Although I am not a Christian, I think I do understand the idea of God’s forgiveness. We are all children in the eyes of God, and we are imperfect and make mistakes. If we learn from these mistakes, in other words, repent, our relationship with God remains intact. I think this can transfer to the secular realm as well.
When I was in kindergarten in the mid 1970’s, our school had a handicapped class. I think that’s what it was called, the handicapped class. I was aware that it was there. I’m sure I didn’t give a lot of thought to the pros and cons of mainstreaming those with physical differences. Maybe I felt a little curiosity, maybe a little compassion. I must have been told they all went to class together where they could get extra help, where they could be with other kids like them, so they didn’t have to feel isolated or different.
One day I was with 20 other kindergartners standing in line in a hallway while our teacher ducked into the office. The handicapped class made its way down the hall coming from the opposite direction. They were noisy and slow as braces clanked, walkers scuffed, wheels squeaked. I don’t know how it started. Maybe it was just one kid who had never seen anything like it before, one kid who thought the parade of painful gaits was funny, one kid who laughed. And then they were all laughing, every single kid in my class was laughing. It was so loud. And it seemed to last for hours as they went by so slowly. I wanted to cover my ears because it was so loud. I didn’t think it was funny. I didn’t know why they were laughing. But obviously, I was supposed to laugh, wasn’t I? I didn’t quite know how. It came out like a throaty bark, a strangled dog trying to get air. But I gave it my best shot. I laughed as loudly as I could to drown out all the other laughs so I wouldn’t have to hear them.
Our teacher came out then, and she was furious. I wish I remembered what she had said to us, if the teaching moment to end all teaching moments was fully realized. But I didn’t hear a word she said because I was crying. It was the first time I remember feeling really bad about myself. I’d done something awful, and I had known better. It was the first time I had done something truly unforgivable.
But was it unforgivable? Do you think less of me? I was five. And I immediately repented. In the eyes of God, I would be forgiven. And I hope you forgive me too. But I wonder about that class full of children who struggled just to make it down the hall. How many of them, now in their 40’s, remember that day? How many of them forgive us?
And that’s the thing. We are not God. We are slighted and hurt and gravely wounded by those around us. We are scarred both by accidental slights and malicious intent. And we inflict pain on others and still walk around thinking we are decent human beings. Is that why we say we forgive? So that we can expect others to forgive us?
Once, many years ago, I was picking up my kid from preschool. Somewhere between the two car seats and the diaper bag and the sleep deprivation, I managed to hit the minivan next to me with the car door. I rolled down the window and looked for damage. I saw a microscopic ding, nothing anyone would ever notice. Crisis #412 of the day averted. I was still getting everyone buckled when a hugely pregnant woman came barreling towards me.
I AM VERY DISAPPOINTED THAT YOU DID THAT, she snarled quietly. All I could think was that this woman was not only hormonal, but also clearly had chronic rage problems for which she must have received a great deal of therapy where they taught her to say I AM VERY DISAPPOINTED in the scary quiet voice instead of cursing people out in the middle of parking lots full of toddlers. I stammered, red faced, embarrassed. I started to pull out my insurance card and my checkbook, but she would have none of it. She slammed her car door in my face and spent the rest of the school year avoiding me. She wanted me to know I was not forgiven.
I didn’t exactly lose sleep over this. But I am a little concerned for this woman’s children who probably pissed her off regularly. Maybe that’s another reason we forgive, to let go of anger. Being angry at someone indefinitely is taxing. It’s stressful. And as far as vengeance goes, it’s not particularly fulfilling. Holding a grudge, according to Buddha, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. So having this vehicle of forgiveness is a handy out to have. It’s an acknowledgement that every hit you take is in the end about how you handle it.
I thought about this a lot when the relatives of church shooting victims in South Carolina came forward to publicly forgive the killer for his act of unspeakable violence. There were those who criticized them for doing so, but if it brought them peace, who should dare take that away from them? I could only imagine how I would feel if it were me. I think anger might be the only thing that held me together. Maybe it would consume me. Maybe I would be unable to forgive. And that would just be a tragedy on top of a tragedy.