Photo source: Neil Krug
Today I am so happy to present to you a wonderful post about forgiveness, written by one of our dear readers, Hadley Duncan Howard. She is the woman we had the pleasure of interacting with when we did our radio segment for BYU Radio. We’re so happy to have her as a guest writer today. We’re so happy to know her through the blog. We’re so happy that she wrote her heart out one night starting at the midnight hour and ended up with this beautifully written piece for you all to read. (Her words take my breath away.)
I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter… I think it’s about forgiveness.
I’ve come to equate forgiveness with courage. Certainly charity is a primary influence, and generosity. Self-preservation; perhaps instinct. But courage – this is where forgiveness does its work.
I admit to not giving much thought to forgiveness in previous seasons and years. It seemed a concept too remote, too lofty, too nebulous to be practical. I understood it as an ideal attainable by those older, wiser and more virtuous than I. I come from a long line of long memories; I believed that moving on was the best mere mortals could hope for.
But a few years ago, on a sultry summer afternoon, I received an unanticipated letter. It was from a former friend, known in coming-of-age missionary days, someone who had betrayed my trust and turned his back – fifteen years prior. Although the injury had long since been ameliorated and I hadn’t thought of him in years, I was so astonished by this entirely unforeseen development that I believe I may have actually gaped.
He apologized for his behavior, expressed regret for the consequences of that behavior, and asked for my forgiveness. I paused – seeking out a quiet corner of the house – and considered the words please forgive me.
No one had ever asked that of me before.
Sure, I’ve received sorrys. Sorrys usually come with qualifiers and excuses, as if penitence is a hoop to jump through on the way to something more agreeable. But —
Please forgive me is qualitatively different from sorry. Please forgive me acknowledges and accepts responsibility, embraces humility, strives to make amends. Please forgive me recognizes the possibility of being met with contempt, and finds value in the asking regardless of the outcome. Please forgive me is ownership. Please forgive me is substantial and restorative and honorable. Please forgive me is brave.
That kind of earnestness should always be reciprocated.
I listened to the silence. Unbidden, my heart filled with love. Like Jane Eyre, I could unreservedly say he had my “full and free forgiveness.” I couldn’t wait to let him know. I very much desired to alleviate his discomfiture. I wanted him to feel relief and know that we were square. After years of not recalling him at all, I swiftly recalled him in his wholeness. My feelings of friendship and empathy were curiously liberal: had he been proximate, I may have attacked him with an airless Mama Bear hug. I was proud of him, of his resolution to make right.
And I was proud of me. I learned that meeting please forgive me with forgiveness is also brave. It takes more than natural humanity to remember wrongdoing, look right in the eyes of grievance, and choose to view it in the context of a complete person. No one is only our experiences with them; we all have back stories. Milieu is more than just detail; we each make good and do badly. To live is to have extenuating circumstances; extremity is universal. And to judge others on effort rather than results is essential to proper perspective.
Valor is required to see clearly.
Forgiveness does not always come easily as it did then, so full of light. Other times, despite very much effort at inviting and entreating, forgiveness is elusive. It seems that no manner or amount of seeking can bring it forth if it’s unready. It withholds its goodness, making the sweetness of its late arrival more liberating: heaven puts a proper price on its goods. In those times and circumstances, with those who have inflicted wounds so deep and distress so lavish as to cause actual psychic damage, forgiveness is arduous, protracted work. Settle in, we say to ourselves. This could take a while.
Incremental, that’s what this is. It’s a coming to terms. It’s an unhurried realization that everyone else is as fractured and flawed as we are, and trying just as hard. This forgiveness isn’t exactly grandiose resignation, it’s not largesse – more like agreeing to stand equally with those who have hurt us, side by side, equivalent participants in the human condition.
Even everyday heroism is hard won.
I’ve come to view us – all of us, really – as not dissimilar from beat-up, old furniture. There are scars, yes. Some scratches can be buffed out, dings can be filled, but gouges are there for the duration. In antiques, it’s called character. It’s biography, what and where from and whose. And, in people, whom. As with furniture, our character and value is in our provenance: not only how well we survive, but how well we tell the story.
Photo source: King Creative
Once true forgiveness introduced itself to me on a summer afternoon, I began to run into it everywhere. My pardon was sought once more, and again, people I hadn’t heard from or given much thought to in many years, bringing with them opportunities to express love and confidence in the goodness of their soul, gratitude for the occasion of offering tolerance and friendship to one who sincerely desired it. Each time, I felt more at peace with my own shortcomings, an aggregate forbearance for my own episodes of disgrace. Interesting twist, that.
As a kind of spiritual supplement: my thankfulness for the courage of others – for their willingness to put pride aside, embrace vulnerability and ask forgiveness – inspired my own desire to be forgiven. I’ve behaved as well and as poorly as anyone else and, once alive to the possibilities, was stirred to move toward the raw but rewarding feeling of being well-scrubbed. The time had come.
There were two. Both had turned on me, ruthless and inexplicable, friends whose favor had changed: one abruptly, kicking me when down; the other more slowly, over years of competitive and prideful erosion. In neither case could I guess what precipitated the change, and in neither case did I respond well – and how. Years, nearly decades, had passed. I didn’t need reconciliation, or even explanation. I simply wanted to acknowledge responsibility and express genuine regret for my ignominious behavior, to right my most egregious wrongs. My intentions had always been good, if not instructive of my conduct.
But finally: laying aside outcome, pursuing – and offering – peace.
Please forgive me. I asked forgiveness and received condescension.
Please forgive me. I asked forgiveness and received no response at all.
Swallow. Blink. Breathe. Understand.
It turns out there’s honor in the asking, even if the answer is tough to take. Turns out the restorative experience of forgiveness isn’t earned or granted in the human realm. It comes to rest gently upon us, takes its place on our shoulders like a gossamer stole, shrugging off the chill of regret without weighing us down, adding lightness and beauty and… sheen. Different endings, happy reunions and resolution, would not much change the narratives. Though not forgiven, I received the freedom of forgiveness.
It was luminous.
It is a privilege to ask forgiveness. It is a privilege to receive a sincere apology, and a privilege to graciously accept it. A bold faith is necessary for both parties, as well as a full appreciation for the other’s hurt and a respect for their individual journey. Offering, receiving and accepting an apology is a mutually transformative experience, one of obligation, relinquishment, rest… and remembering.
Because forgive and forget is a flawed system. What’s better is to instead forgive and remember – remember that we’re as needful of mercy as everyone else; remember that clemency and compassion are shared. Remember that we have ourselves been pardoned for terrible grievances – have received forgiveness for amends we could neither make, nor fake, nor afford. We have all been the beneficiaries of serenity – the recipients of someone else’s courage.
Our own courage to remember – to forgive and to ask for forgiveness, with eyes wide open, seeing each other wholly – exponentiates the spirit within us and between us, and makes us grander than we’re otherwise capable of becoming. Living in the world, relating to others, is hard, and it can put edges on us that were once soft places. Forgiveness – the courage to choose our own path of grace – is a restoration, a protection of as many of our soul’s soft places as is humanly possible.
It just may be the secret of living, and the secret of life.
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