When I was a child, I thought forgiveness was about telling myself a story to make the other person's actions make sense. This was very helpful in becoming a writer of fiction, because at least half of the work of fiction is learning how to tell the story from another person's point of view. I learned how to do this pretty well. It meant that when I was hurt by someone else's actions, as soon as I could, I tried to see the event from their perspective. I often found that I had done something just as wrong as what they had done, and that we were often reacting in self-defense to perceived hurts. It turned out that this way of "forgiving" others was really just me realizing how flawed I was myself.
When I was a little older, I found that there were situations in which there was no way to make sense of another person's actions that allowed me to share the blame. In these cases, I learned I simply had to let things go because they didn't matter anymore. Sometimes it took years for me to do this because it felt like it took that long for my life to move along to the point that the injuries to my heart and soul were things that were no longer part of my current interests. Nonetheless, it was a useful skill to learn, though it was certainly limited in its capacity to touch me with God's grace.
And then I learned about real forgiveness.
Last year, almost one year to the day from today, my husband and I were doing a triathlon race together as a kind of birthday celebration for me. I was having the race of my life, finishing the swim faster than ever and feeling fast and easy on the bike. I am a very competitive racer and I like to improve my national ranking, and I was sure this race was going to do that considerably in what had otherwise been a lackluster year.
As I was on the second loop of the bike course, I saw a man and woman ahead of me riding side by side, clearly violating the rules of the race and making it difficult for anyone to pass. They were chatting amiably, and were unaware of the fact that two race officials came up beside me on a motorcycle and began taking down their numbers to penalize them. I waited as long as I could, but felt I had to pass them. I was cautious because they were not paying attention, so I loudly called out "On your left," which is the traditional warning when you pass someone on a bike. The man misheard me, immediately cranked his bike to the left and into me, leaving my bike's front wheel wrecked and me bleeding on the ground.
His much larger bike was undamaged. Much bigger than me physically, he was also undamaged. He simply got back onto his bike and rode off, leaving me with the race officials, who had to call an ambulance to take me to the finish line. I was shaky and in a lot of pain. I was also angry to have my birthday race ruined, my expensive bike badly damaged, and my record of finishing every triathlon I had ever started marred.
As I drove home alone to get cleaned up, I thought about how much it was likely to cost me to replace my ruined helmet (which had probably saved my life), the front wheel (my bike costs more than my car, so I suspected it would be a costly repair), and about how much it would cost me to go to the hospital as the ambulance personnel had suggested, to see how bad my concussion was, and to deal with the rising hematoma on my arm, as well as the numerous other cuts and bruises.
My anger rose as I considered how blameless I had been in this situation. The man who had hit me with his bike had been entirely in the wrong. There was no version of his story that made him less than completely culpable. The race officials had assured me that he had been an idiot and that I had done nothing wrong. And yet, he had gotten off scot free. Not only did he get to finish the race, there was no way for me to force him to pay for my bike repair or my medical fees, which he had caused. I thought about trying to sue him to recoup the costs. I thought about calling the police to the scene of the accident and giving a report.
And then I realized that I had enough money to pay for those things myself. I realized that my anger was going to ruin my birthday--and that was on me, not on him. I did not try to forgive by understanding the other racer's stupidity or by trying to tell myself that what he'd done didn't matter. It DID matter. My bike was still wrecked and I would never have back the chance to do well at that race. But still, I said a prayer to God to allow me to forgive this man I did not know, and whom I would probably never meet again--not because he needed or deserved my forgiveness, but because I did.
After a moment, I felt a precious and rare feeling of peace wash over me. The anger was miraculously gone. Suddenly, I was able to focus on other things, like what I was going to do for my birthday dinner, whether or not I wanted to run with my husband the last few miles of the race, and how to make sure my kids weren't too scared when I got home all bloody. I drove to the local bike shop and asked them to repair my bike. Then I made plans for the next few weeks to deal with my likely concussion as I showered and cleaned up my cuts and bruises. Finally, I went back to the finish line to cheer my husband on, where I talked to the race officials about any advice they had for getting back in the saddle.
I realize looking back at my life how often I have been grudging and how I have held onto pains that other people inflicted on me for days, weeks, even years. It was partly because I did not know any other way, and partly because I felt justified in my anger. But it was also partly because forgiveness does not always come as easily as it did in this one instance. I have come to believe that it is not always within my mortal capacity to forgive, and that God does not always swoop in to teach me how He does it. So while I am merely human and cannot say I have forgiven more than twice in my life, that is merely because I don't think any of us flawed, animal creatures can really forgive on our own, unless God steps in and does it for us. It is not even always because we ask Him and it is not always when we wish we could learn to forgive. But it is truly a miracle, and I suppose if it happened more often, I would not be as in awe of the experience as I was last year, after having received a truly magnificent birthday gift.
"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." 1 Corinthians 13:11