He who seeks revenge should dig two graves
today's UPI column
So There I was...
in a new house, trying to get to know my new neighbor. This old fellow was 96 years old, in relatively good health, living independently in his home. Besides always hoping to be a good neighbor, I am a collector of stories, and I saw him as a potential treasure house of material.
I made a few advances, brought over leftovers, and started engaging in over-the-fence conversation. This was a man who should have remembered the turn of the 20th century, should have remembered not only the First World War, but also the Spanish American War. He should have remembered Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Socks scandal. But I soon found out that this old gent had only one story, a list of nine decades of offenses the world had dealt him. If you listened long enough the story always came back to a beating with a buggy whip that his father gave him as a boy for a bit of petty larceny that he did not commit – It was the injustice that started a life of injustice-list keeping. He had no other stories; it took too much energy to keep his list.
After failing to draw out any other story, I attempted to talk to him about a Galilean I knew who was also whipped for crimes uncommitted, but who managed to ask his father to forgive the abusers. When I used the word forgiveness, he gave me an odd look; as if it was a word he hadn’t heard for a long time. He fell silent for a moment and then with sudden passion said, “Forgiveness, huh? – When my old man was dying, he asked me to forgive him so he could die in peace. And I spat in his face and said ‘you can rot in Hell for all eternity if my forgiveness is what you need!’ I will never forgive that old man!”
My neighbor died just before his 100th birthday, unchanged, as far as I knew. I think it was as sad a situation as I have ever known - and completely preventable. I wonder if he knew the old proverb, “He who seeks revenge should dig two graves.”
The Apostle Paul says this, in his letter to the Ephesians, "Let all bitterness, anger, uproar, and blasphemy with all their evil, be removed from you. Instead, become kind and tenderhearted to each other, forgiving each other in the same way that God through Christ forgave you. Then you will be imitators of God, Acting like beloved children." (Ephesians 4:25)
I notice four things about this counsel. First, that anger is a given, he wastes no time figuring out why it is there, it just is. Second, there is a process, not an event that is clearly injurious to the soul; anger turns to bitterness, which turns to uproar, which leads to blasphemy. Then there is another process described that is soul-nourishing, where anger leads to right choices, which leads to compassion which leads to forgiveness. I conclude by observing that the question is not how quick you forgive, or even if you get to the end of the process, but which road are you on? It seems that the essential key to resolution is direction.
Some people want forgiveness to be a simple choice, a decision. Some want it to be an emotion - if you feel like forgiving, great but, if not, don’t worry – there are no bad feelings. Some want it to be an action you can take whether or not you believe it or feel like it – act like you forgive and maybe the other things will come along. I think that each of these is inadequate.
So what it is then? What is this thing we call forgiveness? I may not be able to name it, I may have to settle for just calling it a mystery, but I can recognize another member of it's genus. It is like Love, which is also purported to be choice, feeling or behavior, but is in fact in its pure form a perfect integration of the three. Forgiveness is like this.
For this reason I call it a Passionate, Decisive, Course of Action.
Passionate, because it clearly requires and emotional capacity. If you aren't ready, you just aren't ready. Decisive, because it is a choice available to a free soul, it is not a commandment. And a course of action, because it has to be lived out.
There are two traditional parts to forgiveness. The first requires that you are ready to seek no more repayment. The second is that you step out of the place of judgment. When you are ready to take these two steps, you have reached the placed at the end of this road, the placed called forgiveness.
I liken it to driving a car to a certain destination. The cognitive part is deciding to make the trip and choosing the destination. This requires that you have knowledge of where you are going, or the ability to read a map. And like any destination, if you have been there a few times, it gets easy to find it again. It also requires that you look out of the windshield and assess information as you go. You must think all the way.
The emotional part is like the dashboard full of little lights that tell you if you are running hot or cold, if you have enough fuel etc. We all have emotional warning lights within us if we learn to pay attention to them.
The behavioral part is expresses by the fact that you have to actually do things; start the car, steer, brake etc. if you want to get to your destination.
As you can see any of these parts can cause problems if your try to do without them. If you try to drive without gas or oil, and ignore the lights, you will fail. If you gas up but never look at a map or even look out the windshield, you will certainly not arrive at your destination. And if you plan, map, gas up but just sit there you will fail again. All system must be go; all systems must cooperate together to get you to your destination.
So it is with forgiveness. If you decide to forgive, but ignore your emotional responses, you may get a ways, but your journey will be short. If you run entirely on emotions, and do not think or choose, your journey will be even shorter. And if you plan for the destination, and care for yourself, but do not enact your plan, it will be futile.
You must decide that you want to be on the road to forgiveness, even if it takes your life to pursue it. You must know what it looks like and what it will require of you. Then you must assess your own emotional capability. Filling as many deficits as you can, and doing careful self-nourishment along the way. You can also ask others skilled in the journey to offer guidance and care. It is also important to note that you need divine help in this. Paul noted that we were to let these things be removed from us. We choose to be helped on this journey. Forgiveness must come from a position of strength. The journey will take as long as it will take. It believe the length of time will be proportionate to the hurt. For small hurts this process can be as short as a thought, a feeling, and an action in short succession, almost automatic. For the great injuries of life, this may be a long road, but it is infinitely better that the road of bitterness.
I once read a quote in a book by Brennan Manning, he includes a prayer which he says was found by the body of a dead child at the Ravensbruck Concentration camp. I look at it now and then, not as a standard to be measured against but as an inspiration.
"O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering that they have inflicted upon us; remember rather the fruits that we have borne, thanks to the suffering - our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart, which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness."