Q. I stumbled across a column you wrote about forgiveness. I read it over and over and over again, hoping it could “heal” my anger at my Mother and my sibling. But I feel numb. NUMB. I’m hoping you could help me find the real meaning of FORGIVENESS and let things go. I want to start moving on, but I don’t know how. I’m seriously injured emotionally from the stuff my Mother and my brother did to me. I want to forgive them, but it’s not so easy. It’s my Mother’s birthday tomorrow. I am in front of my computer to buy her flowers online, like I used to do, but I can’t force myself to do it. J.O., Martinez, CA.
It’s hard to know for sure, just reading your words, but, I tell myself there is a stridence, an urgency, some energy heading for frantic or even desperate in these words. I picture you, sitting in front of your computer screen, trying to ‘will’ forgiveness. Trying to figure out what muscle to flex. Chafing. Pushing. Pounding your heart and head like drums, hoping to break through whatever barrier there is between you and forgiveness.
Which must mean you have some strong ideas about forgiveness.
I ought to forgive. I should forgive. Forgiveness is the right thing to do. God demands that I forgive. I demand that forgive. Something like that?
Or perhaps you have some strong feelings about forgiveness.
It hurts to feel this angry. I feel guilty for feeling so angry. I’d feel better if I could forgive. My inability to forgive makes me feel bad about myself. Maybe I’m an unforgiving person.
You’re caught in a meat-grinder of internal dialogue. So you ask me if I could help you find the real meaning of forgiveness and “let things go.” All right. I’ll try. Keep in mind I have no idea what your Mother and your brother did to you. But I believe you when you say it left an emotional injury.
The first and most important thing I want you to do is … STOP TRYING TO FORGIVE. Do I surprise you? Trust me. This is important. It’s the same advice I’d give you had you written and said, “I’m dating this really nice guy, and I’m trying to fall in love with him.” I’d tell you that’s silly. I’d tell you to stop trying to fall in love with him.
The most important interpersonal transactions – forgiving, falling in love, chemistry, humor, intimacy, understanding – aren’t decisions. Strictly speaking, we don’t and can’t decide any of these things. These things are decisions or acts. They are happenings. They happen in us and to us. But they are not “done.”
Yes, there are things we can decide and things we can do to beckon, coax, elicit and woo the happening called forgiveness. That is, to make it more likely. To expedite the possibility. We can, for example, pray for our enemies, which at minimum is practicing and rehearsing an intention (a wish) for our enemy’s well-being. The ancients were wise to see that it is hard to harbor and nurture hatred and resentment while simultaneously rehearsing a wish for your enemy’s well-being. The latter pulls the energy out of the former.
You can simply send the flowers, for example, even as you feel the weight of your anger and indignation. You can forswear vengeance, despite the vengeful fantasies.
But, whatever you decide to do, it’s important that you take your anger and hurt (your injury) seriously. Healthy anger is the name of the energy we mobilize to defend our boundaries. Healthy anger is the “no” to injustice. And “no” is the right response to injustice.
Do your mother and brother know they have injured you? If not, should you tell them? It’s an important discernment because, on the one hand, forgiveness and reconciliation require dialogue with the folks who have hurt us. On the other hand, inviting that dialogue sometimes risks being injured again.
Again, I don’t know how egregious were these actions towards you. But I do know that there are occasions when bearing our faithful witness to truth and justice must be a higher priority than forgiveness. Meaning, we ‘backburner’ the work of forgiveness for the time being until we have given proper shrift to truth and justice, not to mention our suffering.
Any authentic forgiveness first faces the injury. Meaning, forgiveness is not a sentiment. It is the fruit of faithful suffering, truth-telling, self-respect, and enduring in the work of love.
Because love is a work. Not a feeling.
(Steven Kalas writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is a therapist, an author and an Episcopal priest. You may reach him at email@example.com.)