“Forgive and forget” – it’s age-old advice.
It’s advice I’ve heard given often. It’s advice I’ve been given recently as I head into marriage.
What does that actually look like though? And is it actually good advice? Is it possible?
I can appreciate the notion. Forgiveness is always a good practice in any relationship. Holding past offenses over someone’s head only tends to hurt more. Holding a grudge doesn’t help anyone. It only holds onto the person holding onto it. And often a lot of things aren’t worth remembering.
What about the big pain? The pain that marks you. The pain that knocks you down, drags you around and leaves a scar. Or ten. Should you forget that? Can you?
It’s been a year since I returned to my hometown in Kansas to testify in a second trial against my biological father. A year since I sat up in front of a jury and told them about my relationship with him and what I knew of his relationships with my mother and others. A year since I testified to what I heard the night he took Mary. A year since I ran off a witness stand crying. A year since I revisited pain I’d rather forget. A year ago testifying was a very different experience than 11 years ago. 11 years ago I was beyond furious. I wanted him to have the worst punishment possible. I didn’t know how much weight my testimony carried. I did know I couldn’t do anything but glare. 11 years ago I hated him, and I wanted him to know it. I wanted everyone to know it. A year ago testifying, I just felt sad.
In the decade between the two trials I learned a lot. I went to a lot of therapy. Like, a whole lot of therapy. I also had a lot of wise people in my life that poured into my emotional and spiritual development. Among all of these therapists, mentors, and years a common theme arose.
I’ve tried a few approaches to forgiveness. I’m still definitely not an expert. The first I tried was a one and done forgive and forget. I decided I was going to forgive Marty for all he had done and then I wasn’t ever going to think about it again. I wrote him a letter when I was 16 (that I now realize had all kinds of anger in it) and let him know I’d forgiven him and also refused to acknowledge he existed from that point on. It worked for a while. But then, I was angry again. This confused me. I’d decided to forgive him so why was I engraged and hurt all over again? I realized then that forgiveness isn’t always cut and dry.
“Forgive and forget” doesn’t always work.
It also doesn’t give the weight to forgiveness that it often deserves. Forgiving someone for the big pain, the hurt that marks you. That is weighty. It is hard. It is confusing. In forgiving Marty I had to learn a few things:
Forgiveness isn’t fair
Forgiving Marty wasn’t for him. He could have benefited from it had he chosen to accept my forgiveness but that’s a story for a different time. The only way to let go of my anger was to forgive. I had to acknowledge that as someone who believes God has – for all my wrongdoings past, present, and future – forgiven me, then I also needed to forgive. Not because Marty deserved it. He didn’t. But neither did I. Forgiveness wasn’t fair. It wasn’t earned. It was free. It couldn’t necessarily be accomplished by my own strength. As someone who had been forgiven much by someone much greater than myself I also was called to extend my forgiveness to those that had wronged me. Even the man who murdered my mother.
Forgiveness can be a growing cycle.
I eventually came to a place where I felt more sadness than anger for Marty. How desperate a man to maintain a façade and go to such lengths. I cannot even imagine the despair he felt or the lies he’s continued to have to tell himself to live with what he did. I cannot imagine how lonely that must truly be. This is when I moved from my grudge into forgiveness. Forgiveness seems to be an ongoing cycle though. I didn’t decide to forgive him and end it there. I don’t hold what he did against him anymore. I have forgiven him to the fullest extent possible. I’ve also realized in another decade I could reach a completely different level of forgiveness for him. It’s not always a period on a page. Sometimes you forgive and move on and then you forgive again. Just as I grow and change my capacity to forgive may grow and change. There are still ripples and repercussions from that night that creep up and cause anger. There always seems to be something new (but also old) to forgiven. It seems to circle back around.
Forgiveness is not always best with something forgotten
Trust me when I say there are plenty of days I would much rather forget what Marty did. I would much rather forget the two jury trials we went through. I would much rather forget the first 14 years than remember that one night. To forget would cheapen the outcome though. It would cheapen the growth and the person I’ve become. To forget the one would mean to forget so many other things worth remembering. I can’t forget the bad without losing some of the good too. I can’t forget Marty without also having to forget at least parts of Mary. To remember it, as painful as it may be, gives credit where it’s due. It’s a scar. A pretty big one. And for better or worse it is a part of me. It’s not worth ignoring because there is actually so much good that came from the pain. It’s not worth fixating on either. Forgiving big gives the freedom to remember without a stomach full of fury and the perspective to let the little things go.
Testifying in the trial a year ago had nothing to do with hate or anger. My forgiveness did not release Marty from the responsibility he held to answer for his actions. He committed a crime and deserved to be prosecuted and punished as our law stipulates. As a witness to this crime, I served my necessary role. A guilty verdict is so small in the grand scheme of all that has happened since July 28, 2014.
I wrote Marty a second letter a few years ago apologizing for the first. I didn’t want a response and didn’t expect one. I got one. It wasn’t nice. It also wasn’t new. There were attempts at manipulation and using my words against me. That’s okay. I didn’t forgive him because I thought he wanted or needed it. He’d never asked. He still hasn’t. But that doesn’t change my mind or my heart.
There is a liberating peace in forgiveness. It is hard, it is messy and it can be confusing. Forgiving and forgetting can often be the best option. But sometimes, it’s worth it to forgive and remember.