Dear Older Self,
As you move into your later years it is possible that you will find yourself living with bitterness toward people who have hurt you in the past. You may be carrying burdens that are the result of not being able or willing to forgive.
You may have tried to forgive those who have harmed you only to find yourself ruminating about old grievances. As a result, your heart may have become defended. Your heart may be hardened with anger and with a sense of being entitled to your anger.
You may experience your bitterness as something that protects you from additional harm. Or, you may feel like you want to hang on to your anger because you ask yourself: “If I let go of this anger, who will remember that I was harmed?”I am sure you have noticed, however, that you are the one who is being most hurt by your hardness and your bitterness.
You have seen this play out in the lives of other people’s as they aged. Remember the elderly woman whose mother died when she was young and whose father remarried a woman who treated her horribly? She was deeply wounded by the loss of her mother and by the terrible mistreatment she experienced from her step-mother. As a result she was angry much of the time. She talked about how unfair life had been for her and about how much she hated her step-mother. She did not want to even think about the possibility of forgiving her even though her step mother had been dead for many years. Her bitterness was understandable but it was toxic to her and to her relationships.
Sometimes our inability or unwillingness to forgive comes from a misunderstanding about the nature of forgiveness. So, I want to remind you about what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness does not mean that the harm done to you does not matter. It does matter. Forgiveness does not mean you are all better now. You may continue to feel pain about the harm you experienced. Forgiveness does not mean that you should forget what happened. Whatever happened is a part of your story. Forgiveness does not mean that you must now trust the person who harmed you or pretend that nothing happened. Depending on the nature of the harm that was done it may or may not be possible to rebuild trust.
So what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is a healing process. The work of forgiving significant harm takes time and attention. It requires you to open your heart in compassion toward yourself for what you suffered. It takes courage and honesty to share your story with God and with someone safe. It takes time to grieve what you have lost.
The elderly woman who carried so much bitterness toward her step-mother ended up talking to a friend who had lived through a similar experience, but who had found a way to forgive. This friend offered compassion to her about the loss of her mother. And that compassion allowed the woman to grieve her loss for the first time in her life. It also opened the way for her to grieve the mental distress she had experienced while living with her step mother. Her friend’s compassion and support allowed this woman to experience compassion for herself as a child.
As she found her way through this process with the love and support of her friend, she experienced comfort. She experienced being seen and heard and valued by another person. As a result she begin to heal.
What you witnessed in this elderly friend was that for her, part of the healing process was the experience of being released from the deepest impact of her step mothers failures to love and value her. Becoming ready to forgive paralleled the process of becoming ready to see that hurtful actions cannot, and did not, change the truth about who she was. Hurtful actions may have left her feeling like she was “less than” or that she was not lovable. The truth of her friend’s love for her and of God’s love for her began to change how she saw herself. This love began to free her from shame and from distorted views of herself. It freed her to know herself as loved—to know that, no matter what was done to her it did not define her.
All of this lead her to see with clarity the person whose actions caused harm. Having realized that no matter what had been done to her she was loved and valued, she was freed from the power of the harm that was done. And she was able to see more clearly that her offender was also God’s beloved child, to whom God offers forgiveness, love and healing.
Forgiveness was a gift that came out of her healing. Forgiveness was a gift that allowed her to remember that she was loved and forgiven and that her offender was loved and forgiven by the One who loves and forgives us all.
So, dear older self, do this important work of letting go of bitterness and extending forgiveness for wounds both old and new. Give this work the time and attention it needs. Extend compassion to yourself. Talk with a safe person about your hurt. Let your heart soften in grief. Accept the gifts of comfort that come to you. Let yourself see yourself as loved and valued. Become willing to see the person who hurt you through new eyes. Pray for the gift of being able to know the release of forgiveness.
This meditation is taken from Notes to Our Older Selves: Suggestions for Aging With Grace by Juanita Ryan and Mary Rae. You can get a copy at Amazon.com