Forgiveness is something people talk about a lot. We’ve all heard the saying, “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.” We hear it so much that it now sounds like, “Forblah blah blahblahblah blah…” and we roll our eyes. Yes, it’s cliched. But it’s also true.
I recently spoke with a young man to encourage him to forgive his father, and he said no, because his father doesn’t deserve forgiveness. He says he’s moved on, and I do think he has in some ways, yet he will not forgive. This really made me think about all the layers involved when someone hurts you. The pain, broken trust, lies, humiliation, insults, and total disregard for the feelings of another human being. Like every person on this planet, I’ve been deeply hurt, by many different people.
The first time I experienced the kind of pain that cuts through the heart and into my bones was when a boyfriend, someone I thought was a boyfriend, used me and threw me away. He was taken to the hospital unexpectedly, and I found out where he was and went to see him. Fifteen minutes later, his girlfriend showed up. I stood there breathless, the truth a stone in my chest, realizing that I wasn’t anyone special at all. I was the whore he was cheating on his girlfriend with. It made sense, the way he didn’t want to be seen in public holding my hand or with his arm around me, the way he’d rush me out of his house, saying he was late to meet someone. I’d never felt that kind of pain. I’d given him everything, even bonded with his son, and I was no one at all.
I entered a deep, dark depression. I couldn’t get out of bed or open my mail. There’s a memory that symbolizes this time in my life. My friends and I lived in a really old house, and I was laying in bed in the middle of the day, my room a mess, stacks of mail lining the wall, and a huge black cockroach crawled by my head. I didn’t care. I just didn’t care. I watched it make its way across my mattress, and when it was gone, I turned over and lay on my other side. It was so quiet in there. I remember the quiet.
Years later, the pain was deep and real in my heart, and I didn’t know how to make it stop. I didn’t know how to make the pain in my chest stop. I felt like someone had scooped my insides out with an ice cream scooper. Even after I pulled myself up out of that horrific depression. Even after I got closer to God, made my life better, got a better job. No matter what, that pain was always in my chest. I’d remember something, a flashback of our relationship, and it would take my breath away, and I’d have to stop in my tracks and breathe.
Two years later, he called me, wanting to get back together, coming out of nowhere like a demon. Even when he apologized, swore he had loved me, said he wanted to marry me that pain was still in my chest. Even when he said, “I had no idea I hurt you that bad. I’m so sorry.” There weren’t enough sorrys in the world to make it better, and I turned him down, but we formed a different kind of casual friendship, because I thought he deserved to be punished the way he had punished me. He kept trying to get me to come back to him, to marry him, and I kept saying no, but stayed in his life, because I knew it hurt him. But did it? Can someone who lies that much even have feelings? I don’t know, but it was nice to hear him beg, to be the one in control for once. It was nice to see the pain on his face.
He took a job out of state and I didn’t speak to him again for years. Shortly after I got married, he left a message on my answering machine. As soon as I heard his voice I hit the “delete” button and slammed the phone as hard as I could. I hated him still. I liked to pretend he was dead.
It wasn’t until twelve years later, several years into therapy for my depression and PTSD, did I realize that when you refuse to forgive someone, you risk turning into the person who hurt you. By taking him back into my life two years after he cheated on me, and by torturing him and playing with his emotions, I was acting like him. My bitterness was turning me into him, someone who purposefully causes pain to another human being. I got in touch with him and apologized for my behavior, and I told him I forgave him. Then his train took off for Texas and I never saw him again.
I’d never felt so free. For the first time in fourteen years, my chest didn’t ache when I thought of him. For the first time, I was no longer letting him live in my head. I was no longer letting HIM decide how I felt. I took ownership of my own feelings, and I set that old pain free.
Does he deserve my forgiveness? No. As far as I’m concerned, every word that came out of his mouth while we were dating was a lie. He used me like a piece of trash. He abandoned his oldest son, not even visiting him to say goodbye before leaving California for the last time, proving that he really hasn’t changed.
So does he deserve my forgiveness? No. But I gave it to him, because if I didn’t, the pain would eat at my heart for the rest of my life. I forgave because I had to if I was going to live a happy, healthy life. I forgave because holding on to the pain just isn’t worth it.