I’m sitting here staring at a blank screen with an empty head (there are those who will tell you that happens quite often) and absolutely no idea what to write about this week. My dog Spankie wanders over and plops down at my feet. Spankie came to live with us in September 2009 after a brief stay in the state maximum security women’s prison. So how in the world does a dog end up in prison? Good question. Let me explain.
In March 2009 I had the opportunity to meet a young woman who at the age of 15 participated in a crime that landed her in prison with a life sentence. She’s been incarcerated for almost 19 years and is eligible for parole in two years. When I met this young woman she told me about her work as a dog trainer in the prison system. This program places shelter dogs in the prison and inmates use their skills to train and rehabilitate them and return them to society as adoptable pets. This program gives dogs who would otherwise end up losing their lives a second chance. One night my friend called to tell me that they had gotten a new dog that day and she wanted me to see him. I went to my computer, found the website and there he was. Instantly I knew that this dog had to be ours. After completing the application and faxing it to the adoption office we anxiously waited for the call. Finally, on September 22, 2009 Spankie came home with us. He got his second chance.
While my incarcerated friend prays for her second chance and deals with her consequences every day, I can’t help but think about how often we do not give second chances to those around us. In other words, forgiveness seems to be one of the most difficult things to do in our society. Why is that? Honestly, I do not have any concrete answers, only ideas. A pastor friend of mine posted the question “Why won’t people forgive?” on his Facebook wall the other day. One of the most common answers posted was control. We as human beings want to be in control all of the time. Therefore, if we choose to hold onto the grudge or anger toward someone, we ultimately feel we are still in control. Unfortunately, that is not the case. By hanging onto the anger and not forgiving, we are allowing the other person and entire situation control us. Choosing to forgive someone releases ourselves from that control and allows us to be free from the anger. Generally, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and any thoughts of revenge. The act that hurt or offended you may always be a part of your life, but forgiveness can lessen its hold on you and help you focus on the positive parts of your life.
But how does one learn how to forgive? How do we as human beings learn to let go of hurt, anger, frustration or any other negative emotion we have toward someone who has harmed us? I could give you a textbook answer, but trust me, you wouldn’t want to hear that and I’m sure you wouldn’t believe it. I know that giving forgiveness is one of the most difficult things for me to do. I once told someone that when I love, I love with everything I have. If I love someone I open myself up completely to that person, or so I thought I did. But by choosing not to forgive someone means that I am not opening up completely. In order to be complete in a relationship with another person we must be willing to forgive with a sincere heart. Can we forgive someone immediately? Not always and that’s alright. Taking time to work through and process an event that has caused pain in your life is probably a good idea. All too often someone will say “I’m sorry” and think that they should be immediately forgiven and be given their second chance. It doesn’t always work that way.
One of the biggest lessons I teach on a daily basis to my students is forgiveness. Of course, my students are three and don’t realize they are being taught a forgiveness lesson; it just happens. When two students are in conflict, time is given to see if they can work it out on their own. When we start school in the fall, nobody knows how to work through a conflict; they are just getting to know each other. By this time in the school year, they have heard “the speech” many times and are actually putting what they learned into practice. Once again, they don’t realize they are learning and I am not going to spoil it for them.
When someone says “I’m sorry” the first thing we are inclined to say is “that’s ok”. Well I’m here to tell you that it is not ok. No matter what “it” is, “it” is not o.k. Period. If someone hurts you either physically or emotionally, it is not o.k. to say “that’s o.k.” By telling the person who hurt or harmed you that it’s o.k. you are technically giving them permission to do it again. Not o.k. As our school year progresses and my students mature, I am able to expand the forgiveness lesson and teach them to say, “I forgive you, please don’t hurt me or do that again”. Forgiveness is given and rules are set. By acknowledging someone’s apology and asking them not to do it again gives you the peace of mind and heart to know that the grudge doesn’t have a hold on you and that you have set your boundaries all the while teaching your own lesson on forgiveness. By embracing forgiveness, you embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. You allow yourself to be free. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn’t minimize or justify the wrongdoing. Forgiveness brings peace. Forgiveness gives second chances.
In conclusion I leave you with the following quote from Paul Boese: “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”