I talk about forgiveness a good bit, but it’s much more difficult than I make it out to be. Sometimes, I pretend to forgive, but I really don’t. When someone hurts me on purpose, I remember it, whether I want to or not, for a long time. Years later, when I meet people who have previously been mean to me, I remember what they did, and it still negatively colors my perception of them. I might be able to carry on a polite conversation, but the horrible memories of their hateful words and actions hang between us like dirty laundry, silent but still fluttering in the breeze.
And I have a feeling I’m not the only one who carries these kinds of feelings.
When people deliberately hurt me and don’t care that they hurt me, I find it almost impossible to let go of the hurt.
Take the gang of girls in 6th grade who routinely stood on each other’s shoulders in the bathroom to see down into my stall so that they could make fun of my privates and my pooched-out belly, and dumped bathroom trash down on my head while they were at it. And their teasing did not just confine itself to the bathroom–oh, no, they poked me in the back with the sharp ends of pencils in class, slapped my open locker door so that it would hit me in the head, and mocked me so hard about my partially-clad body in the girls’ locker room that I took to changing in the tiny bathroom stall. (Not to say that these girls DIDN’T try to wedge their heads underneath the door so they could see me doing that, too. Ended up having to stuff my gym bag under the door so they couldn’t get under it easily.)
Their daily humiliation tactics are still effective years later–I’m still hunching in shame writing this. And it seemed that most of my teachers were blissfully unaware of this, or they chose to ignore it because I was the “problem kid,” the one who always cried about everything. I never stopped bringing this to their attention, but it took my parents talking to my teachers to get them to see that I wasn’t making this stuff up just to get attention. And even then, the teachers’ solution was to “make me some friends,” allying me with one of my worst enemies in an attempt to keep me from being lonely. They made such halfhearted attempts to understand or rectify the situation that it was laughable, if I could have laughed by then.
If I was commanded to instantly forgive these girls (as God commands us all to forgive), I don’t know if I could, not even 14 years later. I still want to punch every one of them in the face and stomp on their necks for the senseless cruelty they dealt out to a naive 12-year-old who didn’t know how to fight back. I have had vivid, triumphant dreams in which I did just that, letting the weight of my body, which they mercilessly teased me about, crush their throats so that they strangled to death under my feet. That’s how much I still hate all of those girls…
…and I hate myself, for being so evil as to think such things about another human being.
Silently Strangling Myself with Memories
Those mean girls aren’t the only ones I have trouble forgiving, either. Especially in middle school, I had a profound hatred for most of the people I went to school with, because I was verbally and physically abused by many different kids (shoved against lockers, held against the wall and pinched/slapped, picked on for everything from my “high-water” pants to my developing chest and hips). And I got repeatedly told by school authorities to “be more mature” and stop disrupting class with my complaints about being treated this way. All I know is, if this had been done to me in the “real world” and the offenders had been 18 years old, they would have been put on trial and sent to jail. I have a hard time forgiving the students who did this to me, the other kids who just stood around and watched, and the school authorities who refused to believe me and took the word of my tormentors over mine.
I’m probably the only one who still remembers what these people said and did; it lives with me every day. But how can I forget what they did, when it harmed me so much, when it happened at a time that I was very vulnerable?
I forgive the new hurts in my life a little more easily, because any harm I receive these days is usually due to accident rather than malice–we’ve all grown up and become a little nicer to each other, at least most of the time. But the old, malicious hurts, the ones I received while still developing, are almost too scarred to ever return to normal. How can I let go of the bitterness and hurt, when that bitterness and hurt has been incorporated into me, has become part of my story and part of the way I react to certain people?
Acknowledging this gap between false forgiveness (paying it lip service while still feeling bitter) and real forgiveness (truly accepting the other person’s error as just that, an error) is important. Forgiveness, eventually, comes through realizing that people are not just the sum of their errors. One reason I’m so guilt-ridden about the mistakes I’ve made in my own life is because I keep looking at my life as a whole and only seeing the places I messed up–I focus too hard on all my errors, and it makes me have a negative self-image overall. I am not just the sum of my errors, and neither is anybody else.
But just realizing that is not enough to be able to forgive. This hatred, this bitterness and resentment, is old and dried and caked on my spirit. I have lived with it so long that it has become part of me, and excising it will take time. Yes, that gang of 5 or 6 girls made a lot of mistakes when they treated me like that, but I doubt they would have cared if someone had told them it was a mistake. Malice against another person for no good reason is something I don’t understand. Vengeance, angry justice, is something I understand all too well, and it’s something I still hunger for. Forgiveness cannot come if you are still seeking vengeance…believe me, I’ve tried.
Like many people who have trouble forgiving senseless, malicious acts, I don’t understand why I was treated the way I was by so many people, and I will likely have trouble forgiving until I understand. I have tried to reason out why so many of my classmates might have struck out at me this way–possibly jealousy because of my academic record? Possibly personal insecurity just like mine? Possibly trying to climb the social ladder by doing what everybody else was doing–picking on me? But nothing seems to match with the particular brand of outright gleeful cruelty that was dealt out to me by the gang of girls I spoke of. I fear I will never understand why they felt the need to hurt another person who was clearly no threat to them, physically, mentally, or spiritually. By the end of 6th grade I was so bent and broken inside that I often wished I would die in my sleep…and it was largely due to them. I was more of a threat to myself than they were, strictly because I knew hurting or killing someone else was wrong. (Didn’t stop me from thinking about it, a LOT, but I never did it.)
Forgiveness, the Christian Way
I know that to follow God’s will and Jesus’ teachings, I must be able to forgive, not just partially, not just saying the words, but actually doing it. And so, I am praying the following prayer, starting tonight and every night until I can finally forgive:
Lord, you know my feelings about these girls. You know how much I hate them, how much I resent them and regard them with bitterness. Help me lift these terrible feelings away from myself and trust them to You. Help me realize that these girls are humans too, that they might have been suffering too, even though right now I cannot believe that. Work in my heart and help me heal.
Forgiveness, the Christian way, is a daily process, full of backsliding and regaining balance; it’s not a one-time deal at all. If it was, I’d have been done years ago. This may seem silly to pray about something 14 years in the past, but if I’m ever going to feel free of bitterness, I have to do this. It may be the only way to stop feeling strangled with bad memories.