June 26, 2020 – The Conundrum of Forgiveness

Today is June 26, 2020. This is also celebrated as Forgiveness Day – a day to forgive and to be forgiven. How can one day be so impractical and at the same time so practical?

after the rain

Late yesterday afternoon we had a fierce thunderstorm. I don’t know if I just wasn’t paying attention or if it really did sneak up on us, but I didn’t see it coming. One moment all seemed to be just fine out side, the next minute it was raining so hard that it was difficult to see across the street.

Throughout the storm I continued to work. When it had stopped raining our telephone rang. Our neighbors Neil and Jan called to tell us to look out the window. When I did, this is what I saw.

I don’t recall ever having see a complete rainbow in my life, let along a double complete rainbow. The double rainbow is a bit easier to see in the picture below. Notice the intensity of the colors of the inside rainbow.

I ran from window to window and window to deck to get a better angle to take pictures. All the while I was rushing about hoping it wouldn’t dissipate too quickly. I needn’t have worried. It was such an intense rainbow that it was visible for close to 30 minutes. Extraordinary!


the conundrum of forgiveness

The conudrum of forgivess is this: it is never about the other person, it is always about us. The capacity and will to both seek forgiveness and forgive others is what makes us decent, fully-human people. No matter the hurt we feel or the hurt we cause, granting or seeking forgiveness sets us free.

I’ve had the experience of doing both though I’ve more often had to seek forgiveness than grant it. Asking forgiveness is one of the most humbling things I’ve ever had to do. If you are familiar with the 12 Steps of Alchoholics Anonymous, and similar 12 Step groups, you know that the act of asking forgiveness is critical. In fact, beginning with the Fourth Step, seven of the 12 Steps are all about seeking forgiveness.

In the 1980’s I regularly attended Adult Children of Alcoholics and we used the 12 Steps in our own healing and recovery work, too. Addiction requires at least two people: the addict and a person who enables the addiction. Sometimes the enabler is the whole family. It took me a while to fully see and understand my own contribution to my father’s alcoholism. While I was not to blame, I helped enable the conditions that allowed him to feed his addiction until it grew beyond control. Enablers are not to blame for the addiction; but they do have responsibility for either supporting it (even unconsciously) or addressing it intentionally through what Al-Anon calls “detaching with love.” Many may see the line between feeling responsible and feeling a sense of blame to be very thin. I assure you, it is not.

When we carry blame, we also feel shame and powerlessness. It hangs on us like a backpack full of rocks. We can never seem to wriggle free from the bag, no matter what we do.

The mindshift from blame to responsibility is actually quite freeing. When we have been able to make that shift, we find that responsibility opens us to options we never had under the oppression of blame. Among the options that appear are giving and receiving forgiveness.

The 12 Steps, particularly Steps 4 through 10, help us embrace our responsibility. I can remember working Steps 8 & 9. It was excruciatingly difficult because it meant I had to seek forgiveness from people I had hurt in my wildly chaotic quest to fix my father’s addiction.

One person I approached for forgiveness and with whom I needed to make amends was the former minister of our church. As a young and upcoming preacher, who left the Methodist tradition to become a Baptist, I was invited to speak at the community Easter Service in my hometown. I used that opportunity to unleash the whole of Baptist hellfire on my former minister in a highly public attack while he sat only feet away. Why? Because I believed he had failed my father and my family.

Still, he extended grace to me that day, years later, when I sought him out to ask his forgiveness. I got the impression that he had largely forgotten it and had dismissed the bad behavior as pure hubris. Nonetheless, that day he took two of the big rocks out of my backpack – anger and loathing.

The act of forgiving, though, is a different kind of challenge. Sometimes the offense is so small that it takes little effort to forgive. Other times it takes every single ounce of humanity we possess to do it. For me, the most powerful model of forgiveness came from a man I stood in line with once at a Chinese take-out restaurant in Des Moines, Iowa. I knew of him by his reputation and I wanted to meet him. But I was still too burdened by my hidden shame to walk up to him and introduce myself. I regret having lost that opportunity.

His name is Ako Abdul-Samad, but this Wikipedia page does not really tell his story. Today he serves in the Iowa House of Representatives and recently he has been personally involved in keeping peace in Des Moines among the people who are protesting the death of George Floyd. He has even physically stood between police and protesters.

A more complete story, including his remarkable act of grace and forgiveness, is recalled in this article, written in 2016 but recently updated. In brief, Ako’s son was shot by another young man and died. Because it was a gang related shooting and Ako knew the shooter would not be safe from retaliation from his son’s gang, he took the young man into his own home. As he planned his own son’s funeral, he offered shelter and protection to the young man who killed his own child. Read the full story yourself, please. It is more real in Ako’s words.

Over the years as I’ve recalled Ako’s story from time to time, I’ve wondered how forgiveness and forgetfulness fit together. “Forgive and forget” is something we are all told at one time another. It seems impossible because it doesn’t seem wise. If I forget the harm done to me, what prevents me from getting hurt again? For this reason forgetting seems to be an irrational companion to forgiving.

Still, do we ever really forgive without forgetting? The answer is not simple. There is an elegant but complex dance that forgiveness and forgetfulness does within our soul.

Sometimes we can forgive and forget when the offense is slight and we have no permanent damage or scar. If this is the case, then we sometimes wonder if forgiveness is really needed at all, “no harm, no foul,” we say to ourselves.

Sometimes we can forgive and forget because we are so full of grace and faith in humanity that it is impossible for us to keep account of our hurts. This is rare indeed and if you are one of these unique people, you might consider applying for sainthood.

Sometimes we first have to forgive so we can begin to lose the memories of the pain. The act of forgiveness releases the valve that holds the memories in place. This takes great patience because some pain can leave deep impressions on our memory.

Sometimes we forgive and lose the memories of the pain but not the memories of the actions leading up to them. In these cases we are graceful and also wiser but sadder. The wisdom allows us to remain aware of potential danger. The sadness is because we grieve the loss of relationship that comes with such mistrust.

Forgiveness and forgetfulness are a mystery and inexplicably woven together. For this reason each of us have to discern for ourselves whom we need to forgive, from whom we need to seek forgiveness, and how much of our own hurt we can afford to forget. This work of discernment is also known as the Fourth Step in the 12 Step program: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Happy Forgiveness Day!


chickenman – episode 70

Benton Harbor (Chickenman) has another costume malfunction as he tries to prepare to apprehend a shoplifter. Gladys, a colleague at the shoe store, learns his secret identity.


Stay safe, be well, keep calm, keep washing your hands, keep wearing your mask, and keep striving for justice, peace, and health for all.

Tom

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