Essay, Faith

The mechanics of forgiveness

First published July 15, 2013. $400 bought my resentment and scorn.

Roadside flowers 2010

When I was in college, one of my roommates had a girlfriend who still lived in his hometown. He missed her a lot, and spent a couple hours on the phone with her every night. One day he abruptly quit school and moved back home to be with her.

The next phone bill was for $400. (Remember when we paid by the minute for long distance?) He’d left me no way to contact him, so there I was, left to pay this enormous bill. Oh my goodness was I ever angry.

After a couple months, he called and wanted to talk with me. With a huff, I said I wouldn’t take the call. He called a couple more times but I still wouldn’t have anything to do with him. But then he sent me a check for $50. Another small check followed, and later another, and then another, and after about six months he’d paid me back in full. And then I was able to let go of my anger. I forgave him, and I was willing to be his friend again.

And I had it all wrong. All wrong.

Roadside flowers

For those of us who follow God, it’s clear that God wants us to forgive and be reconciled when others fail us. Jesus even made it part of the model prayer: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. The whole point of Jesus going to the cross was so that God could forgive us and be reconciled to us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are simply core to the Christian life. Yet the Bible is maddeningly silent on why (other than because God said so) and, especially, how we should do that.

To fill in some of those gaps, I’m going to have to invoke the Nazis. Please bear with me.

When I lived in Terre Haute, a woman named Eva Kor was frequently in the news because she built a holocaust museum there. Terre Haute might seem like the last place you’d expect to find such a museum. But that’s where Eva ended up after she was liberated from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Eva had a twin sister, Miriam. When Eva’s family arrived at Auschwitz, the girls were separated from their family, whom they never saw again. They certainly all died in the gas chambers. Meanwhile, Eva was injected with something – bacteria, a virus, something deadly – and was left to die. This was the practice of Dr. Josef Mengele, who gathered twins in the camps to experiment on them. He would inject one twin and wait for death, then quickly kill the other and autopsy both bodies to compare them.

Hello, Spring!

Unexpectedly, Eva survived her injection. At about the same time, the camp was liberated and Eva and Miriam were freed. But can’t you imagine how Eva must have felt? Her anger, resentment, and emotional pain had to be off the charts.

Yet in time she chose to forgive. In 1993, Eva flew to Germany to meet with one of the doctors who worked at Auschwitz. They went together to the camp, which still stands as a memorial to the slaughter. And there, in front of reporters and cameras, she said it: “In my own name, I forgive all Nazis.”

You would not believe how angry this made many of the other concentration-camp survivors. Their pain and anger was just too deep for them to let go. But Eva Kor is certain that she did the right thing. She will tell you that her forgiveness does not mean she has forgotten what happened. She just chooses not to hold it against the Nazis anymore, so that she can be at peace.

Peace – this is why we should forgive. Holding on to anger, resentment, and bitterness harms us. Like a loving parent, God does not want to see us harmed. And when we harbor those feelings, it can lead us to treat others poorly, or to retaliate against the one who harmed us. God doesn’t want to see us harm any of his other children, either. Even if you don’t follow God, peace is an incredibly compelling reason to forgive.

First color

To forgive means simply to let go of resentment, to no longer hold something against someone. It means that you accept what happened to you. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that you agree with what happened or think it is right. It also doesn’t mean that you automatically have to restore the relationship with the person who harmed you. It means only that you take the hit, suffer the loss, bear the pain, and give up your right to get even. The pain will eventually subside, and you will be left with peace.

Sometimes it takes a very long time for the pain to subside. Consider Eva Kor, who announced her forgiveness almost 50 years after the fact. I haven’t had anything as monstrous happen to me as happened to Eva, but I’ve learned a few things about how to forgive, and here they are.

