At a recent admissions playgroup one of the prospective parents asked us to share what we thought were the key values with which a graduate should leave Spence. All sorts of important characteristics were shared: intellectual curiosity, a sense of purpose, confidence in self and others, a sense of humor. I said, “forgiveness,” and honestly that word just jumped out from within me, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it ever since.
I think what I meant by forgiveness was a personal commitment to full-on engagement, especially in those tough times of transgressions and hurt-making. I think that I meant having the grit to face and to move with, and not beyond, challenges and really hard things. And I know that I recognized that forgiveness is both tricky and aspirational at the same time. It’s never an easy thing, and it doesn’t just happen because you name it as important. Forgiveness takes considerable work, a certain strategy and the gift of time.
My mother, steadfast and true in most things, would quote the adage “forgive and forget,” not knowing that this very coupling actually puts forgiving into the wrong box, all wrapped up nicely in the past tense. Forgiveness can’t be all about just making it all go away. Forgiveness can’t be about “closure,” an overused and overrated word that can confuse relief with understanding. Forgiveness is never about “making it all ok;” rather, it is about the lasting learning of what one did wrong in the first place. And I use the present participle intentionally. Forgiveness is about standing up in the face of unrepentance or defensiveness, and forgiveness is about not only naming the wrong but also giving it a residency in lifelong learning. To forgive there must be a wrong that is fully brought out into the light and stripped of any of its rationalization. It’s not about making something go away; it’s about making something clear, real and therefore able to be forgiven.
But forgiving takes a special kind of confidence and personal strength. It means that one is keeping the door open and not finding a home in permanent grievance, which honestly can be highly seductive. But here’s the thing: that very self-righteous sanctuary can morph into hostage-holding prison pretty quickly. My father used to call me Miss Martyr, and for good reason. I enjoyed being wronged by what were everyday family peccadillos. It felt good to be wounded or pained, and it felt even better to be justified about it. But what I learned eventually was that I had no strategy for moving out of that space, and once the attention waned, I was still there, only now I was alone and grieved. My chest-thumping self-righteousness came, at the end, to naught, and I missed out on learning how to work through things with forgiveness not as a gift but more as a tool.
On a more global level, not forgiving can move one into an even more dangerous land: hatred. Yes, there are extraordinary grievances that are too deep even for speech, and degrees are always in force when considering forgiveness. Sometimes forgiveness is simply impossible. It should be, always, a matter of thought and choice, hand in hand. But landing in the world of hate is both dangerous and damaging. As Toni Morrison wrote in her novel, Love, “Hate does that. Burns off everything but itself so whatever your grievances, your face looks just like your enemy’s.”
Our mission statement speaks to the “transformation of self and the world” in our given capacities for humility, grace and compassion. Our work as Spence community members is always toward growing into the best selves we can be. All our work is transformational, actually, and our collective job, for both self and the community, is to model over and over again our unshakable kindness and deep commitment to engagement with each other, day in and day out. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “I think that somehow, we learn who we really are.” For me, that learning can best take place when we meet the challenges of facing what it means to make real mistakes and what it means to forgive them. So, if asked again at another playgroup what qualities I would wish for every Spence graduate, I think, again, I would say the capacity to forgive…and not forget.