They do what they do because they are wounded and broken and bleeding and overwhelmed with pain and misery—and for some reason, you’re the one person upon whom they feel safe dumping all that suffering. The bile of hate splatters all over you; it burns like acid. Yet with enough reflection, through enough prayer, by God tenderly shoving your nostrils into the ick to force you to understand the wounds of others—which are so similar to your own—one day you lift your head and finally mean the words that you have mindlessly chanted for years: “…as I forgive those who trespass against me.”
Sometimes you’re the target because no one else can be. The wounded person simply cannot manage the pain. They literally don’t know how. But they do suspect you won’t hurt them back—a lesson my dear friend recently discovered parallel to me. Sometimes you’re the most obvious receptacle during the convulsion of sickness.
On paper, there’s no justification for their actions. But grace reminds us, through gentle kicks to the shin, that each of us has done the exact same thing to others. Heaving bile is a rather universal behavior, as it happens.
And in my friend’s words, “They deserve nothing but Grace and Forgiveness.” Because each of us deserves the same, in turn.
It’s not often that the conclusion of an essay should worm its way to the beginning. But this isn’t any old essay. It’s one I began writing against my own will—when a wide range of backstories converged and targeted me for a well-deserved humility intervention.
For me, such a spiritual project could never rise to the level of earnestness unless I expressed it in writing, which I am doing, literally one painstakingly pecked-out word at a time. I am such a stubborn ass. I’ll guess you’ll just have to forgive me.
Sorry, the Universe apparently requires this essay to be composed in reverse. The following experiences occurred weeks after I began penning this piece; these paragraphs insisted on being bumped to the front as well:
Today, I was verbally assaulted by two individuals; neither knows the other. One person attacked me publicly, insulted my character, called me despicable names (hardly for the first time) and tossed at my person various slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that are not only absurd, but easily disproved. This eruption was unprovoked. To be honest, I was quite surprised—I have taken a sustained break from public activity. Why target me? I’m not even “out there.” Beyond this, I’ve never been associated with any scandal or action that warrants such an insult salvo.
I am grateful for the folks who came to my aid publicly and behind the scenes. Still, I find it odd to be openly maligned just because. Welcome to a semi-public life. (Trust me, it’s absurd. There’s some guy out there who hates me because he is convinced I’m Senator Tim Scott. Yet another person has sworn he will raise an army of marijuana tokers to burn me on a pyre—despite the fact that I believe in legalizing pot.) My private reply to my defenders was that I’m saddened to see someone roiling in such pain; he needs special care, but either can’t find it or won’t accept it.
Wait before you give me too much credit. That is not how I normally manage trolls. My response was preceded by reading the first few paragraphs of this essay several times—then, somehow, I swallowed a sailor’s blue streak. That’s forgiveness progress, of sorts. Truly, my attacker is not mentally well. He needs help. The best thing I can do is go about my way and let Providence judge the matter as it pleases.
Then there was the other onslaught—from a person who routinely seeks my utter ruin for blood sport. This person rapaciously rips with razor-sharp claws until only my raw, ground chuck self remains. I confess: I punted my forgiveness project to the next dimension. I swore, I banged my head against the nearest flat surface, I gnashed my teeth and searched Amazon for sackcloth and ashes.
Yea, though I yearn for pacific waters, though I act with courtesy, I am repaid with evil. O, Lord, let me wax further till this essay be transformèd into a Davidic psalm. Ahem.
The long and short is: I performed nobly during the first instance, then responded to the second sword swipe with an emotional mushroom cloud.
I blew it. But hope remains!
No one hurts someone because they’re feeling dynamically well-balanced. When things are amiss inside that complex labyrinth of axons and dendrites and nodes between our ears, we often transfer hurt to other damned apes in order to relieve the pressure.
It’s that simple. People who hurt me are themselves hurting. Again, this doesn’t justify their behavior. And it doesn’t minimize the consequences for what they have done. But recognizing their pain is a first step for me to pass Forgiveness 101.
Now, back to the beginning:
Throughout the past year, a number of phrases on a secret mission for my spiritual wellbeing have lodged themselves in my consciousness. The sources are pop tunes, banal passing remarks, superhero apothegms, the unexpected wisdom one finds above Lotto numbers in a fortune cookie.
