I was watching network news—the one with the eye for an icon, CBS, right? I heard a woman’s voice saying, “Is there anything in this life we shouldn’t forgive?” Her emphasis on shouldn’t caught my ear. I felt my gut knot. I had to watch.
It turns out she is the mother whose son shot ten Amish girls, killing five of them. He too died in this event. Afterward, the Amish community reached out to her immediately, attending her son’s funeral, befriending her, treating her grief and loss with the same dignity and respect as they regarded their own. They didn’t demonize her. They didn’t shun her. They embraced her, enfolded her. Actively offered forgiveness and acted on the choice of “walking-with-her.”
As the Amish would say, I am “English”—that means “not Amish.” But the Amish practice of forgiveness is one that I long for and work to emulate. And for me the question remains: “Is there anything in this life we shouldn’t forgive?”
For people who have grown up in overwhelming, traumatic situations there are many opportunities to hold a grudge. These include the desire to hold accountable people who either allowed or actively participated in the overwhelming events: parents, relatives, strangers, authority figures, first responders, people who made implicit and explicit promises about the way things were or would be. Even if these people weren’t directly complicit in creating traumatic situations, they were unable to keep us safe from them.
Another grudge focus is often the system of care. Do the people who provide formal care act as if they give a damn? Seriously? Is or was appropriate and compassionate care available when needed—not three months out?
Media can also be a target for grudges. What does the media say about who we are? And how comfortable do we get with those images? And what does this have to do with forgiveness?
The thing is, I like my grudges. They help me know where the boundaries are of what is acceptable and what is not. They help me know what I have chosen not to forgive. For years, my grudges were very important to me. The angrier I was about those things about which I felt hurt, the more energy I had. Literally. The price was high: limits on love, inability to manage strong feelings, severed relationships as soon as anyone approached the invisible line, and mistrust galore. My grudges seemed to keep me safe. Hatred, the emotion below the grudge, was a strong and powerful ally.
But this hatred had other costs. And I submit that the choice to not forgive, to not learn how to forgive—which does not erase the event, by the way—is the most disempowering and disabling of all the effects of trauma about which I could write. [SG1]
Hatred taxes the body: long-term overproduction of adrenaline inhibits the production of acetylcholine. Not enough of that stuff and the heart weakens and the arteries are more prone to stiffen, elevates cholesterol, and there’s evidence of impact on the liver and kidneys. And it taxes the emotional life, too, leading to depression and anxiety. Hatred changes how we think, leading us to doubt, resent, and isolate ourselves because we become certain that those people are out to get us in some way. And what it does to the spirit is huge. We are meant to be loving, caring, compassionate people and hatred—holding grudges rather than forgiving—is contrary to all of that.
We are meant, even if we are not involved in the original injury, to help others heal. And if we can bring ourselves to be present to and forgiving of someone who has “wronged” us, the healing is all the more powerful. In many cases, hatred created the traumatic events that we now hate. Continuing the cycle of hatred allows people to behave as they did before.
Or we can choose the different and more challenging task. We can lean into the pain. We can spend our energy on compassion. We can recognize the injury the other carries, whether it is the callous of appearing unable to care from overexposure; the shame of being the Other to us; the embarrassment of an inability into which we have bumped, or the re-enactment of some old wound.
We can, in other words, recognize the hypocrisy of wanting mercy for ourselves while we want harsh justice for others. This often unrecognized hypocrisy damages our health at all levels: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. It says that the wronging we do others, whatever its name, is not as injurious as the wronging done to us.
While active forgiveness does not erase what happened, it reduces its impact on our bodies, minds and spirits. And it softens us to our own darkness, shining light into recesses of how we hold self and others hostage in many ways.
Think of Nelson Mandela’s relationship with his guards and the Amish in the Lancaster County. Closer to home, think of the co-parents who choose to speak kindly of the other parent to their children. Think of the many who extend love when they could extend hatred, the evidence of grudges long held.
Forgiveness is an act of choice accompanied by action. It is central to but not unique to any faith tradition, and shines dissolving light on hatred, contempt, and shame. Forgiveness adds to the seeds of caring and love that foster healing. While it does not make everything “right,” it reduces the risk of perpetuating and increasing hurt.
And I come back to: “Is there anything in this world we shouldn’t forgive?” Drew Lawrence said, “Forgiveness unties the knot you feel in the heart toward another person. And the less knots in your heart, the more you will become free to love and be loved.” My own answer is that whatever we continue to hate, resent, and hold in contempt will eventually destroy us. Us, not the object of our hatred.
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