To allow one’s grief is a significant part of this ‘letting go’ of the hope for a better past
Every now and then a description of a process strikes me as particularly worth exploring further. Listen to this. A person on ‘Songs of Praise’ one week described forgiveness as ‘…giving up the hope for a better past.’ How about that!
Normally one would say ‘giving up the hope for a better future’, but the arresting thing about this aphorism is that it substitutes ‘future’ for ‘past’.
My first question about this phrase is ‘So what are the conditions that make for being able to give up on wanting a ‘better past’?’
Forgiveness is about the ability to ‘move on’ as they say. I remember one time when things were difficult in work, I wanted to go to see my boss and say ‘Look, I know things have been hard, and I was at fault here, and here and here, but the situation itself was pretty toxic too. Can we draw a line underneath this time and begin again?’
Unfortunately my boss cancelled the appointment and we did not have the chance to have that conversation before my contract ran out. Later , when I rote to that person about the past they said ‘Move on!’ I still carry scars from that time, and still need ‘that conversation’. I think I am still trying to reconstruct the past because I have not had the chance talk about what happened, and to come to some agreement with the person whom I need to forgive about what the past actually was.
On another occasion, a person had been particularly scathing to me, for no apparent reason, except their own memories of what had happened to them. I was due to go to a place where I knew that they would be. I resolved to ignore them, but this was very sad, because over a long time, I had liked this person a great deal. As soon as I arrived they noticed me, and came running up to me and said ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me that night. Will you forgive me?’ I was so glad to have that relationship restored again I said ‘Of course!!’ and we had a great night. In this case the difficult past was consumed by an even better present!
So there are two stories with different outcomes that I already know of that relate to my present understanding of forgiveness. This understanding says ‘You cannot give up the hope for a better past while there is pain and disagreement about that past.’
This is the basis of the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’, inspired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, that have now become a model for the rest of the world. What enabled the people who had both been the victims of wrong, and those who did violence to others was the acknowledgement of what that ‘past’ was. Then it was possible to lay the past to rest.
But there are other circumstances that are different. A lot of people grow up with resentment about their up bringing. That was true for me. I stayed away from home for a long time. There was no moment of talking where the truth of the past was finally agreed upon, but over the years I have come to appreciate a great deal about my heritage: the hymns of Wesley, the passion for the Good News, the love of stories (of which we were read many.) Over time, as the saying goes, I have come to ‘accept myself’ more and more with my strengths and weaknesses. I keep trying to work on my weaknesses, by bringing my life into the company of God in prayer, and through conversation with friends and Spiritual Directors, but I have given up on trying to punish people for my not having the past that I would have liked.
The same is true now that I am married. There is in ‘communication in marriage’ books a process called ‘kitchen sinking’. This means that one person might raise an issue, and the other person says ‘Well if you are going to talk about ‘X’ then I want to talk to you about ‘Y’ and while we’re at it, here is ‘Z’ and ‘P’ and ‘Q’ as well. One opportunity to talk gives the other the opportunity to bring in their response, ‘and everything but the kitchen sink!’ So that is the origin of the phrase.
But it has become a ‘norm’ in our being married that ‘Love keeps no record of wrongs, but rejoices in the truth’. (1 Cor. 13:6) This stops the process of ‘kitchen sinking’ (more or less) and does two other things. First it means dealing with one issue at a time. Second it means dealing with issues as they arise. Harbouring resentment about the past and bringing past issues into present conversation means that those issues were not dealt with at the time at which they happened.
In this case, the hope for a better past does not come into the frame, because the past is being repaired as it is being created. This is helpful because then it is possible to really say ‘love keeps no record of wrongs’ because the wrongs, such as they are have been dealt with or forgiven at or close to the time.
But I feel for those people who have been abused as children, or as spouses or have suffered violence. These people’ pasts are much more difficult and it is glib to say ‘forgiveness is giving up on the hope for a better past’ except in the context of allowing for the grief that is associated with it. To have been abused as a child, or to have a past which in any way could have been better, means allowing the grief that goes with the knowledge of a past that could have been better.
To allow one’s grief is a significant part of this ‘letting go’ of a hope for a better past. After all, it is what happens when people die. They grieve the loss of their own continuing present with the loved one. They grieve what might have been in their relationship. A bereaved person can only move ‘move on’ when the grief they experience has been expressed.
So I do like this phrase though, because it binds together the relationships which I will have in the future, with my picture of them in the past. It is possible for me to ‘let go’ (give up on) of my hopes for the kind of past I would have liked to have left behind and to accept the past I have. That is as kind of forgiveness. Not only of myself for contributing to that past, but of others for their contributions to it as well.
But my liking of this phrase is not without qualification. They are two: Being able to let go of the past also involves experiencing the grief of the past. Being able to let go of a hope for a better past involves naming and sometimes (but not always) agreeing on what that past was.