Grace is a Big Word

Forgiveness is a tricky thing. When we divorced, my ex-husband made terrible threats and I believed him capable of following through, though, thankfully, he did not. Since those harrowing days, we have gone in and out of détente, in and out of court, and in and out of touch. Because I couldn’t handle conflict in the first place, I had married an angry man. Because I found it difficult to forgive, I became fascinated with stories of people who could.    

A friend who was a profound peacemaker divorced her husband when she found out he had molested their daughters. She told me, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t wish him harm.” She paused and gathered herself. “It’s taken me years to get that far. I have to let that be enough, because I doubt I’ll be able to forgive him in this lifetime.” We go as far as we can. 
Why is it, then, that sometimes those who have lost so much more than most of us, or have lost everything, are able to make the leap into real forgiveness? Is there an inverse proportionality between heartbreak and generosity, between suffering and the ability to transcend it, a chemical reaction that happens unpredictably and unexpectedly sometimes? And, if so, how to render the stories so that their medicine is distilled but not oversimplified, or, worse yet, so that we don’t mistakenly assume that extreme suffering is required for forgiveness – or is it? – or that suffering uniquely (and paradoxically) prepares us for feats of transcendence? Are our human hearts fire-climax seeds, like wildflowers in the California chaparral? It’s possible, and it’s terrifying and dangerous to think so.

Grace is a big word. There are those that can naturally sense its coordinates and lock in. In my case, what I had and had not done for my children was what I needed help carrying: The husband I chose, the grandmother in whose footsteps I had unwittingly walked... Being around communities seeking to make peace after war helped me put my own dilemmas into perspective and taught me to see possibility where there was impasse.     In 2004, the year of the cease-fire in Liberia’s brutal civil war, I unexpectedly found myself in post-war Liberia, where my colleagues and I supported community reconciliation and mourning rituals. This meant working with neighbors who had attacked each other; with women who had been raped and tortured; with people who had lost loved ones in horrific ways; and with former child soldiers and ex-combatants seeking forgiveness for what they had done. 

The truth is that part of my fascination with Liberia was rooted in my own longing to stop the freight train of generational karma that had pushed my ex-husband and me together and forced us apart, and had shaped the blunders and dilemmas I was wrestling with. Making peace with all that became as irresistible as a dare. During the years of my marriage, divorce and subsequent custody battles, my heart was too heavy for me to carry. I wanted some of whatever it was that took everything I could muster and sometimes more, something outside myself and beyond my own personal problems, to give everything to. The raw reality of Liberia’s woes became the touchstone, and the constant reminder, of what humans are capable of, for both good and evil.  

Forgiveness requires that everything be given to those who seem to least deserve it. It can be done unilaterally, yes, but I’m not there yet. I still need the stepping-stone of the person’s desire to make amends, their willingness to reach out their hands to receive it.  By accepting forgiveness, the logic goes, they begin to earn it. Then I remember my friend, and her decision to forgive herself for not forgiving her ex-husband. I lean on her a little as I ask myself whether I have taken forgiveness as far as I can, or if I might open myself a bit further. I remind myself that Grace requires dedication to possibilities not visible to the naked eye, only to the naked heart.