One of my more insidious character faults is a knack for holding grudges. Revenge isn’t necessarily my taste; I’m far too insecure for such defiance. Strategic spite is more my flavor. Instead of removing your eye I prefer to irritate it; being diplomatically busy, acting a jerk at the most inopportune time, conveniently forgetting every Sunday school lesson learned. Nor do I allow these hard feelings to run empty; they stay topped off by random internal monologues, tongue-lashings that leave you lying prostrate at my feet begging for forgiveness. I get a sadistic satisfaction in imagining my enemies groveling for mercy.
As a scorned husband and single father I know a thing or two about forgiveness, or at least what it’s like not to forgive; and the fact that society eagerly supports my bitterness for being cheated on doesn’t help. It seems that any attempt to absolve an adulterer results in equally white-hot contempt for the one doing the absolving.
Turning the other cheek is great advice but infuriating to receive. I’ve always found it convenient that those who preach forgiveness loudest seem to be the ones whose most heinous slight was getting cut off in traffic. But regardless of that dichotomy, deep down we know that holding a grudge is petty, immature and forgiveness of another represents the very best in each of us. And when forgiveness is withheld that’s the ugly side showing up – and we inherently know it.
Mercy, forgiveness, charity, whatever you choose to call it is fine with me so long as that person meets my overtly narcissistic forgiveness requirements which include a face full of tears, confession that they have wronged me, and a willingness to do whatever necessary to be back into my good graces. In such rare cases I am normally very benevelont. But what if the other person says nothing? What of the spouse who never admits they’re wrong? How do we forgive someone who fails, or simply refuses, to confess they have hurt us? And better still, in such cases is forgiveness even necessary? Are we still to forgive when no one apologizes?
This was the one problem I had struggled with more than any other in the years after my divorce. How to bring myself to forgive the person who wrecked a marriage and sacrificed a family on the altar of her own vanity? How to forgive her when after all that time she never once admitted she did anything wrong? Many are tempted to ask the question, why bother? Why offer the olive branch at all? There is an answer; it isn’t easy to accept.
I can never grow beyond my level of hatred.
What I mean is that so long as I have feelings of animosity, anger, and revenge against her I can never grow beyond that level of person. My maturity will be stifled because any buds of personal growth will eventually be strangled by the weeds of resentment. Compassion is forged and my words will be tainted with hypocrisy. How can I genuinely be more sensitive and sympathetic or rightly teach my children to forgive others or hope the Queen will overlook my own failures if I’m unwilling to offer my ex wife the same? And what does all of that say about my future happiness if I’m hell bent on clinging to the past?
There have been countless articles and books written on forgiveness offering up a play by play on the how, why, and benefits of doing so. But with all of them I was left with the same feeling– like a doormat trampled upon. This is due in part to the Hollywood idea that forgiveness is only accomplished if vengeance is satisfied, so letting someone ‘off the hook’ is a sign of weakness. In other words I always saw forgiveness as giving something that wasn’t deserved, like paying an employee for a job never performed.
And there lied the nitty-gritty of my struggle – forgiving someone without them asking for it. I had convinced myself that until she acknowledged her mistake and asked for my forgiveness I had a righteous claim to my indignation. The most fatal of Solomon’s deadly sins – pride- simply wouldn’t allow me to do otherwise. But I wasn’t all too eager to do away with this belief anyway; it provided me adequate justification for my resentment. As long as she refused to admit her fault, I had tenable grounds to revel in my disdain.
There’s only one problem in that way of thinking – it’s unsustainable. In time or through circumstance we all must come to deal with that tension. For me, being a father eventually forced the issue. I realized I could never be the man my children could be proud of so long as I held this anger towards their mother. But how could I forgive her if she acted as if she did nothing wrong?
This all came to a head for me in a recent conversation with a mentor. During one of our monthly conversations, he asked if I had completely forgiven my ex-wife. Apparently my canned answer wasn’t convincing. So I asked how do we forgive someone who hasn’t asked for it. His wisdom was as eye opening as it was brief, ‘forgiveness isn’t about her, it’s about you’.
He went on to explain that forgiving another person, whether they are sorry or not, boils down to simple choice. The feelings that prevent us from forgiving are ours alone, the other person may have caused them but we keep them alive. That might make us feel better since we get to validate our bitterness while using someone else as a scapegoat, but in the end we are the ones who suffer the most, we are the ones who experience the feelings. And that was his point, if we are choosing to hang onto these feelings we can just as easily choose to let them go. That’s why my friend said forgiveness is about us, we are the ones who reap the greatest benefit.
If my friend is right, and I believe he is, this takes how most see forgiveness, especially those in a divorce, and turns it on its head. Imagine how much better co-parents we become and how better off those children would be if every divorced parent simply chose to forgive the ex who wronged them – all while expecting nothing in return?
This isn’t to say any of this is easy. I haven’t completely made it there yet, but if I can hold fast to this idea that forgiveness is ultimately about me and all I need is to give up control of those feelings then I believe I’m closer now than I’ve ever been.