“Forgiving others is easier than forgiving ourselves.” – The Hopeful Nihilist
Forgiveness is that final act of closure which allows our head and heart to move forward. We will have people we love and care for hurt us and unfortunately that is just life. And holding that anger or sadness in our heart will only cause it to sicken, hurting us in the end. This sickness will destroy your happiness and sink you straight into depression. Your relationship with that person will strain and wither away, causing you to lose something once dear to you. However, there is a cure for this sickness, there is a cure to take this pain away, there is a cure to mend this broken relationship and it is called forgiveness.
The road to finding forgiveness in a relationship is a difficult one. Our mind and spirit will never forget the wrong that was committed against us. We sometimes have a hard time looking at that individual the same way again. That does not mean we still cannot love them or that we still can’t choose to have them in our lives. The magic formula for that is time. Precious time is needed to mend that broken relationship, just as time is needed to heal our wounds. We cannot force other people to be in our lives, we cannot expect them to never hurt us. This notion is unrealistic. We humans are prone to making mistakes. Forgiveness is that magic elixir for our soul that cures that sickness of the heart.
What about when we cannot even forgive ourselves? What about when there is no one to forgive? What about when the one person we hate the most is ourselves? This is one of the biggest challenges that the human spirit can face. And face it we will during the course of our lives. The pain of not being able to forgive ourselves for the people we feel we have hurt or failed is one of the greatest burdens a heart can carry.
I can recall my father dying of colon cancer just after I graduated from high school. I was young and getting ready to fly out to Wyoming and work on a real cattle ranch (a dream of mine growing up). I managed to get a job at a horse ranch in my hometown to work toward my goal. There I gained the experience and know-how to survive life on a working ranch. Then one day, my father told me that doctors just informed him he has colon cancer. I felt my entire world crashing down on me. I had been planning, saving, and working my ass off to make this dream a reality. But now my mentor and greatest fan was dying. I made a choice then, I would rather be damned than not be there for my father. And stay with him I did, all the way until the end.
You must be thinking, “Man, that is honorable!” or “How does this pertain to forgiveness?” Well my father was retired Air Force and did his time in the Vietnam War. I felt that I should carry on that tradition and continue his legacy by serving in the military. Only problem was I was born with a rare birth defect that prevented me from doing so. No matter how high I scored on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), I still couldn’t join and mind you, this was after 9/11. I wanted to join the Marines and sling lead downrange on those that would threaten the safety and security of the United States, but more importantly I wanted to make my father proud. But I could not even make it past the medical exam and that was the stark reality of it all.
I remember jumping from recruiter office to recruiter office and just trying. Finally, I stopped and realized that that was it, there was nothing more to be said or done. I went home to my dad. By this time, he was slowly dying and he and I knew it. I looked at him with a quiet sadness in my eye and told him, “I tried, Pops.” He mustered a slight smile and reassured me it was all good. Looking back, I know he was proud of me. But at 18, I couldn’t forgive myself for this failure. Not long after that, cancer took my father from this earth. This only served to fuel the fire of my anger and contempt. It was a sickness I held in my heart for a long period of time, which has impacted my relationships with those around me. I remember the night he died, I was so numb up until that point, trying to be strong for the family. But the rage was like an overwhelming force that just washed over me all of a sudden. I walked out to my father’s backyard and just started punching the chain link fence surrounding the yard. Screaming at the top of my lungs and crying in sheer rage and emotion. I had lost control and wanted to feel the pain of the metal tearing into my flesh, so I could lift the numbness. I felt as if I had failed my father and wanted to feel the pain of my failure.
My brother-in-law watched me from the porch; we were all worn-out by this time. A tough and compassionate man (perhaps a warrior in a past life), he just watched me silently as I tore my hands up. My father was a mentor to him as well and he understood my sorrow and rage. After I cut my knuckles up and tired myself out, he called me back to the house. He did not scold me or talk down to me for doing that. He quietly helped wash my hands and bandaged them up. He knew what I was going through and knew I had punished myself enough.
Shutting the door on those we love is easier than we think. I did that to a number of family and friends, and I didn’t even realize it. Other than my father, my grandparents know me better than I know myself and I had shut them out. The nights seemed to be getting darker and the days shorter. I was merely going through the motions at work and trying to find ways on how to move on. There would be many more months of being in the dark, before I would find that glimmer of light.
The beginning to my road to forgiveness
The road to forgiving myself was a long and winding road. Going to therapy was a critical component in helping me move forward to self-forgiveness. It was not so much that I suffered from depression, but I had so much anger pent up. I learned how to channel that anger in a positive way and focus on finding inner peace. There may be some people out there that think talking to a therapist is a weakness or a sign you are “crazy;” but let’s be honest. The word “normal” is what’s crazy to me. We are all different and unique. Even being identical twins is not a guarantee of having the same personalities. The point is we all need help sometimes, and I sought it in my darkest hour.
Spirit of helping
Having a drive to try and help others was also a key to forgiving myself. This, however, was a double-edged sword, since helping others does not always bring about the results I hoped for. When I feel like I failed to help someone to the best of my abilities, it ate at me and only added to the weight I was already experiencing in my heart. Still, the fire was lit and I was determined to make my father proud somehow and helping others was something he always endeavored to do in his life. I knew that I could find peace and satisfaction in helping others (within reason). But I have also come to understand that if I cannot help myself then there is no way I can expect to help others. I thought, “How could I assist others in their hour of need, when I am drowning myself?” I knew I would be useless if I did not pull myself back from the abyss of anger and grief.
Weathering the storm
Experiencing 18+ reconstructive surgeries to repair my face taught me patience and resilience. Learning how to pace myself and accepting little victories as a lead-up to major victories was essential for my motivation. My father was there with me every step of the way, doing his best to guide me. He instilled in me a sense of justice that cultivated my distain for bullies and cruel people. Most of all, he taught me how to laugh at a tough situation and make the best of what we were facing. These skills together allowed me to weather the storm and to find the strength to forgive myself.
Some people find peace with God or religion. Both of which are good things and all, but if you are not at peace with yourself then they are both for naught. I know some people will disagree with me on this notion. My answer to them is, if you leave it all up to God to help you find peace and not actively try to find it within yourself, you could find yourself experiencing intermittent periods of peace and sadness. I say, try practicing self-love and finding that absolution within yourself instead of expecting God to just grant it to you. This is what I did to help find peace in my journey to self-forgiveness. But again, everyone is entitled to their opinions and beliefs, and these are mine.
After a certain point I let go of that loathing I had for myself. I found love and she was pivotal in helping me move past the anger and sadness. I finally made my way down the long road of forgiveness and started living again. We all have that potential to move forward and forgive ourselves. That is the inherent resilience in all of us. It allows us to forgive others, but it must all start within us. We have to learn to let put down that burden. Once we do, then we can truly forgive ourselves and live.