive. We can call forth real mercy
from one another. Our families need it. Our churches need it. Our communities
and governments need it. Forgiveness is a practice that can be handed on, from
person to person, from generation to generation. Like any practice, it requires
practice. Find forgiveness mentors for yourself, and learn to be one for others.
After all, the hurt you hold on to is only hurting you more.
Copyright ©2004 Mary C. Earle