Facets of forgiveness

A rainy urban rooftop with a sign saying "Forgive"“Forgiveness” is one of those limp, floppy words that create resentment. It sounds vaguely Biblical: If thou art a good person, thou shalt forgive others. It’s not a fun or sexy concept.

But in practice, it can be powerful. Transforming.

Forgiveness is a weightlifter. It removes the burden of anger and resentment that’s weighing us down.

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In her new book The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich explores trauma and forgiveness from many different angles.

It’s hard to do true crime well. It can feel exploitative, especially when it involves the death and possible molestation of a child.

Where do we draw the line between taking a ghoulish interest, and striving to understand a deeply human pathology, such as pedophilia?

Marzano-Lesnevich spins out this crime in multiple dimensions. The criminal in question is Ricky Langley, who killed young Jeremy Guillory and confessed to molesting multiple kids. She looks at Ricky’s own childhood, and skillfully weaves in a parallel story of abuse from her own family history.

What saves the book from being cold-blooded is the writer’s compassion. Without excusing the multiple, overlapping crimes in the narrative, Marzano-Lesnevich finds new lights to shine on these dark areas.

She also understands the complexity of story: the deep intertwining of cause, effect, and other influences that are not so binary or linear.

One of the questions she keeps getting pulled back to is this: When is forgiveness a beautiful, healing, generous action?

And when is it a way to let someone off the hook, to avoid confronting someone about their destructive behavior?

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I watched a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure recently, which dealt with the same questions: How do we, as flawed humans, judge others? Do we even try?

We have to, for our society to function. But how do we balance justice with mercy?

Is there a value in offering forgiveness for something terrible?

Does taking that action excuse the wrong-doing?

Or, does it elevate both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime?

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At church last week, the pastor talked about a Bible chapter focused on forgiveness. In the passage (Philemon), the writer (Paul the Apostle) offers to take on someone else’s debt: to erase a robbery by paying off what was stolen.

We are all indebted to others, the pastor explained. And we all have chances to take on each other’s burden of debt–not just financially, but relationally.

For example, if two friends of mine are having discord, I can shoulder part of that burden by mediating between them.

But what if one of my friends injured the other, out of spite or fear? What then? How can I get beyond taking sides?

How can I broker forgiveness between others, if my own grasp on it is so tenuous?

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The larger and more inflamed our egos are, the lower our capacity for forgiveness. I like Roland Merullo’s metaphor of constantly, carefully sanding down the ego over time, so it gets smaller and smaller, and controls us less and less.

That’s a challenge in a culture that pumps up our egos, where pissing matches are the order of the day (from the playground to international politics).

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Will you join me in this exercise?

Think of someone who’s injured you. Think about what their intentions may have been. Think about their backstory, what brought them to that point.

Hold the pain of that injury in your heart. Pray about it if you pray. Meditate on it if you meditate. Sit with it if you sit.

Then picture that pain and anger filling a balloon you’re clutching, making it buoyant with the dark air of that injury.

And let go of the balloon.


Image by Adams Carroll via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Invisible Friendships

A stone wall with a plant growing out of the stones.
When I was a kid, I had lots of friends, and I took them all for granted.

Today, each friendship feels miraculous. Maybe because I’m older, and have lost friends along the way. Maybe because growing up means taking less and less for granted.

It’s hard to describe a friendship. It doesn’t have the narrative arc of a love affair. There’s often no rhyme or reason.

It’s a mosaic of moments that don’t make a picture until I stand way back.

A stone wall with colorful lichen.

Lara became my friend when she showed up on my family’s doorstep one day 37 years ago. We were both 5 and lived in the same neighborhood. As my mom tells it, Lara knocked on the door out of the blue and asked if I could play.

She was shy and quiet, huge eyes in a heart-shaped face. Mom went and got me, and Lara and I went out.

There was never an objective to our time together. We would climb a tree and talk. We would hide under her bed and read.

We played Monster, a tag variation, with her little brother Brian. We had picnics featuring Ants on a Log, AKA Feet in the Mud: celery sticks spread with peanut butter, punctuated with raisins.

A stone wall running up a hill, with a forest on one side.

When we were in third grade, Lara’s family got MTV. One evening she called. “You have to come over now. They’re gonna play Beat It, by Michael Jackson, and Eat It, by Weird Al Yankovic, back to back.”

I ran all the way to her house, counting the seconds it took me to get there (about 100). In those days, if you missed a video when it screened, you might never get to see it again. We got to see both videos, each the height of cool in its own way.

A stone wall with thinner and thicker pieces.

Lara’s the only person who ever slapped me in the face. We were arguing, and I said something mean or rude. The slap was not hard or painful, but it was shocking. I knew I’d provoked it. As soon as it happened, it was over, and we let it go.

Lara was always reading. She got that from her parents. There were huge Stephen King novels all over their house. For warm, kind people, they had an affinity for horror stories.

Their house was safe enough to watch scary movies in. One night in junior high, I stayed over and we watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. I couldn’t sleep, and turned my head in the middle of the night to see a claw, like one of Freddy Krueger’s, reaching for me.

I stared, frozen. It didn’t move. It turned out to be a piece of yarn from the blanket hanging over the top of the couch, magnified to a weapon in my bleary gaze.

As teenagers, we watched Twin Peaks. Every Thursday we would convene at Lara’s house. Her mom would make treats related to the series–cherry pie or doughnuts. I don’t think I ever brought food to share. As far as I know, my selfishness troubled no one.*

Once, in high school, my tampon leaked and left a bloodstain on her family’s couch. Lara cleaned it up, flipped the pillow over, and got me additional period supplies. With other friends, I might have felt mortified. With her, I knew she wouldn’t judge me.

This calmness in the face of bodily functions turned out to be a professional asset, since she is now a doctor.

A stone wall covered with green grass.

In our adult lives, Lara and I see each other about once a year. We don’t talk on the phone, and when we do see each other, the conversation follows familiar paths: her sons, our careers, our parents’ health.

It’s rarely been a confessional friendship. Other girlfriends hear more details about my love life, my fears and insecurities, my political leanings.

With Lara though, there’s a unique bond. She’s known me for so long that I can’t pretend to be anyone I’m not.

Lara was my original friend. She will always be in my life, the same way I will always be from New Hampshire.

Our friendship didn’t grow like a tree from a seed. It feels more geological, like a New England stone wall, built from many smooth pieces. Nothing holding them together but gravity.


*After I wrote this, Lara told me that I did in fact bring doughnuts to our Twin Peaks nights. Phew!

Photo credits, all via Creative Commons on Flickr, from top to bottom:
stone wall, by Kris Chapman
Stone Wall, by Randen Pederson

06-28-08_2, by Steve
stone wall, by Siaron James
stone wall, by liz west