Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Me? Forgive him???

About four years ago, I welcomed a good friend into my home for a few days. He was down on his luck, out of work, and in need of a fresh start. He had lost his home. His car had been repossessed, and his daughter was in desperate need of the love and attention of a caring parent. He spent a week or so with us, dried up after a serious alcoholic binge, and went on to become a steady presence in his daughter’s life, providing for her needs, and guiding her in the best way that he knows how. I applaud his strength; not many people can drag themselves out of the miry quicksand of alcohol addiction, reenter the work force, regain a solid position in society, and live a reasonably happy and successful life.

At about that same time, someone else I know chose to walk away from his wife and two daughters in pursuit of a dream that makes alcoholism seem like an easy habit to break. At the time, I recall that he was droning on about something related to a pyramid scheme for selling discount orthodontic insurance. Or was it discount telephone service? Perhaps it was vitamins. No that wasn’t it; I think it had something to do with house cleaning products. Truthfully, over the years, it has been all of these products and more. In any case, he was gone. He still is gone; only I don’t think he knows it yet.

This second man is rapidly approaching what is often referred to as “rock bottom.” Although he is currently out of work, about to be evicted from his home, he is still buzzing from the high of countless failed “get rich quick” schemes. He still believes that a well-negotiated recording contract or the well-researched call list of gullible folks willing to be separated from several hundred disposable dollars will vault him to the wealth and stardom he has deserved all these years. Those of us who haven’t signed up for any and all of his offers in the past are the ones who are responsible for his bad luck. Those of us who aren’t willing to float him a few thousand dollars now and solve his current financial setbacks will undoubtedly regret our selfishness when his luck runs hot again and Motown comes a-calling.

Most of the time, the only thing that is running hot is my blood, and what I want most is to ring his prideful neck. What about his two beautiful daughters? What about getting a job for their sake, for the sake of their education, for the sake of their futures? What about the simple but undeniable dignity of work? How does he sleep at night, face himself in the mirror, and hold his head high knowing that he doesn’t support the two girls who carry his name? What about his dignity as a man? Doesn’t he want to dress well, to eat well, and to build a future for himself? Who does he think will pay his bills when he’s 50 years old? How does he expect to be able to pay the inevitable medical bills that accompany aging? Who does he think will pay his back taxes, credit card bills, and all the other debts that he has accumulated over the years?

When I think back a few years to our heated discussions about politics, I wonder how he justifies his refusal to work and pay his own way considering his vehemently adamant stand against public assistance of any kind, his insistence that each American must pull himself up by his own bootstraps and provide for his own family. At the time, he didn’t think that medical care should be provided for those who couldn’t pay for it themselves. He berated me for my liberal leanings and chastised me for my willingness to support rather than dismantle this nation’s welfare system. I wonder where he stands on those topics nowadays.

When I get most angry at him, when I am feeling most judgmental of him, when I want to show him our bank statement and ask to see a copy of his, at those most self-righteous moments, I go back to the book I haven’t yet finished: What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey has me rethinking my stance on this issue of grace and forgiveness yet again. He points out the horrible imbalances on the scales of grace and explains that there is no room for revenge or vindictiveness in grace. Forgiveness is unfair, Yancey points out. Forgiveness must be offered even when it isn’t requested because “often the only person to be healed by forgiveness is the person who does the forgiveness.” That would be me.

Even though this man hasn’t wronged me directly, I have chosen to shoulder a backpack of anger and resentment that I must lay down, or I will be crippled by it forever. Resentment, says Yancey, “means literally to feel again: resentment clings to the past, relives it over and over, picks each fresh scab so that the wound never heals.” I hate how accurately that statement describes my feelings for this man. I relive the past, the ways in which he has hurt so many people. I don’t want this wound to heal because I’m afraid that if I do, then I will do something stupid like lend him money. Or I will somehow talk myself into believing that he’s not so bad off, that what he has done hasn’t been as destructive as it is. If I forgive, if I extend grace, I tell myself, I will be “giving in and going soft.” If I let go of the anger, then I will let go of the need for him to make restitution. Then I shake my head violently and remind myself that I am under no obligation to lend him money. What he has done is awful and no amount of forgiveness can or will change his dreadful and inexcusable behavior towards his children.

What I’m learning, chapter by chapter, moment by moment, is that forgiveness and grace will never mean anything to him unless he actively pursues them. However, the sooner I put them into practice the sooner I will know peace, calmness of mind and spirit, and freedom from this interminable cycle of resentment. I am learning that in order to “break the chain of ungrace,” I must find a way to forgive him. I must also find a way to forgive myself also for the hatred I have harbored, for the anger I have abetted, and for the bitterness I have borne. In the future, when these feelings return and I know they will, when I am reminded of his irresponsibility and selfishness and I know I will be reminded, I will return to this moment and forgive him again. I will forgive myself again. I must or I will become as addicted to rage as my first friend was addicted to alcohol.

Honestly, anger is a lot easier than forgiveness.
Can I get a witness?

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