The first Sunday of each month, my Quaker meeting for worship takes the form of worship-sharing. This month’s theme was forgiveness.
Out of the silence of open worship, the convenor, Ron, read from Practicing Peace by Catherine Whitmire:
“Forgiveness is a condition in which the sin of the past is not altered, nor its inevitable consequences change. Rather in forgiveness a fresh act is added to those of the past which restores the broken relationship and opens the way for the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven to meet and communicate deeply with each other in the present and the future. Thus, forgiveness heals the past, though the scars remain and the consequences go on.” ~ Douglas Steere
Ron went on to read some queries for us to reflect upon, focusing on our own personal experiences of forgiving and forgiveness. I sank into the silence and reached into memories of forgiving and being forgiven.
That day, and since, I’ve returned to a conflict I’ve had for years with another community member (I’ve changed some details to maintain anonymity). Larry and I worked together on a project for several years, with tension and conflict occurring often between us. My stomach churned before and during nearly every interaction, anticipating Larry’s typical tactics of monopolizing discussions, laying guilt and blame, and making unrealistic demands on me and others involved in the project. I tried every technique I’d ever learned to cope with and affect Larry’s behavior, and nothing worked. Finally, I resigned from the project and have kept my distance from Larry ever since. Do I need to take another step and forgive Larry? Forgive myself?
The concept of forgiveness suggests to me there is a wrong-doer and a wronged person. Except in cases of random, anonymous violence or crimes, I believe those roles rarely are so clearly demarcated. I’m fortunate to never have suffered such cruelty, so I don’t have personal experience with forgiveness in situations in which there’s a clear victim and a clear offender. What’s been more common for me is situations like the one with Larry, or with a family member or friend, when I’ve been emotionally hurt and have hurt another. In those situations, I believe all parties carry some responsibility for the conflict; all have made mistakes. I know that shared responsibility is true for the clashes I had with Larry.
Healing of these uneasy or broken relationships is what I seek, and I’m not sure the act of forgiveness is the route for such repair. Forgiveness implies someone has superiority, a power to grant something to another person. I believe I can only forgive myself, can only ask for God’s grace to forgive me, and can ask for that same grace for someone whose words or actions have hurt me or others around me.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with Douglas Steere’s suggestion to add a “fresh act to those of the past.” I don’t envision that “fresh act” would involve hashing things out with Larry, which is my usual approach to interpersonal conflict. Instead, I’ve been opening my mind and my heart to Larry and his wounds that contributed to his hurtful actions. I’m seeking compassion for myself, as well, for the ways my behavior factored into the clashes between us.
I don’t think it’s for me to forgive—I think that happens beyond the human realm. What I CAN do is create an environment—or contribute to its creation—that is filled with love and compassion for all those involved and that can make space for the departure or the healing of the pain and the presence of new growth. I’m open to the possibility that such motion on my part will heal the past between Larry and me and that God’s grace will forgive both of us.