Family- we all come from one, and we all want to build one. Families come in all shapes and sizes and we find them all throughout our daily lives. Our family of origin, the family we build, extended family, and our parish family are just a few examples. Families can be both places of love and acceptance, and places of strife.. In our families, we find some of our most cherished moments, and some of the most unfortunate. The latter are occasions for forgiveness.
The people closest to me – family of one sort or another – have said or done some of the most uncomfortable, hurtful things I’ve experienced. Since most of those people have been permanent fixtures in my life, forgiveness has been the most reasonable, practical choice I could make. Not forgetting, lying down and allowing them to hurt me again – these are not part of forgiveness! They are forms of self-abuse and are self-destructive. Rather, I’m advocating for deciding not to cherish, nurture, and cling to the hurt. Deciding to let go of the hurt, an act of the will, and choosing not to revisit it – that’s what forgiveness is.
And oh, boy, can it be hard work!
Our homes and parishes are meant to be places where we feel welcomed, supported, and accepted, but sometimes, we don’t feel that way. Humans, in all of their brokenness and beauty, populate these families. This, in turn, gives us the opportunity to display our own beauty or brokenness, or more precisely, our own beauty in our brokenness. We do that best by rising above our hurt with God’s grace and forgiving. We can use these opportunities to model the behavior and changes we would like to see in others.
So, how exactly do we do that? Especially when the offending party hasn’t apologized and may not even be available to receive this act of the will, this forgiveness? Why is it even needed – can’t we just let it go and move on, avoid the person or situation going forward, or seek retribution instead?
It’s needed for our own peace. God has said that it’s necessary for us to forgive so that we can be forgiven ourselves. We pray in the Our Father, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That petition in the Lord’s Prayer makes it clear: forgiving others is very necessary to our own salvation. Holding grudges, nurturing wounds, cherishing hurts – these are contrary to Jesus’ teaching and to the well-being of our eternal souls.
Consider the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt. 18:21-35), where the king forgives a servant an insurmountable debt, but that servant goes and abuses his fellow servant to recover a much smaller amount. The servant’s motive is unclear: maybe the first guy still needs money or maybe he’s trying to make payment on the forgiven debt because he doesn’t trust the king’s forgiveness – we don’t know. But he was unforgiving of others after being forgiven himself, and that did not sit well with the king. We should take heed: we’ve been forgiven, so we must forgive others.
Refusal to forgive and holding on to hurts has been famously likened to drinking poison and expecting the other guy to suffer the consequences. This is even more true for our immortal souls. So, forgive and let go of the hurt. Let’s set ourselves free. We don’t have to forget. In fact, for some hurts, we shouldn’t forget. If we do, we are just setting ourselves up to be hurt again in the same way, and maybe worse. But refusing to forgive sets us up for even more suffering.
I’d like to share what I’ve learned, in a practical sense, about how to forgive. I do this writing exercise either in my private journal, in a letter that I shred or burn afterwards, or in my mind’s eye as part of a monologue to the offending party (which could be myself).
- Objectively state the offense: who, what, where, when, how. Omit the why. Example: “Auntie, placing your hand over my belly and asking if I was pregnant yet at the last family picnic was something I found hurtful, intrusive, and inappropriate.”
- State the consequences. Put into concrete, specific language what the offense led to. “It made me feel invaded, conspicuous, and uncomfortable. “
- State your feelings about the offense – not the offender, just the offense. Be succinct and objective. “I feel this kind of question is inappropriate unless a lady appears to be minutes from her due date.”
- Judge the offense against your values. This is different from judging the person or their motives. This is only stating how the offense compares to your values. Stick to evaluating, not assigning punishment! “Auntie, I feel your question, therefore, was out of line, especially since I’d only gained a few pounds.”
- State your intention to forgive. This is the act of the will. “Still, Auntie, I forgive you.”
- This is the last formal step, but a very important one! Drop it. Make an effort not to pick at the scab, no matter how much it itches. Don’t revisit the injury; just let it heal.
I would add a seventh step. That’s praying for the welfare of the one we forgive. It really helps. It’s hard to resent, hate, or even feel angry towards someone you’re earnestly praying for. So, do it at least once. Continue for as long as necessary, for as long as you still need to forgive them. Pray for God’s grace to let the feelings subside. Meditate on the Stations of the Cross or the mystery of the Rosary that most closely resembles your hurt. Use that meditation to unite your pain to Christ’s life. Give it to Him, to use as He sees fit. Once you’ve given it to Him, don’t take it back! Visualize handing it over, placing it all in His hands and removing your own, if that helps. Then, thank Him for taking care of it.
Some hurts will be harder to forgive than others. Some will require more than one cycle through the steps. In my own life, the most damaging injuries and the ones I caused to myself have required this multi-pass approach. As my mother says, “sometimes we have to forgive ourselves before we can forgive anyone else.” Corrie Ten Boom said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover that prisoner was yourself.” Wise words from one who forgave the people who imprisoned her and killed her family.
Who can we set free today?
Delsonora lives in Central Ohio and has been married to the best husband a woman could want for over a quarter century. She has a disability and was adopted as an infant. Delsonora loves pets, crafting, and food, and she thinks that coincidence is often a “divine hint”. Catholic from conception, she’s convinced that the faith is why, despite the prevalence of other options, she was able to be born.