by Annette Bridges. © 2007. All rights reserved.
Persistent memories of injustice can make forgiving seem unimaginable, if not impossible. Yet at the same time, those memories can impede individual progress. For me the need has more often been in learning to forgive myself rather than others.
The commemorations of last April’s shootings at Virginia Tech reminded me of how I’ve had to confront past events and learn to forgive myself. The following comment by Alexandra Asseily, founder of “The Forgiveness Garden” in Beirut, Lebanon, caught my attention: “When the memory controls us, we are then puppets of the past.” The quote was included in a recent Christian Science Monitor article that discussed “The Power of Forgiveness,” a PBS documentary given in a special screening at Virginia Tech, where students and faculty continue to recover (“At Virginia Tech, a film asks, ‘Can we forgive?’, ” Amy Green, September 21, 2007).
Individuals who experience the kind of trauma those students experienced often struggle with guilt—not simply for having survived, but for actions they didn’t take. They often believe that in some way they were responsible for, or contributed to, endangering others.
Truly the inability to forgive oneself keeps us “puppets of the past,” as Asseily aptly stated. Holding on to past events can catch us unawares, as they unexpectedly rewind and continue to replay in our minds. That was certainly my experience. But going to God enabled me to move from self-condemnation to self-discovery. I hadn’t experienced grave danger, but my prayers revealed that God loved me unconditionally, and I was able to appreciate myself as His child and shed self-condemnation.
Feelings of deep dismay had been with me since my own college days, over my response—or what I thought to be a lack of response—to several situations. In the first, I’d had conversations with two friends who only days later had committed suicide. I anguished over what I might have said differently. Further, I rebuked myself for not having alerted anyone else about our talks.
Then, a professor tried to sell me a good exam grade for sexual favors. But I never reported him. Nor did I notify the police when I was stalked by another individual. Instead, I changed jobs and relocated.
For years I couldn’t forgive myself—convinced that my nonaction probably resulted in harm to others. But a fresh read of Jesus’ experience with the adulterous woman showed me how to forgive myself. I’d always thought of this particular story as a lesson in not condemning others. The woman had been caught in adultery, yet Jesus told those ready to stone her that whoever hadn’t sinned should be the one to throw the first stone.
However, it was the story’s conclusion that brought the lesson home to me. When Jesus saw that everyone had left, he asked the woman if anyone had accused her. But no one had, and Jesus said, “Neither do I” (John 8:1–11, Eugene Peterson, The Message).
Suddenly I saw that if Jesus didn’t condemn her, then she shouldn’t condemn herself. And I realized that this was true for me, too.
This prayer-inspired news felt like a proclamation, and gave me freedom from years of torment. I saw that I could give myself the same love that Jesus gave the woman—and that God naturally gives to each of us. I may not always get everything right, but as I remain humble and expectant, I can perceive God’s guidance, which is always at hand. My desire to love and do the right thing is a powerful prayer. I now see, as well, that I’m not responsible for the actions of others.
Progress is God’s law for all of His children. Forgiving ourselves and others enables us to put memories to rest and move forward. We may not be able to change the past, but we can learn to do better right now, which necessarily influences tomorrow. Prayer to forgive oneself, as well as others, is a step that individuals—schools, communities, and even nations—can take to leave mistakes and regrets behind. All that remains are the lessons learned and the opportunities waiting for each of us to improve the present. Such prayer broadens one’s point of view to seek solutions for the greater good, and at the same time supports the impetus for progress. Then all humanity can move a step forward.