Why is it so hard to let go? I mean, I can SAY I forgive you… I can actually think I do… but then we’re all at the table for family dinner night with the extended relatives. Of course, my brother says a single thing and I am suddenly triggered as if by a hypnotist’s finger snap. Suddenly I’m 11 years old again. Everything is unfair and I see the world in a haze of emotional-vomit-tinted glasses.
Later I emerge from the state I’ve been in and the question forms in my foggy mind: Am I not really “over it” like I thought I was?
It’s interesting to me that in these moments, it is our base emotions that take over, not our cognitive thinking. When we “choose” to forgive people, we can’t just flip a switch and pretend we’re okay. There’s an emotional process to it that’s hard to define. So perhaps there’s a difference between forgiveness and letting go. We can move beyond the immediate hurt, but the trauma stays like a creaky knee on a rainy day. We don’t always have pain, but when it flares up, we have no control.
I remember a few years ago I was having an incredible conversation with a woman I admire and respect. I mean, she’s incredible—funny, intelligent, talented, honest—and she brought up that her low self-confidence is a result of being made fun of in junior high school. I have to admit the moment caught me off guard. Junior high? Really? This was over half her life ago and the bullying is still framing her reactions to how incredible, beautiful, magnificent, and dynamic she is. She was defensive. In her heart, her self-identity was defined as a social outcast at age 13. Nothing I said or did seemed to sink in when I told her that she has done so much since then and, to be fair, is more amazing because of it. She was holding onto this baggage, this personal framework, like it was a life raft. Without it she’d drown. And that got me to thinking… I probably have these emotional rafts too.
And I do. This baggage of mine that I have preciously and precariously collected in the last 30-hem-hem years, has formed and framed who I am today. With all its messiness and snot, my drama helped to make me. For example, I became what I like to call “emotionally forgetful.” Basically I developed an ability to forget that I’m angry. I used this defense mechanism to detach and compartmentalize my life so I could make it through an emotionally abusive relationship I had as a kid. As a result, I’ve been able to befriend very difficult people because I just don’t stay mad or escalated for long. Is this a bad thing? I’m not sure. I can’t exactly just cut off that piece of me because I am the sum of my parts, not like a Lego man with removable hands.
I think about those friendships I’ve had which turned toxic at some point. Or when someone made some really bad decisions and ended up getting “written out” of my daily life. Or an ex-boyfriend. When I stop to think, I realize that many of these were 15 years ago or more.
Why do I still feel so insecure when I think about Michael? Why do I still wish Tammy thought I was interesting? Why does it matter if Jessica lied to me about money?
These people are now parents and professionals, living seemingly fully functional and normal lives (’cause I totally Facebook stalk them from time to time—don’t lie and tell me you don’t do the same). Why can’t I let go of these emotions that I have so carefully added to my emotional structure?
If I am totally honest…part of me feels these emotions because I like them. They are comfortable. They have formed my self-identity to such a degree that maybe without them I’d be different. Correction—I KNOW I’d be different. And that scares me. I like who I am now, mostly. I think I am a lot of the traits I admire (creative, funny, forgiving, etc.) because I had to overcome bullying and mean-spirited people who felt threatened by me for some reason. I was able to take this baggage and apply it to creating something better, something beautiful. I turned my emotional responses into art and re-directed it into something positive. But why is it that my childhood self channeled bullying into becoming the “funny” kid? I know that isn’t an outcome that happens to all bullied children. What made me able to forgive that person enough to not care?
Maybe “care” isn’t even the right word. I cared. Maybe I cared too much. My baggage made me skilled in detachment and compartmentalization. This allowed me to see that when others SAW you care, that gave them power. Being able to forgive someone’s meanness provides a sense of ownership over your own situation and in essence empowers the forgiver. But again, where is the difference between forgiveness and letting go?
We all have our safety blankets, those things we fall back on to make our lives easier, to help us in split-second-decision-making, clarifying who we are and how we relate to the people around us. We all know that we are constantly seeking “easy buttons” in our lives, and maybe grudges, judgements, and stereotypes are an easy button for how to function. This is where some prejudice comes from.
I remember when I was younger (and I mean grade-school-young), and there was a girl I knew who had strawberry blonde hair who was a bully to me. For the longest time I distrusted people with strawberry blonde hair because of this. I can thankfully say that I am now fully on “Team Ginger” and truly celebrate all hair colors…but as I look at the world around me, and struggle trying to find a way to understand the intense hatred and anger I see in disparaging politics, social classes, religions, and races, I think—this is where some of this prejudice must have come from.
We’re all just seven-year-olds who don’t trust redheads because one was mean to us once. We’re all 35-year-old women who still see “Ugly” branded on our foreheads like our own personal scarlet letters. I am still 11 and crying because my brother told me that he wished I’d never been born.
So now what? How do we come to terms with the luggage we’ve decided to carry? And I’m not talking about emotional forgetfulness or sweeping something under the rug until suddenly the rug has taken up the entire room and we have to move to another house to avoid it. I mean, how do we start seeing each other on the same plane so actual forgiveness and healing can occur? In our torn space, how do I look a man in the face whom I used to admire but who I know has recently body-shamed an overweight woman publicly online? How do I not feel like the fat kid at school whenever I see him?
Perhaps forgiving those who have hurt us frees us from the emotional grip they have on our lives. Releasing that hold boldly empowers us to be grateful for the skills, character, and grit we’ve earned alongside the scars. Scars we all have. Scars we all try to hide, sweep under the rug, cover with unfolded laundry until it’s blended into the scenery.
How do we start identifying that our baggage is pretty similar…in fact brings us closer together rather than further apart?
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on forgiveness from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.