Recently, I learned about the death of a former colleague I worked with while I was a school administrator in Ohio. While we were never particularly close, I was somewhat overtaken with a feeling of remorse because of something I had neglected to do.
You see he had once spread a vicious rumor about me for which I never really forgave him. Although he quickly apologized for his untruthful indiscretion, I held on to a senseless grudge toward him and would not allow myself to ever forget. Sadly, I carried that corrosive feeling with me until he died unable to find it within my heart to forgive him. Now, of course, it’s too late.
During the Second World War, Leonard Wilson, then Bishop of Singapore, was captured by the Japanese. Wilson was placed in an over-crowded prison and was continually tortured. At times, the torture the enemy inflicted was dreadfully severe and painful.
Wilson tried hard not to hate his captors and instead tried to find a way to forgive their cruelty. Later after his release, he said he survived by imagining his prison guards as they were when they were children.
“It’s hard to hate little children”, he once said. As difficult as it was for him not to be angry, he found measureless self-control, patience and of course, forgiveness.
There’s no question that harboring resentment toward another person or persons is in every way destructive to the person who carries it.
I once heard of a professor who asked each of his students to bring a clear plastic bag and a full sack of potatoes to class. Then he told them for every person they had refused to forgive in their life’s experience, to choose a potato and write that person’s name on it and put it in the empty plastic bag.
As you might imagine, it didn’t take long for some of the bags to get quite heavy. He then asked the students to carry that bag around with them everywhere they went for a week — putting it beside their bed at night, in the car seat when driving and even next to their desk in class.
Certainly, the hassle of lugging the self-made sack soon made it clear the weight they were carrying was not only burdensome physically, but also spiritually.
The professor’s living metaphor helped his students understand the heavy price they paid for holding on to their psychological pain and needless negativity. Instead of thinking of forgiveness as a gift to the person who wronged them, it became abundantly clear that it is really a gift to themselves as much as it is to anyone else.
Indeed, there are those among us whose unforgiveness sack is far too heavy and literally burdening us down. Just by holding on to a grudge, we clearly make it worse for ourselves. Forgiving gives us the opportunity to break free and help us on our way to becoming our best selves.
As we learn to forgive, we, in turn, hope we can also be forgiven.