I’ve been thinking about forgiveness.
A lot has been said on the subject by people a lot smarter than I, so I don’t have anything valuable to add to the discussion at large, but I’ve been thinking of how it affects me, and what a powerful thing it is.
I’ve had very little to forgive compared to most people. People have always been kind to me. I am always astonished by how kind people have been – for no reason. As a young person, I received help and advice from strangers at every turn.
As I got older, I lived in different places and continued to meet a wide variety of people from different cultures, with different experiences, and time after time, people were kind to me when they had no reason to be. They were kind because it was who they were.
But very occasionally, I’ve been treated poorly. It usually takes me a long time to even realize it. I always assume I have made some dreadful mistake and, as soon as that is cleared up, their behavior will change.
When it turns out I am wrong – that no change on my part will change them in the slightest way – then I tend to get very hurt. Probably because I am so spoiled by the kindness of others, this less-than-charitable behavior strikes me to the core.
A few months back, I wrote a column about a friend who hurt my feelings. He had written a long essay and quoted my column about finding beauty in unexpected places. He accused me of being an idealist, someone who would rationalize mass shootings and natural disasters. He said I’d go “looking for a pony in a pile of horse poop.” He urged his readers not to be like me. It made me feel awful.
I wondered what I had done to cause him to write such a mean-spirited thing about me, and (as usual) I got very hurt.
But then I did something new. I gathered those feelings, and I did something with them. I took his point of view, and I wrote a story about a man who believed as my friend did. I tried to imagine what might happen to that man that could cause him to change his mind.
Writing that story put me inside this friend’s head in a way I had never been before. He annoyed me, but he also touched me, and I came to appreciate him in a new way – even if he was only a fictional character.
And this is my new idea about forgiveness.
Sometimes – most of the time – I can never know what causes people to say hurtful things. I don’t know why friends betray me or strangers curse at me on the street. These things have happened and will probably happen again.
My new idea is to make up a story.
My story will give that person a reason to be so hurt or angry that they would do these things. My story will help me to empathize with them, even though I know my story is fiction. Because even without a made-up story, I will make assumptions about why that person was unkind, and those assumptions will almost certainly be fiction – I will just imagine they are true. So I might as well make up a better story, a more compassionate story.
Yesterday, I wrote a note to this friend who had been unkind. I thanked him for the inspiration. He had no recollection of what he had written.
And that might just be the best part of the story.
Till next time,