  1. Don’t wait for someone who has hurt you apologize or to make it right. They might never. Sure, it’s easier to forgive then, but if you wait for that, you will carry your pain until you do.
  2. Pour out your heart to God. Let him know the pain you feel. Ask him to heal you, to ease your pain. If you don’t believe in God, pour your heart out to a trusted friend.
  3. But try not to keep turning it over in your mind, because it can become a self-defeating bad habit. When you find yourself ruminating, distract yourself. Go to a movie, get out of town, call a friend – fill your mind with something else.
  4. Keep asking God to bless that person, to watch over and protect that person, and to lift that person up. Remember Matthew 5:43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Again, if you don’t follow God, then decide within yourself to always wish that person well.)
  5. Cultivate compassion for the person who harmed you. Try to understand why they may have behaved that way – what happened to them that made them behave so badly toward you? We all have a backstory that explains who we are and how we behave. This isn’t meant to excuse their behavior. It’s just meant to soften your heart.
  6. Some days you’ll wake up willing to forgive but as the day goes on your anger and pain will be more intense than ever. This is just how it goes sometimes. Forgiveness can be a day-by-day thing. When this happens, just get up tomorrow and decide to forgive anew.

Can you see how forgiveness is a process? The bigger the hurt, the bigger the loss that must be grieved, and that takes time and attention.

What do you do to forgive that I haven’t listed? Please share in the comments. And in my next post, I’ll talk about reconciliation – why it’s a separate step from forgiveness, and when it may not be a good idea, even though it’s God’s ideal.

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Camera Reviews

It’s a Kodak Retina with automatic exposure via a selenium meter. Meet the Kodak Retina Automatic III, and read my updated review here.

Kodak Retina Automatic III

Updated review: Kodak Retina Automatic III

Aside
Essay, Faith, Personal

Unrightable

First published Dec. 18, 2008. A friend has wanted to talk lately about the hard work of forgiveness, so I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned about it over the past few years.

No More Sake
Photo credit: Matt Reinbold

Not long enough ago I hurt someone pretty badly and was hurt back as badly in return. We had cast down the china teacup of our relationship and it shattered. The best repair we could manage leaked through its glued seams. It wouldn’t hold and we came apart for good.

That experience taught me a lesson that seemed paradoxical at the time but is now so obvious that it’s elementary: Getting over being hurt means accepting the pain. It doesn’t go away as long as you deny it. It doesn’t go away as long as you ruminate on it, where it builds resentment. Acceptance is the only way through; acceptance accomplishes most of the healing. As I worked at simply letting myself hurt – and it hurt a lot – the pain diminished and disappeared, and I came to no longer hold anything against that person.

Because I’m given to foolish fantasies of a harmonious world, I also learned a second, more difficult lesson. I always thought that when I forgave, it was to be as though the wrong never happened and that I should be reconciled to the one who hurt me. God says that when he forgives, he remembers our sins no more. He gives second, fifth, ninety-fourth, and seventy-times-seventh chances. But while God loves reconciliation, he also does not want me to keep putting myself in harm’s way. Two people can simply not be good for each other. Maybe one or both have a nature that’s toxic to the other. Maybe the number or severity of past hurts make it too hard to rebuild trust. Maybe their needs conflict in too many ways. So sometimes the best way I can care for myself is to let the other person go. I’m sure that a few people are best off having let me go, too.

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Personal

Meditations on forgiveness and reconciliation

You can't buy happiness

After writing here about the first anniversary of my being fired from a job, where I believe my boss manipulated me and treated me badly, I’ve been thinking about forgiveness. I said in that post that I’d started the process of forgiveness over this. But I haven’t finished it yet.

I believe firmly in forgiveness as the pathway to inner peace. I don’t know about you but I find peace to be crucial to my ability to access joy.

Peace and joy are occasional but regular themes on this blog. They don’t come naturally to me. I worry about the future and I ruminate over bad memories. Also, I deeply want to right wrongs. There’s a certain power in these traits when I channel them well, but they can also consume and paralyze me.

In my 20s I learned how to let go of unwanted thoughts and how to breathe deeply to let peace in. I learned to accept that in life something is always wrong, and while I should act on the wrongs I can fix I must otherwise lean into what’s good. I’ll always find some good when I look for it.

Ice cube croutons

Even now, in my 50s, I have to deliberately practice these things. They may never come naturally. Who knew a healthy inner life would take so much maintenance?

But when I haven’t forgiven, none of those practices work very well. Forgiveness cleans the slate.

I have suffered this wrong, absorbed this loss, and moved forward in my life. But I still harbor extremely negative feelings toward my former boss. Even though she was fired shortly after I was, I still wish for greater justice. So my forgiveness is not complete. I trust that it will be, in time.

I feel sure that I will avoid her in the future. She still works in my industry in this town; we could easily cross paths again. My forgiveness will not mean that I should behave as if nothing happened. Someone who has treated me this badly earns the judgment of “unsafe.” While it’s not impossible to regain my trust from there, it’s extremely difficult. It should be.

