There are times when the use of the word ‘forgiveness’ can be messy. The true idea of forgiving holds a lot of power and is a necessary part of joyful living. Yet, owing to its potentially tricky usage, the word ‘forgiveness’ can present great challenges, and sometimes smacks of resignation and martyrdom.
For most of my young adult life, I was confused about forgiveness. I couldn’t quite put my finger on its meaning. My then understanding of it was vague and made me feel ensnared in a trap of expectation without any right to stand up for myself. I really struggled with it. But then a life-changing event clarified the term for me, gave me a different perspective, and offered a clear and practical approach to true forgiveness.
When I first moved to Oregon, winters were balmy and rainy. However, over time, that trend become varied. My first memory of our winter weather pattern changing was marked by a traumatic experience in 2010. On the first and foggiest of evenings I’d ever seen here, my six-year old daughter’s best friend was killed in a car accident as she was on her way to our house for a playdate. The accident occurred unnecessarily as the little girl’s mom pulled out of their driveway. The event made its mark in the lives of many people, but, my six-year old’s mind was completely blown away.
Sudden death is something adults even struggle with in our society, and because I was pretty rocked by the event myself, I was not equipped to help my kiddo through it. Sheer circumstance landed us in the hands of an amazing organization in Eugene, Courageous Kids, a bereavement program dedicated to assisting children through the experience of death. As the program dictated, kids worked through their feelings with games, activities, and art under the guidance of highly qualified therapists.
While the kids were in one room, their parents/guardians met in another room with a counselor. Most of the adults in that group were widows and widowers, or parents and grandparents of deceased children. It is incomprehensible for most of us to understand what it feels to lose a life partner or child through shocking and unexpected circumstances. Suffice it to say, it can be one of the most painful experiences a person in our culture can go through.
I listened to my fair share of very sad stories, but what stood out to me most was hearing the insensitivity and ridicule these people faced at the hands of others’ ignorance. I remember one woman in particular who seemed to have no capacity for tears despite the recent and unexpected death of her husband. She often complained that people at work did not understand her. Because she had an edge, I mentally imagined that her demeanor would indeed not be pleasant for coworkers to interact with.
One evening, however, she told the group something that her employer had said to her during a year-end work assessment. “Look, your husband died two months ago. Isn’t it time you moved on?” she repeated, emulating her employer’s frustrated voice. Then, for the first time, tears welled up and made tracks down her cheeks. “He just doesn’t understand what it means to go through this. He watches me like a hawk and-” Her voice trailed off as the tears escalated. The room went quiet as she let down her armor of protection for the first time. Consequently, I watched my unconscious judgement melt in the face of arising compassion.
It was a big group, and as the weeks passed, I found my own propensity for unconscious judgement dissolve. I was seeing behind the scenes into each person’s real experience and understanding the extent of my own ignorance. By the time the program ended, I walked away with a vow not judge others for their behavior knowing I could never know what they have lived through.
For me, that is the true nature of forgiveness; letting go of judging another’s behavior. The cashier behind the register who is tight-lipped and curt, your child’s friend who doesn’t look you in the eye when speaking, the neighbor who shouts at your dog across the fence, or your coworkers behaving with icy responses. None of these behaviors warrant judgement.
People will respond to their life circumstances in a myriad of ways. We don’t need to lie down and take it when their behavior is upsetting; that’s not the point of true forgiveness. Forgiveness is remembering that others have reasons for behaving the way they do. Forgiveness is the act of letting go of judging that behavior. Forgiveness is choosing not to react but rather to respond. And within the absence of judgement, the true definition of forgiveness arises in our hearts as compassionate response.