This past week, people of the Jewish faith honored the season of atonement and forgiveness in their observation of Yom Kippur. Every year people look at their relationships and examine where they need to make repairs, to atone for words and deeds that may have caused harm, and to forgive those who seek to atone for their actions. Only when all the human interactions have been reconciled can one then be in right relationship with God.
Forgiveness is a journey … sometimes a very long journey. Some of the pain and injustice that has been imposed on me, or that I have imposed on others, have taken much longer than a year to resolve. For example, when I was a a young teenager, I was violated by a young adult male in the neighborhood. It has taken many years for me to work through layers of healing to reach a place of forgiving him, and forgiving myself. Sometimes I still feel the psychological and spiritual pain of that incident, yet I always come back to a place of compassion. I don’t know what abuses he suffered, or how the culture of our society at that time influenced his actions, or what his home life was like. I do know that something was broken in him, and for that I have compassion.
What he did was not okay, and I will not ever try to contact or connect with him — even if I think it would be safe, I know enough to keep these boundaries and not to re-traumatize myself. I have chosen to stop letting that incident from over 40 years ago define me. I chose many years ago not to carry that anger with me — it was too heavy and it was a burden in more ways than I can count. I also had to choose to forgive myself … for being naive and taking risks that put me in a situation I could not get out of.
Carrying old burdens takes up too much of my life energy. I try to consider what is in my circle of influence … how can I make amends, repair relationships, or effect change for an issue or concern that’s important to me. I also take time to discern what is beyond my abilities, capacity, or need to change. Being able to forgive myself and others is a lot like what is called forth in the Serenity Prayer: Having the courage to change the things I can (within my circle of influence), the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (the circle of my concern beyond my influence), and the wisdom to know the difference. The path to forgiveness requires the courage to look deep within for our ability to empathize, and to be radically compassionate so that we can create a world in which fewer people experience the brokenness that can be the source of so much pain.