I’m behind on blogging again. Too much of my blogging time has gone to other priorities lately. For the rest of this week I’m going to repost my essays on forgiveness.

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Blogosphere

Recommended reading

It’s Saturday again and time for my roundup of the blog posts I liked best this week.

💻 The trick, according to David Cain, to experiencing deeper pleasure is, paradoxically, to experience less pleasure. Read How to Make Life More Pleasurable

Black Dog Books
Argus Argoflex Forty, Kodak Ektar 100, 2019.

💻 Everything does not happen for a reason, and bad things happen to good people. But believing that the world is just anyway is key to our mental health, says Carla Akil. Read The Just-World Belief System

📷 Simon King writes a solid essay on displaying documentary photography in a way that shares the context necessary for best interpretation. Read The Underrated Art of the Photo Series

📷 Olli Thomson reviews the Minolta XD (or XD-7, or XD-11, depending on what part of the world it was sold in). Read Minolta XD

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Collecting Cameras

Informed curiosity about old cameras

Even though I’ve been actively shrinking my camera collection through Operation Thin the Herd, I still like trying new-to-me old cameras to see what kind of images they make.

I especially love it when I discover a sleeper, a camera that makes images far better than you’d expect. Such was the case with the Argus Argoflex Forty I tried recently (review here). I even enjoy the process when a camera disappoints me, as the Kodak Retinette II did (review here). In the wide world of old-camera sports that’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

After a dozen years of reviewing old cameras, however, I feel like I’m running out of new ground to cover. It’s not that I’m running out of cameras to try, but that I’m running out of genuinely new experiences with them.

I prejudge all sorts of cameras now. I can tell a lot about what they’re like to use just by looking at them. Thanks to all my old-camera experience I know what I like and don’t like.

Let’s use that Retinette II as an example. It has a tiny viewfinder. My first experience with one of those was my Kodak Retina Ia, early in my camera-reviewing days (here). I learned right away that its tiny viewfinder was unpleasant to use. I generally pass by cameras with such viewfinders unless there’s something else about it that’s incredibly compelling, or unless the camera is donated to my collection, as the Retinette II was.

Kodak Retinette II
Who at Kodak could possibly have thought that a viewfinder this small was a good idea?

In my early days, uninformed curiosity drove most of my buying decisions. It was more of an adventure then, and I enjoyed building experience with each new camera I tried. I had a lot to learn and made rookie mistakes, which often led to unsatisfying images. Happily, I’ve learned a great deal and have built good skill.

Kodak Monitor Six-20
This fussy old folder has a gem of a lens.

I still have a few cameras to put through Operation Thin the Herd. At the front of the line is my Kodak Monitor Six-20 (review here), a lovely World War II-era folding camera. Mine has a crackerjack 101mm f/4.5 Anastigmat Special lens. But it is also fussy to use, and something’s wrong with the linkage from the shutter button on the body to the shutter itself. I’m not sure whether it will survive the culling.

Several other cameras have been donated to my collection that I have not shot yet. A longtime collector sent me a giant box of goodies three years ago now, which is where the Retinette II and the Kodak No. 2 Brownie, Model F (review here) came from. He also sent me a couple Kodak Brownie Hawkeyes, a Tower Flash 120, a Toyoca 35-S, and a thoroughly delightful Graflex Miniature Speed Graphic. And my sister in law gave me the Kodak Retina Reflex III that had been her father’s; it appears to be in good working order. I look forward to trying them all.

I’m not sure what cameras I’ll be buying to try going forward. I could move into high-end gear, which I’m sure I’d go gaga over, but I’m still averse to laying out that kind of money. I’ve enjoyed shooting old box cameras; maybe I could specialize in them for a while. There are a few specific SLRs I’d like to try, such as the Canon F-1 and the Minolta XD-11.

But mostly, I just want to shoot the cameras I’ve kept and really enjoy. My Yashica-12 has gotten a lot of exercise as I’ve been learning how to develop black-and-white film, and I’ve loved having it in my hands so often. I left my backup (battered, brassed) Olympus OM-1 body in my desk drawer at work most of the summer and made a bunch of wonderful images with it. This is where I am now as a camera collector and photographer, and it’s a very nice place to be.

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