Wednesday, November 9, 2011

...the struggle to forgive

When you are reluctant to change, think of the beauty of Autumn. 

― V.B. Brown

I am evidently not aware of my age. Recently, I was telling Bill about a friend and said that she is a few years older than I am. I was thinking late forties. I’m sixty. Do the math. I know that I am no longer considered relevant by the young. To them I say, “You’re right. I am simply making a daily journey. The longer I travel, the less I know.” I would advise stopping at, say, your mid-thirties if your goal is to hang on to illusion. 

But I like my autumn...this knowledge that I’m not very significant. Takes a lot of pressure off my shoulders. Relationship is lovelier when competition isn’t foremost. The difficult moments are fewer and farther between. Two recent conversations reminded me, though, of those people who are not safe. A blog post I read elevated this to a universal level. How do we deal with evil? Without becoming like the despots? 

Simon Wiesenthal’s book, The Sunflower, is a provocative, troubling view of the struggle with foregiveness. In the first part, he gives the troubling account of a young, mortally wounded Nazi soldier who asks to see a Jew before he dies. Wiesenthal, a concentration camp inmate, was summoned. The young man told him of his happy youth, then his involvement in the Hitler Youth, and finally the SS. During this process, hIs father disowned him. While fighting in Russia, his group slaughtered a large group of Jewish mothers, children, and old people. The scene wouldn’t go away. He said that he couldn’t die in peace until he confessed to a Jew. 

Wiesenthal listened to the gruesome details. The young soldier ended by asking for forgiveness. Simon left without responding. He learned the Nazi died during the night when the work group returned to the hospital the next day. 
This memory remained with him for years. He wrote: “Ought I to have forgiven him? Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This is a profound moral question . . . The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition . . ." 
In the second part of his book, he poses this question to theologians, psychiatrists, philosophers, and victims of other murderous regimes. The answers reflect a wide-range of cultural, philosophical, and personal viewpoints. 
Most of life’s hurts do not rise to the level of a holocaust or genocide. But evil does exist in our midst. In our own hearts. We may not murder but careless, angry words can kill the spirit. In some, evil takes hold completely. How do we deal with individual wounds. How do we forgive those who do not seek forgiveness?
Two recent conversations and another’s blog reminded me of a conversation with a now-deceased minister friend. My twenty minutes with him many years ago changed my life.
He stopped by my office one day and said, “You seem to have something weighing on you.”
I told him I was dreading an encounter with someone who had caused deep hurt in my family. And added that I had no avail.
At this, he perked up. “I have a lot of experience in this area." He added, with a twinkle in his eye, “As a minister, I have a much longer list of people to forgive than you.” 
“Here’s what you do. Pray first,” he told me, “for those you dislike most.” 
Then he told me how. He started with a statement. “I bet you’re asking God to bless this person.”
“Well, yes.”
“And this is what you truly want...right now, while the hurt and anger are still fresh?”
“Well, no. I just want peace.”
He chuckled. “There you go. First thing you have to do is get honest. You have to give God something to work with. He paused and added, “Speak the truth. I usually just say "Lord, I don’t like the [insert inappropriate phrase here] but I know You care so I hand this  [insert inappropriate phrase again] over to your care.” He suggested that I clean up the language. “Do this daily, more if needed and, after a while,” my old friend continued, “God will change your heart.”
So I began. “I don’t like this person, not one little bit, but I know that You love her, Lord. She’s mean-spirited, a rumormonger, a selfish manipulator, a controller. But she’s Your child just as I am, so You are going to have to love her for me.” I think my list might have been a scooch longer.
Weeks later I realized the language was evolving: “Lord, I am still struggling but she’s your child so love her, please, for me.”
Months passed: “Lord, I lift this person high, out of my shadow, so that Your healing light can reach all of the darkness. You know her needs better than I.”
One day I called my friend to say that a prayer of thanksgiving slipped out before I could stop it. He laughed.
“Hurt is real. But God heals our wounds,” the old preacher told me, “and let’s us keep the scars as reminders. Betrayal, pain, life’s losses: these are too big, too deep, for us mere mortals to conquer and subdue. We alone cannot create a forgiving heart. Just keep praying and one day you will realize that you care about this other soul . . . about this other’s soul. And yours,” he added, “will have grown.”
A relationship developed between two old adversaries. When she was dying, I was privileged to take the hand of this woman who had taught me how to forgive and to whisper “I love you.” I who had nothing to give, received. Since then, I have practiced this regularly. Often there is no response from the other. But my own turmoil subsides, along with hateful feelings. 
I cannot generate forgiveness within myself for those who hurt my children or others I love. I can seek to understand another person's past wounds and find temporary empathy.  But the intellect alone is powerless before repeat offenses. I am forever grateful for the dear man who guided me outside of myself, beyond my analytical mind. 
Several seasons may pass before the contempt fades. But the journey is life-changing. God not only forgives us. He gives us forgiveness for others. If we ask. Honestly. Persistently.

A scrap of paper with this scribbled prayer was found in a concentration camp 
near the body of a child who, along with the author, was a Holocaust victim.
This is forgiveness:

O God, Remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted upon us. Remember instead the fruits we bought thanks to this 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 that we have borne, be their forgiveness. 

The writer of this prayer had looked into the face of radical love. 
Love that is ours for the taking. And for the giving.

1 comment:

Jeannette said...

Wonderful powerful post....thank you, Celeste, for sharing so ably and vulnerably .