What is the hardest thing in the world to do? The Hindu scriptures say it is to conquer the mind (Bhagavad Gita 6.6). The writer Ayn Rand wrote, “It's the hardest thing in the world - to do what we want.” According to several million people on social media, but most significantly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer in season 5, the hardest thing to do in the world is live in it. The actor Micky Rourke said, “The hardest thing in life to do is to change." Many people say that being a parent, and especially, of course, a mother (That whole birth thing must REALLY hurt!) is the hardest thing in life.
I think the hardest thing in the world to do, it is to forgive. To put aside the pain or injury, and take that first step in healing the relationship. Why do we find it so hard? Anything that has hurt us – physically, emotionally or humiliatingly, that pain overrides our logical sense that things can only improve with forgiveness.
In my prison chaplaincy role, I have been surprised by how many men say “You talk about forgiveness, but how can I be forgiven? I know how many people I've hurt, my victims, my family – surely there can never be forgiveness for me – I cannot forgive myself!”
And I think this touches on the real truth of what makes forgiveness so hard for us to sustain. It calls on us to change. And we do not like that. I recently put two photographs beside each other. They are both of me, standing in the same place, but the first was taken in 1978, the other in 2010.
The original picture was taken by my mother, who was visiting me in London, where I was living the idle life that they call 'backpacking' these days. Mum said she wanted a photo of me and Peter Pan – the two little boys who refused to grow up! In 2010, I was again in London, all alone, so I got a passing Dutch 'backpacker' to take my photo standing where I had stood over 30 years before. I stood on the wrong side – but the effect is the same!
The thing that surprised me most when I looked at the two pictures side by side only recently was that I am wearing almost identical clothes. Blue jeans with a fat leather belt and ostentatious buckle, black top and only the processes of aging have changed my hairstyle! In the 70s I had a thing for cowboy boots, now replaced by more comfortable runners, but not much else has changed.
As I looked at it I realized that somewhere way back there, now almost forty years ago, I found a me, an image of me, of who I was, that I have remained pretty content with ever since. I fact, I am sitting typing this in jeans, boots, a thick belt with an ostentatious buckle, and a black shirt on. And the hairstyle hasn't changed much either. I am clearly quite comfortable with it.
When I studied psychology, I learned that as a general rule, people are happiest with what they are familiar with. We are comfortable with what we know and have grown used to. There are two conflicting proverbs: “Birds of a feather flock together” and “Opposites attract”. Research seems to indicate that the former is generally the rule, and the latter is probably talking about magnets.
What has this to do with forgiveness? Something we find hard to do, such as forgive, is usually something that is calling on us to change. In pain, we are fixated on the pain. To forgive is to turn in the opposite direction. To put aside that which we are holding or feeling most intensely, which can literally mean, putting ourselves aside, to seek what is better for all. It is calling on ourselves to be a different person. And we do not like different. There is no doubting it – forgiveness is a really big ask.
However – it is also the only way to begin healing. It is the only thing that can do battle with the memories of hurt, humiliation, injury, damage or bitterness that sit and fester if left unattended. Only forgiveness has what is needed to restore relationship that has been betrayed or damaged. Bishop Desmond Tutu with Nelson Mandella realized that the only way to overcome the decades of violence and murderous inhumanity of Apartheid South Africa was to establish official processes of confession and forgiveness. The bloodbath that the world expected was largely avoided and that nation found a way forward. When I put that thought alongside the indignation I feel when somebody has slighted or passingly offended me, and how hard I find it to put aside my anger and forgive them, I feel very small and ashamed.
Interestingly, the word 'forgive' appears 133 times in the NRSV translation of the Bible. A lot of our faith and belief is tied up in the search for forgiveness. In your life, how many times would you think God would have had the right to feel offended or disappointed in you? And what did God do about it? God set out on the most astonishing and upside-down plan to establish a way to forgive us. It is quite amazing when you think about it. It is my view that that is what the story of Noah is teaching us. If God is the God we believe in, the creator of all that is, then God has the power to equally dispose of all that is. But God will always find a way to escape the flood. God is able to put aside what is bad about us, and love what is good about us.
In the end, God loving us that much should allow us to love ourselves. And loving ourselves, as God's beloved children, we should have the confidence to grow comfortable with the challenging different self that is able to forgive others.
All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 1:3-5)
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:11)
We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)