“That’s okay, I forgive you.”
I remember marveling at how easy it was to say, and how the feelings followed almost immediately on the words — no more anger, just a lovely, calm benevolence. My six-year-old chest nearly swelled with it.
My little sister didn’t believe me. She blinked, incredulous, and rubbed her teary eyes with the backs of her hands. “But I didn’t mean to,” she whimpered, and hiccuped.
And I shook my head and said, “No, I mean it. It’s okay.”
She had taken the tea pot out of my new, big girl porcelain tea set without asking, and had broken it in the bathroom sink when she tried to fill it with water. But when she came to me right away with the broken pieces and said, “I took it without asking and I broke it and I’m so
sorry,” I couldn’t be angry. Even though my heart sank at the thought of losing my brand new tea pot, I realized there was no sense in making a scene over it. After all, what more could she do?
That was my first brush with forgiveness. No strings attached, no hard feelings, just “It’s okay” and the joy of seeing my sister’s face light up with gratitude.
If only forgiveness could always be that easy. More than twenty years later, I find myself looking back to my six-year-old self and wondering what she understood that I seem in so many ways to have lost. It’s so easy to be angry, even over slights so much smaller than broken tea pots. It’s so easy to stifle and ignore the anger that inevitably arises in relationships, so it festers and becomes a wound that aches. It’s so easy to pretend the wounds are no big deal, and to push people away because that’s easier than scraping out infections and applying the dressings that will let healing set in.
It hit me a few months ago that I’d been holding on — hard — to many old hurts, from many different places. The catalyst was an out-of-the-blue message I got from a girl I used to be close to. Years ago she was one of my “inner circle” friends, the kind you’ll drop everything for, the kind who knows you in and out and laughs at the same jokes and shares a lot of the same memories. The kind you’ve let down your guard for and come to really love. Then, with no explanation, she seemed to just disappear from my life. We still ran into one another now and then, and she was still her sweet self when we did; she often mentioned in a sort of wistful way that we “ought to get together,” but the relationship ended up dying a slow death of starvation. And her life moved on and she eventually left the area, and I finally shook off the ache of it and determined to move on and forget her.
Reading her message reopened all the old wounds. Maybe it would have been okay if she had expressed some sort of regret at the way our relationship sputtered to an end. Instead she only wrote, “I’m back in the area,” and “Maybe I’ll run into you sometime.”
Of course, some of it was my own fault, for not saying anything when the distance became an unavoidable fact. But either way it’s so much harder to forgive someone who has no idea she’s broken your tea pot and doesn’t seem to be the least bit sorry. You don’t get the satisfaction of seeing the other person’s surprised gratitude; you don’t get to experience the lovely glow that sort of settles over the whole relationship because your willingness to let the thing pass has brought you both to a place of peace. Accepting your place in another person’s heart when it’s not the place you wanted is much harder. It requires humility and that real, self-sacrificial love that’s so very hard. It’s a very lonely process, and the end result may not be a relationship at all, but accepting that a relationship has come to an end.
But I’m coming to realize forgiveness can’t be based on the other person “coming around.” It makes it a lot easier, certainly, but we can’t live our lives angry, just waiting for other people to realize the error of their ways and come crawling back to us for mercy. At a certain point, I have to take responsibility for my own reactions and feelings. I have to dress my own wounds and move on, whether or not the people who caused them ever realize or acknowledge it.
I will be brutally honest: I’m not capable of that kind of forgiveness yet. But I want to be capable of it, and I hope and pray that wanting can be enough of a first step to get the ball rolling. So much depends on grace. So much depends on realizing that I also have been forgiven much, not just by God but by family members, dear friends, roommates, even acquaintances who have sustained hurts from me, many of which I know nothing about.
More than anything else, though, learning to forgive — to really forgive and let go and move on — requires so much prayer. For now, all I can do is pray, “Lord, give me a heart of mercy, like your heart.” And I just keep hoping the rest will follow, in good time.
*Broken tea pot image from here.