Last Spring, my niece Caroline had finished her Freshman year at college. She had worked hard and earned good grades. She made some new friends from other parts of the country. She told me that as she looks back on her high school years, she can see that she is more self-confident and more socially skilled.
"But one thing still bothers me," she said, as we recently met for lunch. "Someone in my dormitory put out on the internet some stories about me that were not true, and they were very embarrassing. Before I realized it, everyone had heard these false stories."
"I persuaded several friends to put out messages of rebuttal, but not everyone on campus believed the rebuttals. It was very hurtful. It caused me much pain and social isolation. I became quite bitter and thought about revenge."
"Then I discovered who was the author of these falsehoods," Caroline said.
Some of Caroline's friends had now encouraged her to confront the person. Caroline says she is faced with a dilemma. "Do I forgive the perpetrator, or seek revenge?"
As Caroline's "wise, old uncle," I thought I was being asked for advice. So, here is what I told Caroline.
"Let's look at the two sides of your dilemma," I suggested. What message does that word FORGIVE convey? I think Webster's tells us it means ceasing to feel resentment against an offender."
"But, there is a lot to be said for not forgiving people who have done us wrong. Why should people who have upset our lives, leaving us bleeding in their wake, expect us to forgive everything and act as if nothing went wrong? We are not talking about the petty slights that we all inevitably suffer. We are talking about forgiving people who have hurt us deeply and unfairly. If forgiving leaves the victim exposed and encourages the wrongdoer to hurt again, why forgive?"
"But, if you hurt me and I retaliate in kind, I may think I have given you only what you deserve, no more. But you will feel it as a hurt that is too great to accept. Your passions for fairness will force you to retaliate against me, harder this time. Then it will be my turn. And will it ever stop? This is how family feuds progress, and go on and on until everyone is dead ---- or gets too old and too tired to fight."
Now, let's look at forgiveness. It is not simply the alternative to revenge just because forgiveness is soft and gentle. It is the best alternative because it is the only creative route to less unfairness. Hard as forgiveness seems at the time, forgiveness has creative power to move us from a past moment of pain, block us from an endless chain of pain-giving reactions, and to create a new situation in which both the wrongdoer and the wronged can begin in a new way. There is no guarantee, but forgiving is the only door open to new possibilities."
So, how do we bring ourselves to forgive? Forgiveness means accepting others ---- and ourselves ---- as human and not perfect. Forgiveness means resisting an emotional, defensive response when we are hurt. Of not allowing their act of disrespect to diminish our own sense of self-worth. Forgiveness means taking the risk of exposing our emotions to pain, and holding to a hope that disappointments and hurt do not have to be the last word."
I continued, "Forgiveness is a process ---- a journey, which makes it even more difficult to accomplish. As much as we might like forgiveness to be a 'forgive and forget' moment, lives do not work that way. Old hurts are wrapped up in our emotions, and have a way of re-surfacing. So, we may think later that we need to examine a new facet of the wound we had hoped had healed. Basically, forgiveness is a commitment to face life with a posture that takes risks rather than protecting. Meanwhile, we struggle with the possibility that protection may actually be the wise choice in some situations."
"Finally," I said, "forgiveness is not passivity. It is an active response to brokenness. While refusing to return evil for evil, forgiveness can also be an act of resistance, refusing to let evil continue. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s tactic of non-violent resistance is an example of forgiveness that refuses to let evil continue. By resisting segregation, civil rights workers were saying "no" to racism, but by being non-violent they were inviting the enemy to join the community. Forgiveness loves the sinner, while saying clearly that the sin is unacceptable."
About then the waiter brought our check, and Caroline remembered she had a babysitting assignment. "If I'm late, I am not sure they will forgive me," Caroline said with a chuckle.
These thoughts are brought to you by the Adult Spiritual Education Team at CPC, hoping to encourage your personal spiritual growth this Fall.