A prelude to forgiveness.

“The Church doorway,” Grant Wood

“They don’t understand,” she said, soft on the phone. I sighed and closed my eyes. She meant our vast shared family. She meant mental illness. “No, they don’t,” I said, voice just as soft. “It isn’t their fault.”

I have an enormous network of family members, there are a million, or close to that, and I remember in kindergarten figuring out that when the other kids said “family,” they didn’t mean all their cousins and aunts and uncles and second cousins and so on. Everyone in my family is wildly different, whatever branch of the family tree I imagine.

I have loved and hated that tree. Every inch of it. With all of my being. Loved. Hated.

The side of the family in question, in that phone conversation – well. I won’t name it. The story would wander through different details to arrive at the same destination. Let us leave some things to rest.

Either way, I do not… It has been very hard to face what no one noticed when I was young. The awful things. I do not know how to mourn the horrible, the shameful things – that no one knew. Not really. They didn’t. They couldn’t. My God, they would’ve stopped it. Right? If they just knew. And why didn’t they? It hurts. Why didn’t they know?

My keen awareness of how little others could do for me slices me apart inside, like I’d swallowed razor blades.

I hurt. All I did was hurt. It still hurts.

It has made me angry, this question about the past. Sometimes I thought I’d burn alive right where I stood, consumed by a rage so powerful I feared I wouldn’t survive it. I hated every soul who’d ever known me as a child. Fuck them for never rescuing me. I had never felt such anger. Or, I should correct: I had never realized how angry I was inside. Very, very angry. Burning up.

Sometimes it comes up again, the howling rage. It terrifies me every time, though I do remember I’ll survive it. That it doesn’t make me evil, or a monster, or unredeemable to feel it. For a long time, I worried that I had betrayed my family, and that was the one thing I knew I should never, ever do – betray them. I needed to love them, not hate their guts. Why couldn’t I do it? Why couldn’t I stop hating them so much? I was the worst, the worst human being, to hate them so much.

And.

Strangely, I have learned that love can survive hatred. Anger, too. It just…doesn’t burn.

That is a mystery to me, that strange quality of love. It has a way of redeeming even an anger so fierce it eats everything else alive. All red and orange claws, all breathless heat. Snarling.

I hear their voices on the phone, and I know. I still love them. I do. Even when it hurts all over again.

It is the case that no one understood what happened to me, or in any case very few did, and definitely no one did anything. It doesn’t matter: I was alone with those feelings. They are painfully difficult even now. It is also the case that no one understood as I fell apart with those feelings and many, many more. I was alone with those feelings, too, hurting in a different way.

And.

It isn’t their fault. Not understanding, whenever they don’t understand. There is much, so much, underneath all that lack. Like some darkly crystalline cave beneath the floorboards. They don’t do it on purpose, not knowing. It’s a twisted history under there, carefully unspoken. They still love me as much as they know how, even when there is so little to hold onto in the dark. Love has a strange way of surviving…really goddamn demented family histories, and gut-wrenching blindnesses, and secret devastations. Not everything survives. Not happily. Even if none of it did: it isn’t their fault. How they are isn’t their fault. And they are still lovable, just the way they are.

Even when I hate them.

Even when I don’t understand them at all.

It isn’t their fault. Somehow. When I first said it on the phone, I did not expect the other voice to understand it, even as it seemed to echo in my ears all new and mysterious. I’d add that a weight was lifted from my shoulders, but really it wasn’t, and really I felt deep sorrow. Sadness at the strange blamelessness of guilt in the world, that saturated and surpassing guilt. The kind of shuddering thing that’s no one’s fault as everyone hurts under its power, as everyone hurts each other – which is their fault, that part.

Is it possible to forgive a strange mess of measureless guilt and (sort of) measurable responsibility?

I worried, sometimes, that to forgive would mean somehow voiding the past. Like it never happened. Like that hurt never cut. Someone once told me that when God forgives us, God doesn’t remember our sins at all. That’s not forgiveness, that’s forgetting. How much more real is it when the dark is there in plain view – and forgiven? In other words, forgiveness is for things that need forgiving – not things that go away. The remarkable turn isn’t so much that the hurt vanishes, but that it is relinquished as it is acknowledged. It is as if it never happened, but only because it did happen and it was forgiven, and somehow the wound itself is more precious because it became an experience of genuine mercy. Remembering the agony becomes a window to remembering that aching relief, that breathless happiness that strangely makes us cry. Why forget that?

“Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Romans 5:20).

I have things I need forgiveness for, too. After all. And I do hope that I can be forgiven, someday, for what I did and do. I hope that those people don’t have to forget what I did, or say it wasn’t real, but can know it in some new and precious way. For them. Not for me.

I need to forgive my young self, too. After all. For all that silence.

And… My family. I understand, a little, the jagged pathways of fault. They don’t understand, didn’t. I barely do. Must I keep waiting around for them to cry for my every tear before wiping them away from all of our eyes (Rev 21:4)? I don’t think forgiveness needs that. Not really. Though of course many other things must pass before grace finds its way through the wounds. It’s not easy. I’m not saying that. And maybe there are some things that wait for another time, a time beyond time, for forgiveness. Hell: it has taken me years to arrive to wherever it is I am. It is somewhere or something, though.

I wouldn’t call it forgiveness. Not from me. Not yet.

It is something like the shadow of forgiveness stretching across an open door.

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