Sunday, May 29, 2011

The nature of forgiveness

When I was young, I begged my Mom for a pet hamster. Reluctantly, she gave in, and soon on my dresser at home was a modest metal cage lined with sawdust chips, and inside was my furry little companion.

The first night I brought him home I had been cautioned not to take him out of his cage—the excitement of the relocation, I’d been told, could cause him to be a bit more aggressive than normal and I may end up getting bitten. Being a typical boy, I didn’t do particularly well when it came to heeding advice. I sat and stared inside the cage for several hours, mesmerized by this little whiskered thing that scurried from side to side, excitedly investigating his new home and finding something curious in every corner, regardless of how many times he had visited it already.

Eventually, my curiosity got the best of me. I reached in and picked up my new hamster—longing to feel the softness of his fur and hold his little face next to mine.

And then, of course, it happened.

Right when I picked him up, he bit my finger. Alarmed and hurt, I let go of him and withdrew my hand in a flash. The bite was sharp and painful and drew blood almost immediately. I ran to the bathroom and wrapped my finger in a tissue (not daring tell my Mom I’d disobeyed), and returned to sit in front of the cage.

I sat and watched him continue to bustle from side to side—but now, instead of feeling child-like curiosity, I was full of anger, pain, and resentment. Being a tender-hearted boy and an ardent lover of animals even then, though, it was clear I wouldn’t stay angry for long. I remembered the warning—that he would be overly excited with the move—and my heart softened. And then, as if he’d read my mind, he stood on his rear haunches, his front paws bent in front of him like little hands, and looked at me while his whiskers twitched from side to side. My heart melted completely, and in that moment I forgave him. But despite forgiving him in my heart, the bite on my finger remained--stinging, bloody, and painful.

I was reminded of this story when I was preparing a recent lesson for my Sunday School class on the nature of forgiveness. Is it possible, I wondered, to genuinely forgive someone for the hurt they have caused you, yet still feel the pain of their offense?

There are times, as we navigate our course in life, where our paths will cross with those who will hurt us—sometimes they do so inadvertently, with good intent, doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Other times, though, some will seek to do us deliberate harm, inflicting pain upon us through calculated choices of words, deeds, or direct actions.

When we’re hurt as an adult, our wounds appear so much more complicated than a simple bite on the finger—like the one I suffered from my hamster. This is particularly true when it seems the choice to hurt us is deliberate.

Throughout my path in life—and especially growing up as a gay Mormon—I have encountered both types of people; those who have harmed me unintentionally, and those who have done so deliberately. But the lesson I have come to realize is regardless of the intent of the person who has wounded us, the choice is still ours as to whether or not (and how genuinely) we forgive.

Indeed, we may still feel the pain from their actions, even when we’ve chosen to forgive in our hearts—some wounds simply cut more deeply than others. The bite I suffered from my hamster ultimately took weeks to heal—but heal it did, and the healing process was one that I could not force.

So it is when we suffer deep spiritual wounds. We can forgive in sincerity of heart, but we must also recognize that we can’t force the healing process. That process ultimately belongs to our Savior—once we have done our part by forgiving those who harm us, and placing our pain into His hands.

There are those among us who have adopted the view that forgiveness is a power we have over others—enabling us to demonstrate our own superiority by rising above the offense and magnanimously bestowing our grace and forgiveness to the offender.

But herein lies the danger with this philosophy: It overlooks the simple truth that we are all on equal footing with every other member of our human family. True, some make choices that others would not, but we all do good and righteous acts at times—and at other times, we may offend and hurt. Worse, when we adopt the attitude that forgiveness is power, we tell ourselves and the world around us that we are victims—and thus, we remain victims.

I believe our souls are like the wet sand along the ocean shoreline—soft, pliable, impressionable. When someone walks along the shore, they leave an impression near the water even after their foot has been lifted again to take the next step. Likewise, when we cross paths with those who harm us, their actions leave impressions upon our soul, often long after we’ve granted forgiveness to them in our hearts. But like those same footprints along the shore, over time, the impressions are washed away by the waves of our Savior’s compassion, and once again the surface is smooth and free from scars.

 I may never know the circumstances that motivate or cause someone to hurt me—and I don’t really need to. But when I hold on to pain, blame, and resentment, I occupy my soul with bitterness and move myself away from becoming who I truly want to be. Focusing on my part—forgiving in my heart—and then placing the pain into the hands of my Savior, allows me to nurture myself and those around me in a compassionate, kind, and loving way.

And, ultimately, it is the only thing that allows me to heal.