Are You Too Hurt To Forgive? Maybe You Don't Have To
It had only been a week or so since her death. I was still reeling with emotion. Every cell of my body yearned for her embrace, just as I had as a child. I wanted to feel the warmth of her affection. I wanted to finally see her demeanor light with delight at the sight of me, her daughter.
For the first time in my life, I was suffering unspeakable grief. Without warning my heart would erupt in anguish and my body would writhe in pain from the finality of her premature death and the loss of hope for our relationship.
It just so happened that I was back in California when the sheriff called to tell me of her demise. She was the only one to die in the multi-car crash brought on by a heavily intoxicated driver, battling her own demons.
And it just so happened that I was driving up the California coast en route to see a childhood friend who I hadn’t seen in over 20 years, when the phone rang.
The call ushered in a cosmic shift of sorts. I could feel it. It wasn’t singularly about my mother’s death. It was also about a new season of my life.
Wrapped in the painful pronouncement of her death was the invitation to step into something new. But before I could, I had to die to false hopes harbored from childhood.
At the time, I was living in Pennsylvania with my husband. The sheriff explained that it had been difficult to locate me. He invited me to return to her home. He would allow me access in an effort to locate a handwritten will.
As he spoke, my heart raced and a voice inside bemoaned, “the way that I knew her is the only way that I’ll ever know her”. Despite having not heard it for decades, I immediately recognized the voice. It was me as a young girl and I knew exactly what she meant. Even after so many years, she still entertained romantic notions of a loving relationship with her mother despite having been so relentlessly rejected.
“The way that I knew her is the only way that I’ll ever know her,” meant “but I thought the day would come. I thought she would one day love me. I thought she’d one day hold me. I thought we’d be friends and she’d be proud. I thought we’d eat dinner together and smile at one another. I thought the day would come when she’d want to know me.”
That day never came and it never will.
When I entered her home, my eyes fell to a black and white portrait of my young self. I was taken aback to see a little girl who I longed to embrace. She was darling.
“How can this be”, I wondered. “I thought there was something wrong with me!”
As I gazed at the portrait, I gazed with a mother’s eyes. A wave of protective adoration overtook me. I was loving myself as I had longed for my mother to love me.
As I made my way through her cluttered home, memories overtook my mind’s eye. Familiar smells, familiar furniture, a familiar blanket, a familiar sweater. They all pulled at me, enticing me to return to a time I’d long left. Finally, it was all too much. Acute emotion consumed and overtook me so that I dissolved into a pool of sobs and heavy heaving. My body ached, ravaged by a profound hunger to be desirable to the one who’s affection forever eluded me.
Days later, as I boarded the plane, the emotions accompanied me. I carried them all the way back to Pennsylvania into my safe home, the home I’d worked so hard to guard from my past.
As you can imagine, the trials of her death brought up innumerable unresolved issues. The pain of loss was tortuous, but so too was the pain of aroused memories. Suddenly, I found myself contending with the question of forgiveness.
Forgiveness was something I’d worked so hard to cultivate in my life for the present and the past. Then, one day as I lay on the bedroom floor in grief-stricken meditation, a scene came over my mind’s eye. I recognized it from the ancient classical Jewish and Egyptian texts as Joseph and his brothers. Are you familiar with the story?
Joseph and his brother Benjamin were born to their father, Jacob, by his true love, Rachel. Jacob had another wife, Leah, through whom he gained ten sons.
Joseph was Jacob’s first born through Rachel, his beloved wife and, therefore, his favored son. You can imagine how this made the ten other sons feel.
Jacob blatantly preferred Joseph and Benjamin. He even had a special coat made for Joseph, with long sleeves which implied status and esteem. Only the non-laboring, upper-class men wore long sleeves.
Finally, the bitter ten had had enough. They collectively turned against Joseph, stripping him of his special coat and selling him into slavery for 20 silver coins.
The scene that played before my mind’s eye was of Joseph heavily made up in the royal Egyptian manner, with headdress and thick makeup. The Joseph of my vision was no longer the slave, he was the highly revered second-in-command to Pharaoh.
In case you don’t know, I should explain…Joseph was sold into slavery, just as his half brothers intended. He was purchased by Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard. Later, Potiphar’s wife made a false accusation against Joseph that landed him in prison. While in prison, Joseph interpreted several dreams for fellow inmates. It was this gift of dream interpretation that eventually landed Joseph before Pharaoh and into his lofty position as second-in-command over Egypt.
As I saw Joseph in all his royal regalia, I also saw his brothers standing before him. Because I know the text, I understood they were there to ask for grain. There was a grave famine in all the land. Everyone suffered but the Egyptians. Thanks to Joseph and his ability to interpret dreams, Egypt was well prepared for the famine. Joseph perceived the foretelling of the famine in one of Pharaoh’s dreams and took the necessary precautions to prepare well.
What happened next nearly stopped my heart. I was completely undone.
Without regard for his appearance or the opinions of others, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. With robust wailing that is described as having been heard throughout the palace, Joseph extends his arms, inviting his brothers to draw near to him. I saw him, just as its recorded, postured to embrace his brothers.
In that moment, I understood what the Spirit was unveiling.
I cried out, “why would You show this to me? You know I’ve done everything to forgive her. I thought I had forgiven her!”
It was the proverbial kick while I was down.
You see, I understood what was being disclosed…True forgiveness necessarily entails the total relinquishment of self preservation.
Sprawled on the floor, every portion of my being yearned for her mother’s embrace. Truly, every cell of my body craved her elusive affection.
Even still, provided the opportunity, I wouldn’t dare extend my arms to her. I wouldn’t dare ask for an embrace. I couldn’t!
I couldn’t bear to be rejected one more time.
I couldn’t bear to see the visible disdain in her eyes.
I couldn’t bear to see the upturned corner of her lip that betrayed amusement at my frailty.
I understood in that instance that I had never fully forgiven her.
I had never forgiven her for not loving me.
I had never forgiven her for not protecting me.
I had never forgiven her for abandoning me.
I had never forgiven her for hating me.
I had never forgiven her for choosing the men over me.
I had never forgiven her for denigrating my skin color and ethnicity.
I had never forgiven her!
Totally undone, I lay wrecked and ravaged. “Fuck this! I have nothing left to give to this. Nothing! I’ve given absolutely everything to forgiving her and moving on. Everything!”
I felt accused and criticized.
Then a calm overtook me.
Peace tangibly entered the room. Without audible utterance, a message was spoken to my heart…
“I haven’t shown this to you to discourage you. I’ve shown it to you as a promise. You don’t have the capacity to forgive this way. That was never your burden to bear. That’s my responsibility. Let me take this from you. Let me be the One who carries the burden to forgive her.”
In an instant, something broke. The suppressed rage that had burned for decades suddenly quelled and the secret recesses of my heart opened. For the first time in my life, I could access all of me.
So, why should this matter to you?
Because, like me, you’re likely carrying a burden that was never your intended fate. In your humanity, you haven’t the capacity to extend what belongs to Eternity.
Broken and undone on the floor that day, I could not have known that freedom and wholeness lay waiting just beyond the agony.
The Spirit beckons us onward towards incomprehensible fullness. It’s incomprehensible because it’s abundant provision in exchange for our most grievous deficiencies. In other words, we have no frame of reference, no narrative for the profound promise that awaits our arrival.
Press on towards the great joy and good success that is divinely yours.