“Forgiveness can begin the moment we accept that the past cannot be changed.” These words, copied by a friend from a radio show, name one of the biggest hurdles on the path to forgiveness of self and others.
Playing past events over in my mind like bad movies, some of them horror shows, I find myself wondering how different life would be if – if — if the levees around New Orleans had been built and maintained adequately, if planes had not sprayed the fields with DDT while my papa and his siblings were hoeing weeds, if I had been more mindful about what I said that time—and that other time. What if the past was different? What if?
The five stages of grief described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross are useful parallels to the stages of forgiveness, especially when harm has actively been done to us or by us-
- Shock and Denial that something like this could even happen.
- Anger that it has happened.
- Bargaining (here’s where we find the “what if” mental movies).
- Depression when we begin to move into the present moment and experience the harm that has been done.
- Acceptance – the moment when we accept that the past, indeed, is past and cannot be changed. We must now try to live in a world where what happened and all its consequences are what we in New Orleans call the “new norm.” Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. That is not the case. Acceptance is about recognizing and acknowledging that this new reality is, in fact, reality.
Life as we knew it has been forever changed and, really, no kidding, no bad joke, we must re-adjust. New Orleans was flooded. My papa and all of his siblings are dead, all having suffered from some form of cancer. I cannot unspeak careless, harmful words once spoken, no matter how much I wish I could.
Dutch-born Catholic priest Henri Nouwen tells us that “It is freeing to become aware that we do not have to be victims of our past and can learn new ways of responding.” Forgiveness, he says, “… sets us free without wanting anything in return.” Forgiveness, strangely, perhaps counter-intuitively, is largely an internal process, one that allows us to release the poison of pain and anger that makes us unhappy and unhealthy.
Nations, institutions, families, ourselves – the need for forgiveness, to forgive and to be forgiven, looms large for many of us. To accept, truly accept that the past cannot be changed, opens the door to the possibility of forgiveness.
Bill Chadwick of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, speaks skillfully about the internal nature of forgiveness. His 21 year old son Michael was killed as a passenger in a car crash where the driver at fault survived. Bill relates:
It was some months later that it hit me: until I could forgive the driver, I would not get the closure I was looking for. Forgiving is different from removing responsibility. The driver was still responsible for Michael’s death, but I had to forgive him before I could let the incident go. No amount of punishment could ever even the score. I had to be willing to forgive without the score being even. And this process of forgiveness did not really involve the driver—it involved me. It was a process that I had to go through; I had to change, no matter what he did. … This is what I learned: that the closure we seek comes in forgiving. And this closure is really up to us, because the power to forgive lies not outside us, but within our souls.
Once we accept that the past does not change, we can make a choice about how we live in the present. “There are times,” Sister Joan Chittister observes, “to let a thing go. There is a time to put a thing down, however unresolved, however baffling, however wrong, however unjust it may be. There are some things in life that cannot be changed, however intent we are to change them. There is a time to let surrender take over so that the past does not consume the present, so that new life can come, so that joy has a chance to surprise us again.”
As we enter a new season, may we choose to live in the present, accepting that the past will not change. May we forgive and know forgiveness. May joy have a chance to surprise us once again.