These otherwise profane words (even if first uttered on the silver screen by a Marvel legend) have turned sacred and accreted into a sort of self-centering pearl. In moments of reflection and/or anxiety, I intone the inlay, as it were, reciting and reinforcing this mélange mantra. Yet when I arrive upon the final om, my inner voice rolls and sways like a Winnebago spanking a speed bump in a John Candy camping comedy:
I forgive them.
Those three words rattle my psychic carriage and send various instruments of my inner self flying into one another. Pride caroms off the ceiling; ego smashes into esteem; emotion bites its tongue. Tis not a pretty sight. Providence, the Almighty—whatever word(s) one uses to name the Mystic Must—appears devoted to a sweeping renovation of my soul that calls for bulldozers plus a swatch book of every possible shade of dispensation. So. Damned. Unfair. Why do I have to forgive? They hurt me!
Forgiveness is a complex topic that seems to bring out the terminal degree in everyone—like when a couple announces they’re expecting, and the world bombards them with baby care expertise. (By the way, my advice to all new parents is to ignore everyone’s advice, plus buy a Diaper Genie.) If it’s true my pride is about to get gutted floor to ceiling, then I might as well pull out the sledgehammer. With no apologies to The Ungame and Dr. Phil, here are some industrial thoughts on forgiveness:
The maxim “Forgive and forget” is horseshit. Anyone who has been singularly crushed by another human being knows better. Our personal and community histories are a critical factor in guiding us through the present into the future. Keyword: Auschwitz.
“Forgive and move beyond” seems a more mature way to handle the misdeeds of others. When we forgive, we release the control another person has on our being. The pain another causes can become an existential marker, akin to the perfect tense in grammar. One can easily get stuck living in the ever-present condition of pain others have caused, even from decades ago. Forgiveness removes the shackles and offers emotional freedom.
“Forgive and seek justice” may sound like a tagline for a leaden Hollywood western, but it’s the smelted truth: forgiving your enemies does not mean they will suddenly own their actions, let alone atone for them. When the Mother Emanuel AME Church community in Charleston made its remarkable declaration of forgiveness, I cannot imagine that a single person expected the murderer and the society that produced him to be let off the hook. Forgiveness liberates a victim’s state of being, but the abuser retains the unpaid debt.
Then there’s “Forgive and pay the mortgage.” Forgiveness isn’t a Community Chest card that whooshes you around the board past Go, and throws in a couple of hotels on Park Place for good measure. Emotional freedom may place a person in a better position to live life, but all the vagaries of life, including monthly bills, remain. In short, forgiving someone won’t hoodwink Fortune into providing you a Joel Osteen, Pepsodent smile lifestyle.
Finally, “Forgiveness isn’t a Hot Pocket.” The journey for forgiveness and justice isn’t a frozen meat turnover you pop in a microwave oven and munch on minutes later. Don’t beat yourself up if it takes weeks, months, even years to get there. One, take your time. Two, proceed with caution. For it’s easy to get sidetracked by dead end paths like revenge and self-blame. Then again, the grace to forgive may appear suddenly, like a fresh breeze on a sweltering dog day in summer. When freedom comes, seize it—but don’t be disappointed if your soul requires several seasons, and several snafus, to achieve peace.
Ah, hell. Like I said, I’m a forgiveness neophyte. For all I know, the self-help section in your local library or bookstore has more worthwhile things to say about forgiveness than I do. By the way, I stumbled upon the following words by Russell Brand not long after I drafted the above paragraphs:
There’s my answer—that’s why I have to forgive them. Because I want to be free.
This may be a quality moment for an aside. I anticipate a few readers interjecting, “Man, this guy totally had me until he quoted that jackass. I hate Russell Brand.”
If you don’t know who Russell Brand is (I happen to think he’s a genius), just replace his name with any number of possible public figures or entities one can mindlessly “hate.” Say, Serena Williams or the New York Yankees. Not Adolph Hitler or Bashar al-Assad—try to avoid obvious war criminals and/or those who have spent a lifetime of unquestionable crime and viciousness. More Lindsay Lohan and Bono than Pol Pot and Trump.
