09/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Does Forgive Mean Forget? How to Get Over What Is Tearing You Apart

"If it weren't for the fact that he died, I'd like to kill him! Can you imagine leaving us in this mess?" Amanda, a widow with three little ones under tow, was reeling from her 35 year old husband's sudden death. Apparently, Jack reassured his wife repeatedly that he'd handled his life insurance policy after he lost his job. He let the insurance lapse. "Jack used to tease me that he'd live to be 100 and the policy was a waste of funds. That's probably why he let it go. But what am I supposed to do?" Tears are streaming down her cheeks. "If only he hadn't fallen asleep at the wheel. If he hadn't taken that night job, at least we'd be here in this together. The bed's cold, like ice, and I wake up from nightmares if sleep at all. I don't even have a picture any more about where we're headed. I might as well be blind."

Amanda's words remind me of Helen Keller say when she was asked "What could be worse than being blind?" Her answer was swift: "Living your life without vision!"

Jeremy put his concern this way: "My dad said that if I go forward with what he calls my 'gay thing,' and adopt a baby, that he'll disinherit me. He's such a redneck that he drove away my mother, and now, he wants to control me. I don't want his stinkin' money. The stuff he does is just unforgivable. Now he's obsessing about the race of the baby, says he refuses to be a grandfather. How am I supposed to explain this to our child someday? You can't imagine what he's capable of!"

When I offered Rumi's words to Jeremy, it took some weeks for their truth to take root. But, as soon as they began to sprout, Jeremy was on his way to healing. This happens neither overnight, nor to the closed mind.

"Welcome difficulty.
Learn the alchemy
True human beings know.
The moment you accept what troubles you've been given,
The door opens."

This morning, at the Blackbird Bakery, as I was thinking about the progress of these two inspiring human beings, I stumbled upon a heated debate, which happened to be thematically connected to Amanda and Jeremy's dilemmas. Here's the scene: Mr. Plaid Polo Shirt, a 70's something well-tanned senior with carefully coifed white hair was well into challenging his coffee buddies. "Can you believe these Scots? Why the H--- would they let this terrorist go after killing 270 people? They should keep him in the slammer 'til he rots in H---. Screw 'em. These guys are animals, not a compassionate bone in their bodies. No forgiveness." Plaid's friend turns away. "For G's sake, Hank, the guy's dying. Let it go." Plaid bristles, smoothing his hair with his palm. "The H--- I will. He shouldn't be out in the world with civil people like us."

Mr. Plaid's public venom stayed with me a bit longer than I'd like to admit. I should thank him, really. He brings today's issue front and center: forgiveness and forgetting. I asked him 'what is the relationship for you between forgiveness and forgetting?' According to Plaid, (his subsequent diatribe which I will not inflict upon you) if we forgive then we forget. He believes that we must not forget because otherwise we become the "scum." Those of us in the art-making world appreciate that art can be constructed to forget, or, to remember, to forgive, to awaken consciousness. We can use our creative imagination to heal what might seem impossible. Or, in Plaid's camp, we can stay mired in good guy/bad guy thinking that protects us against embrace of our own less-than-stellar behavior. I think Rumi was 'on to something' when he said:
"We have no idea what we are."

What to Do When the Unforgivable Happens. The reality is that no one can tell us, with 100% accuracy, how we will react when the painfully unexpected arrives. Nor can anyone else prescribe exactly what will heal the wound. Each case is different. Who knows how the families of those poor souls felt when that plane went down in 1988, nor how they feel today with the perpetrator released so that he can be home with his family.

All I know for certain is that the more devastating the curveball, the more clarity it can bring regarding what your heart values. Amanda has learned that while she cannot change what happened, what she wants to build with her children is the sort of teamwork she had with Jack. This is the memorial she has decided to create, as it is the characteristic she most valued in him.

This brings us to 5 guidelines:

Guideline 1: Identify the number one value that might help you forgive what is so difficult. Amanda chose 'teamwork,' as her guiding principle to get her through unknowns with more sense of choice and control.

Guideline 2: Create an 'act of recognition.' Once you've decided on #1, invent some process that moves you into healing action. The Scots failed to do this for the families of the 1988 tragedy, which is partly what's fueling the present upset. Said Sir Laurens vanderPost, who'd known a number of war crime tragedies himself: "...We need acts of recognition, a means of restoring not only our human dignity, but our sense of belonging..." Jeremy is currently creating interviews for his new baby's 'extended family grandparents.' He's talking to elders who want to grandparent, and have not had the opportunity, and giving each quite a boost in recognition in the process. Says Jeremy: "I was so busy being p/o'd that I was missing the chance to select what would be best for the baby. I never had grandparents around. This little guy is going to have lots and lots."

Guideline 3: Decide whether you want to dwell on the injustices of yesterday, or liberate yourself today. Decide to turn your situation upside down to find a 'give-away' in it, that helps you grow. When my son was killed, I could not change the outcome. What I could do was decide upon the one thing he'd probably want from me to take forward. He had a habit, an attitude, really, of no matter what happened 'play it forward, play on!' He used this on the soccer field, and everywhere he went. Since he wanted us to write a book together, but now he's gone, at least I can sit down each week and do some writing for those, like him, with the same attitude. This is my 'play on.' At least, one of them! Likewise, when the young man who was responsible for my son's death, needed to come see me, to 'lay down that cross,' I forgave him. It wasn't as hard as you might think. All I had to do was think of what I would have wanted from the other family had Matt been responsible for a fatality. Choice is always ours. What we do with it constructs the future narrative of our lives.

Guideline 4: Take a baby size action step every day in the direction of forgiving yourself, for whatever you hold as unforgivable. Be kind to you.

Guideline 5: On particularly hairy days when it is tough to keep trudging down the road to forgiveness, say to yourself at least 4 times: 'Forgiveness is alive in me.' Sometimes, you just have to keep on keepin' on until you, yourself, believe it, too. If you are still finding this difficult, then ask for help in forgiving, in the name of something greater than yourself. When Amanda was having a tough time on Jack's birthday, she asked Jack, in her meditation, to help her forgive him for being gone, for not handling the insurance, for leaving her to raise the kids as a widow. She tells me it helps.

The Big Question. Every single terrible act, intentional or not, asks us a question: for what are we called? Are we called to this earth to get even, to be right? Do you believe we are called here to grow, to contribute, to learn how to become more compassionate more of the time? What if our purpose turned out to be cultivating conditions for gratitude and love? And, what if this requires us to forgive more, including ourselves, and remember that which brings about a more meaningful, joy-filled way of living while we still can?

As always, I appreciate your comments, your stories of forgiveness gained, denied, granted. What's the hardest thing you've ever had to forgive about you/and/or someone else? What helped? Please link this to your family, friends, contacts. The more the merrier!

Love your way, Cara

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.