As a young boy, age 5 or 6, I used to play in the local woods where the soil was mostly clay and the clay would stick to my PF Flyers — the farther that I walked, the longer that I played, the heavier the build-up of clay. Eventually, the burden became more work than joy and I would head home. I was literally an inch or two taller as I walked because I did not think to knock the clay from the bottom of my shoes.
Life is no different sometimes.
I asked two questions over dessert at a recent dinner party — what do you wish you were forgiven for in your life that you have not been forgiven for, and who have you not forgiven for something that you should? Conversations around the table stopped; couples began to fidget; eyes darted from side-to-side. Clearly, the questions laid bare private thoughts and unspoken emotions that are seldom expressed out loud and perhaps never shared. I thought to myself, “What have I done?” But the social awkwardness caused by the stunned silence was quickly filled with some amazing exchanges — I had struck a chord, a good chord, on an important topic, one that my close friends openly embraced.
A few were confident enough in themselves to share their failings in life, such as behavior that led to divorces, or poor parenting decisions that damaged their relationships with their children, or repercussions from substance abuse challenges. Most were reluctant to share, but their body language made clear the conversation was personal to them. Their silence did not protect them from the obvious. Over the course of the evening, our discussion was equal parts painful and hopeful, and frankly, it brought us closer together as friends, as each of us there — all age 50 and over — came to better appreciate that we were all carrying the heavy burden of life’s accumulation of clay on our feet.
I was especially intrigued by the role that religious or spiritual faith played, or more accurately, did not play in their deeply-held need for forgiveness. For those of faith, their Savior’s forgiveness was not enough to completely shake the clay from their feet — they wanted forgiveness, too, from those that they wronged. Most believed that they were worthy of being forgiven and had earned the right over time to be forgiven, but for whatever reason, those holding the keys to being forgiven simply refused. Ironically, many had an “excuse” for why the lack of forgiveness was no longer their “fault.”
Being the mildly irritating provocateur that I am, my immediate retort came in the form of a challenge and the reiteration of my second question: “If you ask for forgiveness, you must be willing to give forgiveness. Who have you not forgiven that you should and why haven’t you? When the choking and coughing subsided, I heard such justifications as “some wrongs cannot and should not be forgiven,” and “some don’t know they did anything wrong.” All were fair points, of course, but these types of responses are the exception for most of us, not the rule, and often serve as avoidance mechanisms at best. If we are honest with ourselves, we know better. Each of us holds the power of forgiveness in our hands over someone — someone who needs to be forgiven whether deserved or not. And yet, our unwillingness to forgive due to anger, or bitterness, or just plain inertia, can be just as poisonous to our happiness as the constant ache of our need to be forgiven for our own transgressions in life. Both leave an unhealthy residue on the soul.
A dinner party may be an unlikely place to provide a teachable moment, but thanks to some close friends, it was for me. I came away resolved to take the first step, to be the bigger person, and to not ask for something that I am not willing to give myself. My hope for a New Year’s resolution for our readers is that each of us use 2015 as an opportunity to kick the clay from our feet. Unburden yourself and set yourself free, without expectation, by forgiving those in your life who are worthy of forgiveness, and especially those who may not. It may be the best present that you could give them — and yourself.
BTW, if I should ever invite you to dinner, feel free to politely decline. You won’t hurt my feelings.