There was a time not long ago when I thought little of voicing hatred for Tom Cruise and any member of the Dallas Cowboys, plus a number of other celebrities and public figures who rubbed me the wrong way. Hey, no one forces them to step on stage. All that loot and adoration is worth the public’s spite and the occasional flung tomato. Right?
For me, that attitude changed in 2016 when I ran for federal office as a major political party candidate. I learned what kind of hate awaits even a semi-public figure. My personal property and residence were vandalized. I received death threats—and please don’t ask, “Were they real?” Do you want to be placed in the position of deciding which threats to your person are real, and which are fake?
Some days the verbal hate valve opens wide, and you get pressure-washed with private messages and public declarations. I long ago stopped asking people for specific examples to justify their accusations and claims. The irony is that these individuals are attacking a rookie politician who has no connection to any political scandal or wayward public policy. Like that matters: people rarely rant following a thorough fact-checking operation. They’ve had a long day at the office, they need to vent, you’re an easy target—after all, you’re a politician. Wham! Bam! Pow! Splat! Try to breathe. Bif! Crack! Zap!
In some ways, wanton slanderers are the most difficult people for me to forgive. When someone with whom I share a personal history hurts me, I likely have some understanding of his or her pain. But I find it difficult to let go of the stranger who jumps on a social media hate scrum and berates me “for looking mean at the gym.”
Question marks and exclamation points fill the quote cloud above my head. So sorry for not acting jolly while I hoist 250 pounds in the air! By the way, who are you—and why are you stalking me at the fitness center?!
“Stranger hate” drives me nuts. I lose sleep trying to get them to see reason, to correct their misperception. Also, my public reputation is a matter of personal pride. Full stop. Of what? Yeah, pride. And not the good kind. Forgiveness releases me from the egotism of my persona. #letouttheair
Through this aside (which may be just a few paragraphs, but is the result of months of internal processing), I’ve learned a critical lesson about the ballooning nature of ego. Also, I no longer disparage individuals I don’t know. Who knows why Tom Cruise rubs me the wrong way? He’s cocky, he’s successful; he practices a bizarre religion. So do other people. Using his being to transfer my own pain is unproductive and just plain dumb. (Still, I’m not going to see the Top Gun sequel. But not because of mindless hate.)
Want to have your mind blown? Here’s a remarkable character sketch in forgiveness:
A few years ago, a friend of mine was mugged in Chicago. He was physically brutalized, his wallet was stolen—hell, these strangers could have killed him. A number of his friends, including me, were adamant that he should file a police report and do everything possible to make sure these criminals receive their just desserts.
I was bewildered when my friend seemed to shrug his shoulders and just move on with life. But—but! But what about JUSTICE!
Herein was an ultimate act of forgiveness: I release myself from my offenders.
I am not controlled. I move on.
I. Am. Free.
Put that in a self-help book and smoke it. Now that’s forgiveness.
Where do I go from here?
As a writer, publishing this essay is an essential part of my Forgiveness Project. I have dedicated my adulthood to sharing major life experiences with others—be it one reader or one million readers. I’m on the record that it’s time to cleanse my spirit with forgiveness. Thank you for serving as my witness.
Interestingly, the mechanics of writing itself have provided a unique opportunity. I have spent several months penning this essay. For every paragraph that has survived, many more did not make the cut. By a simple stroke upon the keyboard, so many instances of pain, recounted, have been released into the electronic ether.
DELETE. Poof! I am free!
Today, an ancient memory came to mind. As a young child, I created a paper boat. My mother and I took a walk to the local creek. At the water’s edge, I released my little creation. The current carried my boat away, never to be seen again.
Forgiveness, essentially, is about finding a way to release a burden of pain.
Who knows why any of us clutches at such burdens. Revenge. Anger. There are so many tethers that can fool us into victim servitude.
Do you sense the lightness in my tone? It’s almost like the bottom of this essay has fallen away. Am I, truly, free?
I think so. Somewhere between the beginning of this essay and now, I discovered a way to let go. The balloons slip from my hand and fly high, eventually disappearing beyond the clouds.
As my good friend says, “Our enemies deserve nothing but Grace and Forgiveness.”
You know what, if that’s true for them, it’s certainly true for me.
The bile of hate burns no more.
All I ever had to do was let go.
Freedom is so exhilarating.
I forgive you.
I am free.