I grew up culturally Baptist and Pentacostal. Being part of Christian culture means certain evangelical mentalities and tenets become second nature to you, even if you don’t much understand what you’re memorizing. As children we learned that, “…God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whosoever believeth in him might not perish but have everlasting life.” God’s forgiveness extended towards mankind was at the core of all our beliefs, but I was never once taught what it really means to forgive. I was only told that I should.
As a child my parents tasked my siblings and I with asking for and offering forgiveness when we’d offended each other. An apology was always followed by, “Do you forgive me?” and “Yes, I forgive you.” In the 90’s this seemed like a brilliant way to teach children empathy and forgiveness but it fell terribly short because these were just words. My parents were ill-equipped to teach us what true forgiveness means because one thing that the evangelical system is absolutely atrocious at is self-awareness and self-care.
My parents were incapable of forgiveness themselves as both had never been taught this life skill and were incredibly bitter individuals. They assumed they had accomplished this sacred forgiveness just because they had chosen to stop speaking of how their own parents abused them but, their rage boiled beneath the service and when arguments arose, it all came up and out again. There was no forgiveness because Bible verse memorization doesn’t teach you that forgiveness isn’t just a simple recitation when you’ve harmed someone or you have been harmed: forgiveness is work.
In the wake of my mother’s passing I was given the miserable task of forgiving people. I needed to forgive her, forgive other family members whom I felt failed us or harmed us, forgive people that didn’t know us and yet had said untrue and hurtful things about us. I needed to do this tedious and uncomfortable work of forgiving and I, like my parents, was unprepared. I did not know where to begin with it, even if I knew I had to start somewhere.
The first person I had to forgive was my late mother. This alone felt like an impossible chore I could never complete. Forgiveness would require my acceptance of her actions, my understanding of her circumstances, my empathy for her own life experiences, and finally a compassionate release of my expectations of her. I set about trying to do these things and it took time.
About twice a month for a year I took a day to myself and I cried and I screamed for the entire day. I dove heart first into painful memories and examined every second of them. I looked at pictures and videos of her and I missed her. And then I read cruel emails and text messages she’d sent me and I hated her. I ran through these rollercoaster emotions on a regular basis because I had to get it out. Feeling everything and accepting the pain she caused was, for me, step one.
A year of screaming and crying came and went, and I felt so deeply exhausted by it that I fell into a sort of peace with it. Like, okay, yes, she stole my dog and lied about it until the day she died. Yes, that sucked. But, we’ve had our good cry. What’s next?
It’s not that it isn’t still sad and inherently hurtful, but after crying over the same things for a year straight, I suddenly didn’t feel the need to cry for them anymore. It was as though I’d given myself over to the pain so completely that one day I woke up and the pain felt less…painful. It was tucked away into a neat little box and I stood outside of that box thinking, “Well, I guess it’s time to put this up.”
I understand now that I had been traveling between two points: denial and acceptance. When I lived in denial I convinced myself my mother couldn’t hurt me like that and I was too strong to be so bothered by the things she did, but I was in fact hurt and bothered. When I allowed myself to feel all those things, I also gave myself room to accept that they happened. And that was box number one: acceptance.
After I no longer felt the sharp, shooting pain of my experiences with my mother, I was able to focus on her life as a whole. I could more delicately untangle her experiences and circumstances, without being blinded by my own. I could connect the dots between the abuse she endured and the abuse she inflicted.
With these connected dots came waves of empathy and sadness for her, and suddenly greater understanding of how those experiences molded her into who she was. Ultimately I recognize we are each still responsible for not being terrible people regardless of our upbringing, but connecting the dots lends clarity, and that clarity led to empathy.
Around the two year mark I stopped being angry at her. I could still see her for who she was and what she did, but the anger had sloughed off. I accepted her, I empathized with her, and finally I forgave her. This release happened so quietly and so naturally I didn’t even notice it. I just one day realized I wasn’t angry anymore and I could think of her, the good and the bad, without becoming emotionally compromised. The picture came into focus and I was at peace with what I saw.
Once I forgave my mother it was easier to forgive everyone else. And it was easier for me to see my own flaws, faults, and mistakes. It’s taken two and a half years but I am finally starting to feel free of unforgiveness and pain. I can tell stories of my life with her to people and it’s fine. It doesn’t hurt. And it doesn’t cause me to hate her or become angry again. It just is what it is.
The work of forgiveness is important and powerful, but it is also incredibly painful, which is why so many of us carry our unforgiveness and our bitterness around with us throughout life, despite how much pain it also causes us. Unforgiveness is a festering boil beneath the surface. Having it cut open, drained, packed, and forced to heal is PAINFUL. If you’ve never watched a boil removal on Dr. Pimple Popper I highly recommend it just so you get the visual. This is UGLY business.
But, leaving a growing, aching, infected boil to continue to rot and expand just because the pain of removing it is scary would be foolish. We tell our children to suck it up when its time for shots. We wouldn’t let a dislocated shoulder remain dislocated simply because the pain of popping it back into place is frightening. But, we allow spiritual and emotional injuries to remain because we are afraid of the pain of addressing them. And we are suffering for it.
Realize that the work of forgiving and accepting is important and essential to your development as a human. While it absolutely is painful and sometimes devastating, this work must be done. The disease of bitterness, the ache of being jaded eats away at your joy and your peace. You have to forgive so you can heal.
And I, like you, deserve to heal from the things experienced in life. We deserve freedom from the pain and we deserve a life of joy and peace. Embrace the work of forgiveness because your spirit is worthy of it.