Years ago, about seven months after my husband died, I was driving across town on a glorious spring day, top down on my little car. I was thinking of the circumstances of Mike’s illness and death, of the countless instances of extreme neglect and serious errors which led to cardiac arrest, subsequent kidney failure and, ultimately, a resistant, hospital-acquired pneumonia that took his life a month after his sixtieth birthday. I was filled to overflowing with anger and sorrow and guilt. Could I have prevented his death? Did I fail him?
To say that life seemed unfair and unjust is an understatement and I could not get over it. Mike was dead and I was as stuck as I’d ever been in my life, with rage my constant companion. Hatred of the doctors who neglected my husband reached the level of obsession. I couldn’t find a way out of the agony of living in my own skin. I couldn’t control my thoughts and even sleep was a torture, with constant nightmares replaying the horrific night I watched my husband stop breathing, helpless to save him.
As I drove that afternoon, I could feel the warmth of the sunshine and the wind in my hair, seasonal experiences I adore, but they were meaningless. I wanted revenge and punishment for those who’d harmed Mike, and for one particular doctor, the most terrible long-lasting suffering. That this kind of thinking was foreign to me prior to these events increased my distress. I’d become a stranger to myself.
Seeking distraction, I turned the radio to the local NPR station. The Moth Radio Hour was broadcasting stories of the experiences of ordinary people. A man was speaking about his daughter, about how he and his wife had adopted her as a result of their work in the civil rights movement. As I listened to the words, the story turned tragic. By the time Hector Black’s voice cracked recounting his tale, I was crying so hard I had to pull over. Safely parked, I devoted my full attention to him. I was riveted by the tragedy of his life and then by the aftermath.
And the aftermath, astonishingly, was forgiveness. As he described learning to love the man he felt had destroyed his life forever, I began to experience tingles and then shivers all over my body. As Hector Black described hugging a murderer in prison and extending forgiveness and love, the top of my head opened wide and a dark mistiness swirled out of me. What was it? Suffering? Rage? Unforgiveness? I have no idea, but something real lifted out of my body in a stream, a cloud, and when it was gone, I felt a lightness I’d not experienced in years.
As Hector Black ended his powerful story of forgiveness and love, I realized that all of the hatred which had consumed me was gone. I felt peace for the first time since the devastating night Mike was abandoned in ICU two years before. It was extraordinary. Some things are simply beyond words and this is one of them. I was living in unrelenting emotional pain so intense it was physical, and seventeen minutes later it was gone.
So nice story, right? Lucky me. But why share it when it was purely a gift? Is it possible to create something like this? I know that my transformation that sunny afternoon truly was a gift of grace. I was so deeply mired in a murderous rage (and I mean that literally) and so nonfunctional as a result of PTSD, I was certain that I was irretrievably damaged. I was daily living a looping replay of what happened to Mike in the hospital and I was powerless to stop it. Decent sleep was impossible and during my waking hours, I developed richly detailed fantasies of how I would kill the doctor who ruined our lives. Detailed. The rest of my life was just a haze of rage and weeping and grief. From that disastrous state, I was rescued by a spiritually transformative experience, an STE. But again, so what? I didn’t do anything to make that miracle happen. It’s not replicable for someone else.
A few years after that remarkable experience, I discovered the magic of silence. No music, internet, or television. Only silence, meditation, writing, and BEing for a minimum of 24 hours. It’s never become easy. I still rebel against it at times, but I do it because it changes me and wonders have come from this practice.
In that first summer of silence, I picked up Colin Tipping’s books Radical Forgiveness and Radical Self Forgiveness and, as a result, decided to spend two quiet days working through the process of self forgiveness. I’d been released from the need to forgive others by my STE, but I was left with myself. Radical self forgiveness became my focus.
I’ve always been 1000x harder on myself than on others but we’re all different in our forgiveness needs. And while I’m no stranger to making amends, having worked the 12 steps for over thirty years, there were still bothersome memories that would rise up like smoke, memories of bad behavior, how I had harmed others. And coming fast on the heels of the memories, the old uglies of self judgment, self criticism, and, at times, that most wretched of the self-punishments, self loathing. The word even sounds grotesque and the sound doesn’t even come close to how it feels.
I was 59 years old when I commenced that work. I was ready to end the rehashing of the past, once and for all. I hadn’t a clue how to make that happen, but I longed to be free. My state of being at that point was increasingly aware, filled with love, and coming to know my own divinity. My newly polished little soul was crying out for these splinters of unforgiveness to be gone. And so the book, Radical Self Forgiveness. I spent two days of silence reading it, working it, following every step and recommendation, and finishing with a fire and a release. COMPLETE release. COMPLETE self forgiveness. It was stunning.
Radical forgiveness of self or others is a step by step process of recognizing the Truth about who we are. (And I’ll give you a hint: despite the way this life looks and feels, the separation inherent in living with this human suit, there is no other.) New thought people will have an easier time with Tipping’s books, but anyone can follow the process with an open heart ~ or enough desperation ~ and relief will be the end result.
Why do any of it, this hard work of letting ourselves and others off the hook? For freedom. For joy. For peace and love and true happiness. Because lack of forgiveness leads to judgment, which leads to separation, and that is not how we’re meant to live. It doesn’t feel good, not at the core. Our souls know better.
Every spiritual path stresses the importance of the natural qualities of the soul, the Bible’s “gifts of the spirit,” being one version. Forgiveness is the red carpet to knowing who we really are. Beloved. Cherished. Connected. Never Alone. That’s the true marvel of life, that one, that we are never alone when that’s so often how it feels.
So there are two stories here, one of forgiveness unasked for, a gift of grace, and then there’s a different kind of forgiveness, the result of a major effort and a lot of work, but readily available to all. Both experiences led me to freedom and with that, the deepest, most delicious gratitude. I shared the first for the hope and for Hector, and the second because it can take you there, to peace, to transformation.
I know there are people who sail through life untroubled by their own behavior or that of others, and if that’s you, goddess bless. Carry on. But even if you don’t struggle with forgiveness, maybe you know someone who does. And maybe you can pass it on, that there’s hope. Hector Black’s story is worth listening to just for the beauty of it, the proof that despair can be transmuted to love. But if your eyes ever pop open at 3 AM, the result of a memory which causes you heartache, remember this: forgiveness saves lives and bestows upon the forgiver the gift of a life worth living. It is life-changing and available to all of us, a treasure we can give ourselves.
Here’s Hector on The Moth talking about how it is possible to forgive even the unforgivable and what happens when we do. Love really is the answer. It is. Always.
(And a little magic with this post. On Sunday, I asked my guides what to write about this week and I heard “forgiveness.” Monday a friend sent me a message which said, in part, “Forgiveness is here for you now. Can you partake of it?” I can. I hope you can too.)