by Mark Daigre
As little as 10 years ago, I firmly believed that in order for me to gain any kind of self-forgiveness, I had to be forgiven. I had harmed so many people and created so much suffering in the world, I knew that I could never forgive myself. After all, if someone had done to me the things that I had done to another human being, I was not so sure that I could forgive them. For that matter, I had not really forgiven the people in my life that had done me harm. I could say I had forgiven, but deep down where it really mattered I was cold and unfeeling. I had no forgiveness for anyone, least of all myself.
Then I received word that my sister was dying from cancer. I was, in a way, blessed to receive the news of her impending death. I wrote a letter to her and sent it before she died. I wrote a eulogy in time for her memorial service. She was two years older than I was and we did everything together. She was there for my first forays into criminality and addiction. We fought, cried, and made up so many times, but it shook me to my core with the news that she would no longer be in my life. I had to let go of all the resentment, pain, anger, hurt feelings, rage, feelings of betrayal, abandonment, and everything else I’d been holding her responsible for, for so long that it felt like I needed them to stay alive. I had to stop holding her responsible for my actions and tell her that. I had to forgive without condition. The alternative was to hold on to all that stuff and be even angrier with her for abandoning me all over again, this time by dying.
I found in writing that letter to her that I was able to discover many of the things I held her responsible for were all in my head. She did not take my first drink, I did. She was not the person who decided that I would go into the grocery store and steal cigarettes, I was.
For me, forgiveness is not about letting it go. Forgiveness is about no longer letting the past handcuff me to old, destructive behaviors, ideas, and attitudes that not only hold me back and potentially get me in trouble, but also keep me from enjoying life and recognizing the love and joy around me. Forgiveness is no longer obsessing about who did what to me, when, and how I am still angry about it. It is no longer making plans about just how I am going to get back at those who did me wrong. It is about allowing me and others to make mistakes in action, judgment, thought, and word. It is about giving others the benefit of the doubt, that no matter what, they were only doing the best they could in the circumstances they were in at the time, even if they deliberately caused harm to me.
While I have not forgotten the most damaging things done to me, for the most part I have given up on making them pay for what they did. This is not to say that I am blissful, or perfect, I am not. I still get angry, disappointed, and depressed. I still carry around feelings of shame and guilt. I still hold some resentment toward those who have done me harm, both great and small. Nevertheless, it is no longer the driving force in my day-to-day life.
The death of my sister was a wake-up call. I had to let her off the hook for all the crap for which I was holding her responsible. I could only do that if I also let myself off the hook for my own crap. This is not to say that I do not hold myself responsible for the things that I have done to cause others harm, I do. But what I am saying here is that I do not walk around all day, every day, calling myself names or beating myself up because of my failures. I have decided that no matter what, whether I am in prison or free, I am going to do what I can, when I can, to make the world a better place. I allow myself to make mistakes, apologize and move forward, fixing what I can, doing my best to not repeat destructive behaviors and letting that which I have no control over, go.
In 12 Step, we talk about resentment as being like a person who drinks poison but expects someone else to get sick and die. I really like that description. It fully encapsulates just what happens to us when we hold on to resentment and withhold forgiveness. We make ourselves sick and the person we are upset or angry with has no idea that we are so twisted up.
I found that through my work on forgiving my sister, I began to find forgiving others easier. Exercising this muscle or practice made it easier to do. It did not happen overnight. I had to work at forgiveness, I had to recognize when I was having those feelings of anger and shame, and take steps to transform them into love. If not love, then at least a feeling of gentle acceptance.
The way I experience things has changed. Now, instead of seeing everything that happens as bad or against me, I can give those around me the benefit of the doubt, recognizing that they are trying to do the best they can in any given situation. I found that to be so liberating. I am no longer the focus of everyone else’s wrath. I can move through the world without feeling responsible for every bad thing that happens. I have the confidence to allow stuff to happen and know that it does not have to be about me.
Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.