Each carefully hand written letter began with the words, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you writing me back.” For my part, I was honoring the commitment I made to him on the day he was sentenced to five years in prison.
I had known “John” since he was in middle school. He was comfortably nerdy, with a witty quiet dry sense of humor – always the one to laugh first and loudest at his own one-liners. John loved all things musical and all things digital, and was happiest when he was combining the two. While a physically sizable human, John navigated the rest of humanity with a big heart.
When I received the phone call informing me that John had been arrested, I remember my first reaction was disbelief and bewilderment. John?! He was always the quiet cooperative kid who seemed to befriend everyone he met. Well, somewhere along the way John connected with a guy who convinced him he could make tons of money online. The transactions were extortion. John knew what he was doing was illegal, but his co-conspirator convinced him the entities they were stealing from had more money than they ever needed. Two months later when John was arrested he took full responsibility for his actions.
John’s initial correspondence to me expressed a deep sense of regret and remorse. He described in great detail how ashamed he was of his actions, and his fear that his family and friends would no longer want to associate with him. And sadly, most did not.
I wish John’s story was unique. Yet unfortunately I have more experiences than I can count where an individual has made a bad choice, a mistake, took a misstep or behaved very badly and was consequently ostracized.
Feeling hurt, used, betrayed, disrespected, or manipulated are some of the most prominent feelings we have towards those who have “wronged us”. Forgiveness is hard enough for many of us, but reconciliation, redemption, healing? That’s a steep, if not impossible climb for many of us. And refusing to make that climb seems to be more popular than ever in a world that appears it would rather kick someone to the curb.
I’ve come to believe that we’d rather “cancel culture” than repair relationships because forgiving someone is real work. It is, however, our work. We may justify our unwillingness to forgive by telling ourselves that our refusal to be in relationship is just a punishment for being wronged. We may hope this attitude will make us feel better. Yet in my experience the longer I refuse to forgive, the longer my wounds remain unhealed.
“By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And let us not forget the guiding principle of “the least among us” found in Matthew: that we are compelled to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and, yes—the imprisoned.” AOC
In the end, for us to be whole people, to be the Beloved Community, forgiveness of both others and ourselves, is a central part of the journey. As I was recently reminded of the powerful quote by Dorothy Day, “I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”