Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”
Since my last post was about the need to apologize, I thought it would be appropriate to write a post on forgiveness.
I would like to try and paint a picture for you of this amazing woman I had in my life from the time I was born until I was 19 years old, when she passed away at the age of 95. Her name was Helen Joy and she was my great-grandma. I can tell you she made such an impression on me. I never heard her complain about anything or anyone in all of the time I spent with her.
Her motto to live by, “if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”
I used to love visiting her and thankfully, I have so many fond memories of putting makeup on her face, painting her nails, her braiding my hair, letting me stay up late, watching game shows like the “Price is Right,” and feeding the birds that visited her throughout the day.
She walked with a walker all of the time I knew her, and never once did she complain. I drank my first cup of coffee with her, ate cinnamon and sugar toast, and made frequent trips with her to McDonalds. They are truly some of the most special memories I have from my childhood.
She didn’t spoil me with gifts and she didn’t have a lot to necessarily do at her trailer she lived in. It was just her and her simple life, filled with so much love and sincerity. I can feel her presence with me at different times in my life. She is such a gift to everyone who had the privilege of knowing such a strong, kind, loving and forgiving women.
She loved the balloon races, McDonalds chocolate shakes, the Avon representative, visitors, and she was fascinated with the birds outside in her bird bath. She loved pretty dresses, pastel colors and anything floral.
She is cheering me on when I am having a good day and she picks me up when I am filled with disappointment and despair.
I hope we all have someone like that from our past. Maybe for you it was a friend, relative or a teacher.
She taught me about looking for the little things in life, paying it forward, putting yourself in other’s shoes and always smile.
I remember so many stories she shared with me but there is one vivid story that completely applies to the very word, forgiveness.
It is her story of forgiveness and the complete example of true strength.
I was 11 years old when she shared with me the story of losing her son Grant, her second born child. He enlisted in the military and was a pilot who fought in the Korean War. Grant’s plane was shot down and he was captured. He was held in a prison camp for a while, but ended up escaping. Unfortunately, he was captured for a second time and to make sure it didn’t happen again, they tortured him. As she was speaking, it was hard for me to imagine how anyone could be so cruel. She learned later from prisoners who were set free the horrible conditions Grant endured.
They didn’t give Grant any medicine or treat his wounds and gave him little food to eat. She didn’t share all of the details, but she said the acts of cruelty killed her son. Even after Grant was held prisoner of war, they sat knowing nothing about their son for weeks. It wasn’t until his brother who was 13 months younger than him, and also a pilot, saw his name at his post hanging and realized his brother was missing and most likely captured. Later, after several more weeks, they learned Grant died in the camp. He left behind a young wife and two children, Grant Jr. who was 3 and Debbie who was 1.
My great-grandma Helen’s eyes said it all as she shared this story of loss. However, this story wasn’t just about the loss of her son, it was about forgiveness; something I would definitely encounter at different times in my life. I needed to understand it was a life lesson and I did as she held my hands so tightly and shook them up and down as her bangles on her wrists jingled.
Grandma told me she still remembered the day the military sent her a telegram to let her know her son Grant had died. She lost her son Grant to despicable acts of cruelty and although she was mourning his death, she knew she had to forgive those who took him away from her.
I asked her what it was like, how was she able to move on? I remember her response like it was yesterday. She said it was very difficult to move on, but she knew she had to forgive the men who tortured and starved her son. She knew it was what Grant would want, and she knew it was what she had to do to start living again.
She went on to tell me that forgiveness was what saved her from living a life filled with resentment. She said that once she forgave the men who starved and tortured her son, she could live again. I believe she chose to be grateful for what she did have in her life and although she suffered a loss that no parents should ever suffer, she chose forgiveness. It was her faith that allowed her to see all of the beauty in her life and focus on that.
She challenged me to live a life filled with forgiveness so I wouldn’t end up living a life with bitterness. She would say, “forgiveness can just be a change of attitude.” She shared this personal and powerful story with me as an example of the importance of forgiving others who harm you as well as forgiving ourselves.
She also said, Grant isn’t forgotten or the terrible treatment he went through. But by forgiving she was able to let go of the hurt, the darkness, and surrender the pain to God. She lived a life not consumed with anger and revenge, but rather a peaceful life.
I finished a compelling book by Father Eamon Tobin titled, How to Forgive Yourself and Others.
There were many inspiring parts to this book but probably the most beneficial for me to read was the chapter about defining forgiveness. Recognizing what forgiveness IS and ISN’T.
I would like to sum up powerful statements he made about forgiveness.
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must forget a hurt or injustice. Some justices are too big and painful to remove totally from our memory, but we should seek to let go of the resentments connected with the hurt.
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean we surrender our right to justice. For example, the late Pope John Paul II forgave Ali Agra, the man who tried to kill him, but he didn’t request that he be released from jail.
- Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean we have to now befriend the offender. This is especially true when the offender shows no sorrow or remorse for the pain they caused.
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to put up with intolerable behavior. It doesn’t mean we are excusing or condoning the wrong inflicted.
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean we never have negative feelings toward our offender. Fr. Tobin says there is a difference between the forgiveness of a hurt and the total healing of a hurt.
- Forgiveness is a process which can take a long time, but we must seek to eliminate from our heart all resentment and hurt feelings.
- Forgiveness is a spiritual surgery that we perform on ourselves to free ourselves from all of the venom we feel as the result of a hurt or injustice.
- Forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves, so we don’t remain stuck in the past.
I believe we all have someone we need to forgive in our life, maybe it is ourselves.
I think journaling and taking time to write out the wrong and the way it makes you feel is so important. Don’t hold anything back in your writing and just put it all on paper.
I have written so many letters to someone who betrayed me and never sent them, but it felt so good to get it all out. All the pain and injustice were written out, and I felt released from the bitterness it was causing me. In the beginning all I wanted after the offense was revenge, but I decided to choose forgiveness. I wanted to live a life in peace that was accomplished through forgiveness.
I knew I had forgiven my offender when I could pray for them. I also was able to speak the words to them. “I forgive you” those three words are for “you” and not for the offender. I believe when we choose not to forgive, we give our offender ongoing control over our life.
As I look back on my time with my great-grandma Helen, I am so thankful for her advice.
I believe forgiveness can be summed up with these powerful words spoken by Nelson Mandela “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead me to freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”