FORGIVE! ...AND FORGET? Many of us can think of someone who has hurt us badly. How difficult it can be for us to forgive that person. Even if we avoid seeking revenge, we may hold on to a grudge. Our society doesn't encourage forgiveness. On the contrary, when we are hurt we are told: "Don't get angry; get even!" The plots of many popular dramas focus on "sweet revenge." And yet our consciences tell us that this is not Christian. After all, every time we recite The Lord's Prayer we ask God to forgive us "as we forgive those who trespass against us." And the Gospels are continually enjoining us to forgive (e.g., Mt 5:38ff, 6:14f, 18:21ff; Lk 6:36f). Everyone knows that good Christians are expected to "forgive and forget." Or are we? Just what does it mean to forgive? to forget? We forgive when we do not wish harm to the one who harmed us. At times this is not easy, but it is the heart of forgiveness. Even though we have suffered at the hands of this person, God gives us the grace not to will evil for him or her. We let go of the offense. Some people believe that in order to forgive we must also be willing to forget. Does forgiveness mean that we must act as if nothing ever happened, be willing to give the offender another chance, must trust that the offender would not hurt us again? How many abused women have felt themselves morally obliged to give their attacker another chance, only to pay for this folly with their lives. Does God expect us to forget in this sense? I believe that God wants us to remember, to learn from our hurts, to grow in wisdom. To forgive is to forget, but only in the sense of not remembering to "get even," of not harboring a grudge, of not continually bringing up the past hurt. Our life experiences are not to be forgotten but remembered, and used as the basis for the decisions we make. If I have been hurt, for example, because a friend tells others the personal secrets I have shared with him, I should forgive him, I should not seek revenge by gossiping about him in return. But neither should I forget what he has done and naively continue to entrust my secrets to him. I need to see him as he is, not as I wish he were. I need to accept the fact that my friend is human and has limitations, and that one of his limits is his difficulty in keeping secrets. He may be a great friend in other areas, but not when it comes to respecting secrets. If he is sincerely sorry for the harm his gossiping has caused me, I might decide to continue our friendship, not to let his offense stand between us. But it would be foolish of me to confide my secrets to him again, unless I had good evidence that he has been able to grow and overcome this limitation. INNER PEACE Those who find it hardest to forgive are people who are most unsure of their own self-worth. The least infraction against them becomes a federal case, because it plucks a sensitive nerve of self- doubt lying just below the surface. The injured party overreacts, seizing upon the infraction as an opportunity to project his or her own negative self-feelings onto the offending party. Those people who, for no apparent reason, we find most offensive, really get to us, we can't forgive, can offer valuable insights into our own unresolved issues. The unforgettable example that brought this lesson home to me was the true story of a New Yorker who saw a man push a women into the path of an oncoming subway train. Many months later this New Yorker was still seething with anger towards the murderer, as if this horrible incident had just happened yesterday. At first the New Yorker could see no connection between himself and the murderer. He said: "I could never possibly do such a terrible thing. Why can't I let go of my rage towards that man." It was only gradually that the New Yorker came to realize that while everyone thought of him as a big, happy-go-lucky sort of guy, deep inside people really got on his nerves. He wished he could push them out of his life! His unabated anger towards the murderer was being fed by his rejection of this negative side of himself. It was through his abiding anger at the murderer that this New Yorker was able to come into touch with something new and important about himself. The people who bug us most can teach us most about ourselves. In learning to forgive them, we learn to forgive ourselves. The more wholesome self-respect we have, the harder it is to offend us. The tale is told of a monk on pilgrimage who arrives at a village. He is met by a man, he does not know, who immediately starts hurling a continuous barrage of insults at him. The monk keeps his silence until the screaming man exhausts himself. Then the monk asks him: "If you offer me a gift and I do not take it, to whom does the gift belong?" The man responds: "It would still belong to me." So the monk tells him: "I do not take your insults." Our society is fixated on taking. Notice how frequently, and inappropriately, we use the expression "to take": we take a seat, take an elevator, take a shower, take a nap, etc. In reality, we don't take a seat (unless we carry it away!) but rather we give ourselves to a seat, a shower, etc. Our very language betrays our preoccupation with taking control. But the worst of all the things that we take is when we "take offense." Why do we take offense? Why not leave the offense with the offender? Instead of taking offense, we need to forgive. The root meaning of "forgive" is to give thoroughly. It is when we forgive that we give completely. And yet forgiving is not just something we do for others, it’s a gift we give ourselves. To harbor a grudge is to carry a heavy stone in our hearts and disable our own capacity to love. People who belittle us are only trying to cut us down to their size. The more confidence we have in God's love for us and in our dignity as God's beautiful children, the more insults will roll off us like water off the back of a duck. As Jesus hung upon the cross, His enemies taunted Him with insult after insult. What they wanted more than anything else was to bring Him down to their level, to make Him curse them back. They had scattered His disciples, they had broken His body; now they wanted to break His spirit. But their insults could not reach His heart of hearts where, even in the midst of His death agony, Jesus was at peace with His God. He refused to take offense at their insults. Rather than curse them, Jesus kept repeating this prayer: "Father, forgive them: they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34). To forgive the way that Jesus forgave we too need to be people of prayer. Jesus spent the night before his death preparing Himself, bonding Himself to God, in prayer. It is in prayer that we develop that inner peace without which forgiveness is impossible. No one can take our inner peace from us. Others may take away our good name, they may hurt our bodies, but only we can give up our peace. Prayer deepens our awareness of God's peaceful presence within us. Is there someone you are finding it particularly difficult to forgive? I'd suggest that you try to include that person in your prayer. Since it is you that are doing the praying, you can decide what to pray for. You don't have to pray that your offender win the lottery! You might pray that the person be healed, so that he or she will not go on hurting people the way you were hurt. If you are praying for that person, you are not wishing them harm, but good. You are loving them. You are forgiving them, the way you want God to forgive you. Ronald Stanley, O.P. Martin Luther King, Jr. We must develop and maintain the capacity for forgiveness. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.