Forgiving When It Feels Impossible
When I was seven, an extended family member came to live with my parents and me for a year. This person was going through a rough time and my parents thought we could offer stability and support in hopes they would get a fresh start. I would like to say the experience went according to plan, but like many examples of radically living in communion with others, it was messy. Eventually, after a year of arguments and little to no progress, the family member left without warning. I was only a kid at the time, not completely aware of the complexity of the situation. And honestly, I hadn’t thought about it much since then. After all, how much could my seven-year-old self really have been impacted by one chaotic year?
Well, it turns out, more than I thought.
A year ago my grandmother died, and in all the funeral planning, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I would see this particular family member again. As the event got closer and the realization finally dawned on me, I panicked. Some distant and unresolved fear took hold of me. I even had to leave the graveside ceremony before it was over, pretending to nurse my infant son back in the car. Really, I was trying to catch my breath. Somehow, 20 years later, I couldn’t even be near this person.
At that point, hiding alone in the car, everything finally caught up with me. My head was spinning with so many emotions, anger, and wounds I didn’t even know existed. In fact, I was so ruled by my emotions that I no longer saw this person’s humanity, but only my own resentment and bitterness toward them. And that anger and bitterness is terrifying, because it’s a prison — not for them, but for me.
The truth is, this person caused considerable harm to my family, and it is prudent to be weary of any future relationship with them. But, sitting at my grandmother’s funeral, too angry to mourn a woman I loved, I realized that something needed to change, even if it was just my own heart. I don’t want to be held hostage by the panic and anxiety of 20 years ago. I want the freedom to be present to the current moment, to honor my own emotions as well as the humanity of the people who wound me.
I don’t do this well yet, but I’m trying to acknowledge the moments I feel resentment, to reconcile with others if it’s prudent, and to ask for the grace to forgive the people who hurt me — even if it feels impossible. In those moments, when anger wells up, when I’ve been so wronged by the people in my life, I try to attend to those feelings immediately, not in some distant future. I’m also starting to pray for the people who hurt me, not passive aggressively, but truly for their good. I pray that they can truly be healed from the ways others have wounded them. Every time I do this, I feel a little more free.
In these moments, I also can acknowledge my own brokenness and the ways I’ve hurt those around me. I am not immune from inflicting pain on others — none of us are. And when I make space for someone else to be flawed, but still worthy of mercy, then I’m also making space for myself. It is a challenge to look for the face of God in the people around me, especially those who don’t even pretend to love me with the love of God the Father, but I find that the more I look for God’s presence in those around me, the quicker I am to see God residing in myself.
I am still learning what forgiving someone from a distance looks like, especially in the case of this particular family member. For now, I actively pray for them, and in doing so, I remind myself of their humanity, even if I’m not mature enough to realize it all the time. It is a small step toward restoration, but it’s enough.
I know there are other moments just like this one, where an unresolved hurt in my past will blindside me, but I hope as I get older, as I continue to be present to my current moment, with all of its joy and all of its pain, those blind moments of panic will lessen. I hope that instead, I will honor my own pain without diminishing someone else’s humanity, no matter what they’ve done. I hope that I can one day see in others what God sees in me — a beloved child, fearfully and wonderfully made.