I, like many men, had a strained relationship with my father. There were a lot of reasons for that. I had a sister that passed away at a young age, and he became pretty distant. His marriage with my mom wasn’t great after that. He eventually left. I lived with him off and on over the next few years and was a first hand witness to his unraveling and growing battle with alcoholism. He began to shut himself out from most of the people around him. The birth of my first daughter helped build a bridge between us a little bit, but he died young, and he died with some things between us unresolved. What does forgiveness look like when one of the parties is no longer around?
I've come to learn that forgiveness isn’t contingent on the other person asking for it. In the case of the relationship with me and my father, this seems almost obvious. He can’t come back from the grave to ask forgiveness. What sense would me make for me to keep holding onto anger or bitterness if the release of it is dependent on him? The same is also true for those who’ve offended us that are still around.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t admit to a person when they’ve hurt you or call them out on their stuff. That kind of honesty is necessary for a meaningful relationship. Burying hurt deep inside and acting like it didn’t happen will not work in the long run. Jesus said, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
But what if the person who has hurt you is stubborn, proud, immovable. What if they aren’t willing to admit fault or ask for forgiveness? How long will you hold onto your anger because they won’t change? They’ve already wounded you, how much more control are you going to give them over your emotional life? How many times will you let the wound multiply itself?
Seneca writes, “How much better to heal than seek revenge from injury. Vengeance wastes a lot of time and exposes you to many more injuries than the first that sparked it. Anger always outlasts hurt. Best to take the opposite course. Would anyone thin it normal to return a kick to a mule or a bite to a dog?” (On Anger, 3.27.2) So good!
Forgiveness is as much about the health of your own soul as anything else. I love the statement- “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” You forgive whoever wounded you so that you don’t multiply the wounds onto other people. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen become train wrecks and wound others because they couldn’t deal with their own anger or grief. This kind of thing can last for generations. “The best way to avenge yourself is to not be like that.” (Marcus Aurelius)
As I reflect on my dad’s life and learn more of his story, I can’t help but grow in compassion for him. Knowing more of the story makes forgiveness easier. Assuming the best intentions in others makes forgiveness easier. Asking questions, being curious, being open to taking in new information and having it shape your perspective makes forgiveness easier. Andrew Solomon once wrote, “It is nearly impossible to hate someone once you know their story."
Christians and Stoics alike point to the power and necessity of forgiveness to for the health of your soul and the sake of community. We are all broken and wounded in our own ways. Grace can overcome.