Lying in my trashcan are the torn remnants of four small orange note cards, each embossed with the letter “J.” The fifth, I just slipped softly into the “personal mail only” slot at work, but it’s Friday, and I’m winding up an hour and a half of overtime. I’m one of the last to leave and my little orange notecard will rest there patiently until Monday afternoon.
On Tuesday, I imagine, someone will cart it down to the federal post office, where it will merge with its brethren to be sorted and packed for delivery. By Wednesday, a carrier will pull it from its resting place in a mailbag and drop it along with the usual bills and junk mail at its destination, a scant 2 miles away. Appropriately, it’s Holy Week, one of two “sweeps weeks” – if there is such a thing – for the Christian Church – the other being, of course, Christmas.
I say appropriately because, as much as Christmas week is filled with anticipation and joy, Holy Week is filled with introspection and self reflection. In some ways, my little orange card carries the culmination of two years of searing reflection and exploration. And it will reach its recipient just before Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – two of the most poignant and reflective days of the year.
How do I answer someone – in the space of a 3×5 card – who has, after two years and no communication, mailed a similar card with an apology for the incredibly hurtful consequences of her choices and actions, along with a request for forgiveness? In this season of introspection and time of sacrifice, how do I dance in the moment and respond honestly, with the integrity I value and strive to honor?
I am finding it doubly hard because over the past two years I’ve arrived at a totally different understanding of forgiveness from what I suspect she holds. I’ve found it to be a complicated subject, really, and intensely personal. My concept of forgiveness is likely not hers, nor is hers mine.
Here’s the thing: Forgiveness has become a pretty cheap commodity. We do or say things that have hurtful consequences to others (and “choice” is inherent in the doing, although we may not consciously acknowledge that) because we believe we can easily seek forgiveness after the fact. We expect to hear “it’s OK,” or “it’s fine,” when we ask for forgiveness because we think those words will let us off the hook and make us feel better. But when the response is the more appropriate “I accept your apology” with no indiction of the “forgiveness” we expect, we feel somehow cheated of our quick absolution. Now we are forced to live with our feelings, forced to find our own way to forgiveness.
Over the past two years, I’ve twisted the concept of forgiveness upside down and inside out seeking its truth – for me, that is. Every time I dissect it, I find the same answer: Seeking forgiveness is something we do to make ourselves feel better. Forgiveness is about the “ego,” not about the “other.” Not to cheapen our sincerity, for we may be incredibly sorry, sincere, repentant. But ultimately what we ask is this: “please say it’s OK so I can rid myself of this guilt I’m carrying.” When we unwrap that request, we actually find there’s little regard for the one we beseech for forgiveness.
See, I’m now in a place where I consider forgiveness to be an act of self-love. I choose to accept the reality of some hurtful event or action but to consciously let go of its hold over me. That’s true forgiveness. The event, the action, the person no longer defines me because I choose to live beyond it, to not allow it to color my world. I – and only I –control my thoughts, my feelings, my sense of self. I no longer nurse a grudge, obsess over an event, or wish a person ill. It no longer matters to me, it’s not on my radar. That’s forgiveness, and it’s a gift I give myself.
So for me, it simply follows that forgiveness is not something I can give to others, although they can choose to take it for themselves. No matter how much I may want to see someone relieved of her burden of guilt, I can’t do that for her. It matters so little what I say; she is her only judge and jury and the only one capable of granting herself forgiveness. Only she can give herself that gift.
And here’s where it comes together for me. The process of forgiveness starts with a truly repentant apology. I believe that when we take responsibility for our actions, when we “own” the choices we make and acknowledge the consequences, forgiveness begins to take root. No one can bestow it upon us; we must come to it ourselves. If we come seeking words of forgiveness from someone we’ve wronged, we may be sorely disappointed. If we come with an honest acknowledgement and a heartfelt apology, we may find that forgiveness shimmers in the air around us, and take it for our own.
That’s pretty different from the average belief in forgiveness that most of us hold. For me, accountability is a key ingredient.
Which brings me back to my little orange notecards. The torn remnants of four are a testament to the difficulty of the message. But the fifth, as it makes its way through the U.S. Postal Service, carries my honest acceptance of those apologies and a true appreciation for the acknowledgment that the consequences of her actions and choices were hurtful. As for forgiveness? She must give that to herself, for I cannot do that. But because I have given that very gift to myself, it already shimmers in the air, ripe for her taking.