Paying it forward

As I wrote last time, one little sister taught me how to forgive years and years ago. Another little sister — the littlest in our family — taught me how to be forgiven.


Every time I visited home during my breaks from college, I reverted to my old bossy, cantankerous, self-righteous self within about two seconds of walking through the front door. It always hit me like a ton of bricks, how little I had really changed, when I went home for visits. No, college and young adulthood had not made me more patient, more selfless, or more saintly; they had simply removed all the old irritants that tested my weak patience, selfishness, and very weak sanctity. A few hours with my siblings was more than enough to cure me of any delusions I might have entertained about my own goodness. In one particularly bad fit of temper during a break, I remember going off on my youngest sister over absolutely nothing.

I mean it. She didn’t do a single thing. We were driving together to somewhere (I don’t remember where), and I hadn’t written down directions and I got lost. When it became apparent we were pretty hopelessly lost, and that we were going to be embarrassingly late to wherever we were going, and that we had been driving around in circles for the past half hour, I flipped out. If you’ve ever seen me flip out, no more need be said; if you haven’t, I pray God to spare you the sight and I’ll spare you the description.

My poor baby sister — she was about twelve at the time — just sat quiet as a mouse in the passenger seat of the car and took my ranting like a saint. I know I snapped at her more than once, and she quietly took that too. It was an hour I still haven’t quite forgiven myself for, and I would never have blamed her for holding it against me. Yet when I sought her out, my tail between my legs, later that afternoon and just said, “I’m so sorry,” she stared right at me and asked in all sincerity, “For what?”


That wasn’t the first or the last time that sister had to forgive me for being a jerk, and every time I’m humbled by her willingness to say, “It’s all good,” and end the matter with a hug.

A few years ago I encountered that same kind of forgiveness in someone outside my family. I went through a less-than-peaceful transition out of a housing situation that had become pretty unhappy for me. There were tears and misunderstandings and hurt feelings all around, and I moved into my new apartment fearing my old roommate and I would never patch things up. To my surprise (and joy), though it took a little while, she forgave me. We remained friends, and still are, and I attribute it all to her mercy toward me, even though I didn’t deserve it.

The hardest — and best — thing about being forgiven is that it’s not something you can ever deserve. In fact, the whole point of forgiveness is letting go of what you do deserve for a wrong done. And it can’t be manipulated or controlled; it has to be freely given. Maybe that’s why I’m a little bit in awe of every person who has ever forgiven me, and a little bit terrified every time I screw up again, wondering if this time I’ve really hit the limit.

Yet it’s knowing that I have been forgiven in very concrete circumstances that gives me the patience and the willingness to forgive when I’m wronged. Even in those cases where I still struggle to let things go, I want to forgive, because I’ve had good people in my life who willingly forgave me when I screwed up. To all of you: thank you. I’m going to keep on doing my best to pay it forward.



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