By David Jones
Authors note: I sought and received permission from the person I refer to in this post before publishing it. She graciously wrote – “So, I’d love for you to publish your writing. May all who read it be blessed and encouraged by its content.”
A couple of months ago I wrote an essay called The Four Pillars of Kindness for The Honey Foundation. In that piece, I identified four distinct characteristics key to practicing kindness. One of those characteristics is forgiveness. Exercising forgiveness (along with compassion, empathy and sympathy) is integral to the practice of kindness. It did not occur to me when I wrote that essay that accepting forgiveness is as important, as critical to practicing kindness as the act of forgiving itself. Being extended forgiveness by someone is – at least for me – the single most powerful emotion I’ve ever felt save for the birth of my children.
Let me tell you a story about being on the receiving end of forgiveness. I’ll be somewhat vague about the details and person involved to protect their identity. Forty plus years ago, I met a woman under extraordinary circumstances in a place far away from home. It was a brief meeting that changed my life forever. We spent a few short hours together, that’s it. I had no idea when I met this woman that a relationship would develop. It didn’t seem possible given the geographical constraints. Of course, forty years ago, the internet didn’t exist so things were done the old-fashioned way. We began to write shortly thereafter. Her letters arrived every few days penned lovingly by a delicate hand on airmail blue tissue paper. I came home each day and marched straight to the mailbox to see if a new letter had arrived and was overjoyed when it did. Inevitably I’d read each one a hundred times until I had memorized every jot and tittle.
This exchange of letters went on for some time. Eventually I realized that I was growing to love this woman and that sentiment was shared by her as well. It felt very much like a fairy tale. Perhaps it was the period that allowed such a relationship to develop. Back then things were slower, more deliberate. There was none of the instant gratification that afflicts society today. Two people…meeting briefly in a faraway land…corresponding by handwritten letters. I mean really, what could be more romantic? We shared our hopes and dreams with each other. There was no other time in my life before or since that I felt that kind of love for someone.
“Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif” (“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”) – Jean François Paul de Gondi
It became obvious to me that I wanted to spend my life with this woman. And began to plan accordingly. I started saving money unbeknownst to her and was hatching a grand scheme to ask her to fly to the U.S. to explore the possibilities. And then I blundered. I told a couple of friends and some of my family what I was planning to do. The feedback and advice I received was less than positive. Doubt was cast in ways I hadn’t expected. At the time, I was young and perhaps more susceptible to external influences. In any case, I did something I grew to regret…I walked away from the relationship. And it haunted me for over forty years. I knew I had hurt her deeply and felt shame for what I’d done. Moreover, I’d squandered an opportunity that happens rarely in life.
Fast forward to the present day. I took a flyer and was able track this woman down through social media recently. Over the last few decades I’d attempted to find her a few times but the technology and resources weren’t available to do so. Now they are. So, I reached out but honestly didn’t expect to hear from her. To my amazement, I received a message from her. We had some exchanges back and forth and I set the record straight, told her why I’d done what I did all those years ago.
Now this is where my amazement turned to astonishment. She forgave me for what I’d done. And not just in a perfunctory…”Sure, I forgive you” sort of way. I’m talking heartfelt and genuine and profoundly moving forgiveness. I am talking about the kind of forgiveness that knocks the wind out of you and rocks you on your heels.
In some ways, I’m a bit jaded. Sixty-one years of life experience has made me somewhat cynical. I’m unaccustomed to the kind of emotion I felt upon reading her words. Only a handful of times in my life have I been so moved. We use words like overwhelming but trust me, I really was overwhelmed. So much so that one night I was overcome by emotions and cried uncontrollably for hours. I’m telling you, it deeply touched me. Right to the core of my being.
Forgiveness. We bandy the word about without understanding its true depth and meaning. To receive such a gift, especially when we don’t deserve it, is a remarkable experience. In my earlier essay, I wrote about the process of forgiving my father before he died and how that was so meaningful. But this, this was different. This singular event taught me so much about the importance of forgiveness that it will take some time to fully process. I suspect that it will take me a long time to fully appreciate the magnitude of this generous, caring and kind gesture.
The most important part of this experience now is how I fully integrate forgiveness into my life. Who do I need to reach out to and exercise forgiveness toward? How can I pay this extraordinary gift forward?
As each day goes by I am more convinced that my conclusions are spot on. That the practice of kindness requires each of us to exercise the four pillars to one degree or another. Moreover, we must be willing to embrace those qualities when they are directed toward us. It’s not just about forgiving someone, it is also about allowing others to forgive us. It is not just about showing compassion but letting others show us compassion when we need it. The same with sympathy and empathy. We must be receptive to these things.
Sometimes we wonder, at least I do, why things happen the way they do. Or did. There is no way that any of us can fully atone when we hurt someone. The best we can do is hope that they will have the grace, wisdom and strength to forgive us. And we also must learn how to forgive ourselves. Guilt and shame are the biggest impediment to accepting forgiveness. Or seeking it for that matter. To be kind means being kind to ourselves as well as others. Self-flagellation is counterproductive to the process of healing and forgiveness. I’ve always wondered why I did what I did forty years ago. While I still don’t fully understand, I suspect it has something to do with me learning more about how best to practice kindness towards other people.
Finally, I encourage you, the reader to reach out to someone and practice forgiveness. Not out of obligation but because it is the right thing to do. Trust me when I tell you it will mean a lot to the person on the receiving end. Then sit back and be amazed by what happens. That simple act will ripple through time and space in ways you can hardly imagine.