I’m good with numbers. I can tell a joke, keep a secret, and I remember birthdays and anniversaries. I’m a problem solver with good listening skills and I even can do my own laundry. Unfortunately, none of these moderately admirable qualities can make up for this glaring deficit of mine.
I’m just not very good at forgiveness. Not at all.
I never have been, really. It’s not that I’ve been one to necessarily hold long-standing grudges. Instead, I’ve always just preferred to dismiss the offending person from my life rather than having to take the emotionally sticky path of actually forgiving. Skip straight to the forget, I say. Somehow, my method always seemed cleaner, less dramatic, and a better guard against future hurts. Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice…
Somewhere between a year or two into my wife’s sobriety, after countless apologies, amends, and a tremendous amount of work on both our parts, I knew that I still hadn’t forgiven her. Or myself. At least, not completely. Our relationship had improved quite a lot and we were starting to have good times again. We even started to plan a bit for the future, something that had been noticeably and abruptly halted for several years. But I’d still have these moments where I’d be sideswiped by overwhelming hurt, then anger, routinely followed by a sanctimonious lashing out about the (real and perceived) injustices I’d endured.
I distinctly remember driving home from work late one evening, furious at something she’d done… a couple years earlier. I was lost in the moment, angry that I’d been so wronged so long ago, intentionally caught up in the fog of confusion that often separates hurt from bitterness. I usually called her on my way home, just to let her know that I was en route, but that wasn’t about to happen this particular evening. I owed her no such courtesy. I’d been the victim here, after all.
Then, in that instant, it hit me that if I couldn’t get beyond this particular thing — beyond any of it, really — I was going to need to end the relationship. It would be the only right and humane thing to do, for both of us. It would be painful and difficult, but somehow necessary. I would admit that I had tried, that we both had tried, but I just simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get past it. I’d wish her well and we’d go on with our lives, our separate lives, and try to find some measure of bliss elsewhere. So, I set a date in my head, a deadline for this elusive thing called forgiveness.
Now, years later, I don’t remember the date of my deadline or how much time passed between my realization in the car that night and the day mentally circled on the calendar. What I can tell you is that at some point during that time, it became clear to me that if I couldn’t find it in myself to forgive this person this time, I might never be able to forgive anyone for anything ever again. I’d return to the person I was before I met my wife, someone who ended relationships by cutting people out of his life with no fanfare and no discussion, someone who artfully airbrushed past friends and loved ones out of his memory upon first (or sometimes, if they were extremely fortunate, second) offense without a regret.
It was clear to me, more than ever before, that the work of forgiveness was on me. Sure, it was made easier by my wife’s often unflinching desire to apologize and take responsibility for her past actions (more than most people ever would have attempted), but that only could go so far. Now, the responsibility was mine.
I read books on forgiveness, I listened to the sermons and teachings of several major religions, I absorbed each and every “resentment is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die” anecdote, I prayed, I meditated. And then I did it all again, hoping that something would “click” and forgiveness would just happen upon me in some sort of lavish dream sequence. Needless to say, it didn’t happen that way. In the end, I’m not sure how much any of those things really helped at all.
The truth is that my heart just needed to be able to heal. In order to accomplish that, I had to truly let myself feel the hurt, in all of its laid-bare vulnerability, without the nagging distractions of anger and resentment, distractions that had been clouding my ability to see into and then beyond myself. And then, in that true, unadulterated acknowledgement and experience of my hurt, I finally began to find forgiveness.