A Key to Forgiveness
Imagine my surprise when my next counseling client turned out to be an 79-year-old woman. Mildred appeared fairly energetic and alert, sat on the couch, looked me straight in the eyes and pronounced, “I need help with my heart. People say I’m a loving and caring person, but most of the time I feel I’m just acting the part. I don’t feel the love.”
I was still getting over my surprise, but the earnestness in her voice was refreshing. Here was a woman in her later years still wanting to learn about herself and willing to ask for professional help.
I asked her, “What is blocking you from feeling your heart, your love?”
She reflected on this for a moment, then spoke with some agitation, “It was so long ago, in my childhood. I should be over this by now.”
Now I knew I was onto something. “You should be over what?”
“My father,” she blurted out. “He was a cruel man who beat us all, even my mother. We were always afraid of him. We tried to hide when he came home, but he always found us and beat us. He was so mean and heartless. All I can remember of my childhood is the pain, the fear, the lack of love, and my praying that he would leave us alone.”
Now she was crying. “But this was so long ago. Why can’t I forgive him and move on instead of feeling all this hatred? I’ve tried so hard to forgive him. Even as an adult, when I heard about his death from alcoholism and liver failure, I was glad to finally be rid of him. But I guess I’m still not rid of him.”
I held her hands and let her express her sadness and anger. I could feel the iron grip her father still had on her, and the weight of her grief. Inwardly I prayed that I could do the right thing to help free this woman from the life-long legacy of her father’s abuse.
She finally stopped crying and opened her eyes. Still holding her hands, I asked, “Mildred, do you have any idea of what your father’s childhood was like?”
“Not for sure,” she said, “but I’ve been told that it was horrible.”
“OK,” I continued, “I want you to see your father not as a big, scary monster but as a scared little boy who was severely abused and who learned to hate rather than love. Can you glimpse this little boy?”
Mildred was at first surprised by this new direction, but then jumped in and replied, “Yes, I can see him as a frightened child. I’ve never done this before. He looks so helpless, so alone. No one is there to love him.”
“Good,” I coached. “Now can you give this little boy the love he is needing so badly? The man and the monster are beyond your ability to love and forgive, but I believe you have the capacity to love this forsaken child.”
For the first time a smile played about Mildred’s lips, which up to this point had seemed frozen into a mask of sorrow. “Yes, I can do this,” she triumphantly announced. “I can see and feel this lonely little boy hidden behind a wall of hatred and violence. I feel so sad that he went through his childhood so alone and unloved. Nobody should be that alone.”
“Go ahead,” I urged, “put your arms around that scared little boy. Let him know he is safe and loved.”
Mildred wrapped her arms around herself and started rocking gently. Still smiling, she spoke, “Right now I’m holding two scared children, the little boy inside my father and the little girl inside me. Both of these children deserve to be loved. I’m so sorry I’ve neglected both of them. I’ll never do that again.”
A look of joy came over her face as she next spoke, “I feel I’ve found the key to forgiveness. I can only forgive my father by loving the abused little boy inside of him. And I can give the same love to the abused little girl inside of me.”
I so wish I could have captured her expression on film, or bottled the feeling of love and forgiveness in the room to share with everyone in this article. I could see that Mildred now had her life back, that she was in a way beginning a new phase of her life at 79. She had learned an important key to forgiveness.
I share this story so that all of us can use this key to forgive those in our lives who have hurt us, however badly. If we only see these people only as adults, they can become bigger than life, or even monsters. If we can see them also as children needing and deserving love, as Mildred did, therein lies the key to forgiveness which frees us to love more.