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Everyone, it seems, has a moving story about forgiveness in his or her life. It doesn’t seem to matter if the story is about giving it, receiving it, denying it or being denied it. Forgiveness is powerful no matter which way the story goes.
When I was eleven years old, I experienced my first kiss. Shawn was a very handsome boy from school. The setting was perfect. We were perched on a rock in the middle of a slow moving river. I can still remember his lips touching mine. It was intense and wonderful. He kissed me again behind a tree at the top of the hill before we parted and we each went home. That second kiss was equally wonderful as the first. What happened next still puzzles me:
Why did I go to school the next day and tell everyone that Shawn was a rapist? As I look back, I have no idea what was driving this behavior. Was it a sense of guilt and/or shame that I had allowed a boy to touch me in some sexual way? But why not keep it a secret shame instead of tarnishing Dan’s reputation? I asked myself again and again, “Why did I do that to him?” I kept it in the back of my mind for thirty years. Finally, on our twenty-fifth high school reunion I came prepared to find Shawn and make a long overdue apology.
On the night of the reunion, I asked another classmate if Shawn was there and he pointed him out in the crowd. He was still the best looking man in the room. As I studied his calm demeanor, I was suddenly overcome with anxiety. My stomach did a nauseating flip-flop. I wondered if he would even remember me. It felt very risky to approach him, someone I had not talked to in thirty years, and simply launch into an apology. I had to force my feet to walk the last few inches to where he was standing, dreading every step. This apology, I was sure, was going to be most humiliating. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to say, only hoping to finally unburden myself by righting this wrong done to him many years before.
When I reached him I stammered, “Hi, Shawn. You probably don’t remember me.” He looked straight at me. There was a cool energy in his eyes and only a flicker of a smile on his lips.
“Oh, yeah. I remember you all right.”
I thought to myself, “Oh dear, this is not going to go well.” I could feel my palms beginning to sweat and my face getting hot and flushed. I wanted to run. My feet were lead and I couldn’t. My lips moved. “Shawn, I ’m here to offer you an apology that I have owed you for the past thirty years.”
His expression changed to a confused grin. “An apology? Whatever for?”
“I did something to you that I deeply regret. I have felt bad about it for a long time and I am so sorry.”
“Mary Anne, what did you do?”
His words shocked me. “You mean you don’t remember?”
“Remember what? You have to know MA, I did so many drugs during high school, I actually have no memory before the age of 18. That’s one of the reasons I became a drug and alcohol counselor, to help other kids not turn out like me with brain fry. So what happened? Now I am really curious!”
“Oh my God, Shawn, I can’t believe this! I’ve been torturing myself about this thing I did to you for over thirty years and you don’t even remember it! That would actually be pretty funny, if it didn’t feel so tragic.”
I took a deep breath and decided to finally just put it all out in the open. “Okay, here’s what happened. You kissed me by the river running behind the house at the end of our road and then again up behind the tree near the sidewalk. When I got to school the next day, I told everyone you were a rapist.”
His face charged with uproarious laughter. He was laughing so hard he nearly choked on his soda. “And you have been carrying around all this guilt for thirty years?” he managed to get out through the laughing.
“Well, yeah. I thought you hated me. I wondered what was wrong with me that I could do such an awful thing to you, when all you did was kiss me. Yeah. Thirty years of guilt.” The release suddenly turned on me, and I couldn’t stop the tears that had welled up.
“Wow,” he said softly. “This has obviously really been hard for you.”
“No shit, Sherlock.” I tried to calm myself by fumbling for a Kleenex in my purse.
“Well, I really have only one question.” His face was serious again.
“What is it?” I asked, anticipating in complete dread. I was up to my ears in embarrassment already.
“Was it good?”
“Was what good?”
“The kiss. Was it good?
I paused. Was I being forgiven or being made fun of? I looked in his face. Nothing but sincerity: He really wanted to know. “Yeah. It was good.” I said sighing and the memory of sitting on that big rock, with the sound of the rushing river, the smells of the eucalyptus trees and the gentle, passionate kiss all came back in a flash. “Amazing, in fact. Yeah, I would have to admit in all honesty it was actually great.”
“Well, I’m really, really sad I don’t remember it, then. Especially since that kiss was with as beautiful a woman as you.”
“Thanks. But I really have to ask you, do you really forgive me? I assumed you have hated my guts all this time. ”
“Actually, this conversation fills in a really important missing piece of my childhood for me. I’m sure glad to have that memory back. ”
“Wow. I feel so much lighter! Thanks!”
His hand touched mine. “Thank you….” And then he leaned down and kissed me again right in the middle of the high school reunion. Thirty years later, it was every bit as good as the first time.
This story is obviously about the sweetness of forgiveness. But, is forgiveness really essential to a peaceful and full life?
Some people believe that there are things that others have done which are so horrible that they are unforgivable. However, the toxic effect of endlessly resenting another person and their negative actions is like swallowing poison yourself and wishing that other person would die. Not too terribly productive for either side.
I imagine that most people would say that given time and experience, there are things they would have done quite differently if they had them to do over again. We’ve all been there. But every hurtful thing done or said in our lives is an opportunity for the journey toward self-understanding and clarity of finding forgiveness—even if the only person who we forgive is ourselves. Most importantly, forgiveness of oneself and others provides a sense of closure: We can’t change the past, but we can learn to let it go.
However, when we go to someone and ask to be forgiven, we may not get what we wanted or hoped for. That person we harmed may not be able or willing to honor our request for forgiveness in that moment, if ever. Our request can open up a painful wound that the other person would just as soon leave alone or ignore. They are under no obligation whatsoever to accept our apology or honor our request for forgiveness. Being denied forgiveness after all the courage it takes to ask for it can be really painful. If that happens, then what do we do?
We are only responsible for opening this path, not coaxing the other person down it. When we take full responsibility for the fact that our actions have caused harm to another, we are freeing ourselves, regardless of how the other person reacts. In our willingness to forgive rests one of the most powerful potentials we human beings have, the ability to gracefully receive closure and truly move on in our lives.
Over the years, I have tried to initiate conversations with each person I have wronged or who have wronged me in order to clear the air. Some conversations have turned out to be more productive than others, as the capacity to forgive and be forgiven is different for each of us. However it turns out, it is always a relief to know that I have made the effort to clean up my side of the street. It is true that I cannot change another human being, but I can change myself.
Forgiveness is a two-way street, and we take turns giving and receiving its gift throughout our life’s relationships. I am grateful for those who have stepped up to forgive me for my failings or for wrongs I have done to them. And it has been a huge blessing to see the looks on the faces and sense the palpable relief in the people who have come to me for forgiveness. For those unresolved moments and people needing my forgiveness or my needing theirs, I hope for the grace to see another opening for healing.
In the meantime, I shall remember that like charity, forgiveness starts at home.
Try this. Look in the mirror and say “I forgive you.” to your reflection. Even if you don’t believe it now, someday you will.