As a young boy, I spent many nights watching helplessly as my father verbally and physically abused my mother. I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother's eyes, and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways. I would not wish that experience on anyone, especially not a child.
If I dwell in those memories, I can feel myself wanting to hurt my father back, in the same ways he hurt my mother. My mother was a gentle human being who did nothing to deserve the pain inflicted upon her. It is perfectly normal to want to hurt back when we have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn't. If I slap you after you slap me, it does not lessen the sting I feel on my own face, nor does it diminish my sadness as to the fact you have struck me. Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience permanent healing and peace is to forgive.
When I recall the story of my father's abuse of my mother, I realize how difficult the process of forgiving truly is. Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he was in pain. Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them.
That pain is only compounded by an unforgiving heart.
If I choose not to forgive, I will always pay a price for it. When we are uncaring, when we lack compassion, when we are unforgiving, we don't just suffer alone for that choice. Our family suffers, our community suffers, and ultimately our entire world suffers. We are made to exist in a delicate network of interdependence. We are sisters and brothers, whether we like it or not. To treat anyone as if they were less than human, less than a brother or a sister, no matter what they have done, is to contravene the very laws of our humanity. And those who shred the web of interconnectedness cannot escape the consequences of their actions.
In my own family, sibling squabbles have spilled into intergenerational alienations. When adult siblings refuse to speak to each other because of some offense, recent or long past, their children and grandchildren can lose out on the joy of strong family relationships. The children and grandchildren may never know what occasioned the freeze. They know only that "We don't visit this aunt" or "We don't really know those cousins." Forgiveness among the members of older generations will open the door to healthy and supportive relationships among younger generations.
Anger and bitterness do not just poison you, they poison all your relationships, including those with your children. I invite you to bring forgiveness into your own family. But the invitation to forgive is not an invitation to forget. Nor is it an invitation to claim that an injury is less hurtful than it really was. Nor is it a request to paper over the fissure in a relationship, to say it's okay when it's not. It's not okay to be injured. It's not okay to be abused. It's not okay to be violated. It's not okay to be betrayed.
But it is okay to forgive.
The invitation to forgive is an invitation to find healing and peace. In my native language, Xhosa, one asks forgiveness by saying, "Ndicel' uxolo" (I ask for peace). The locution is quite beautiful and deeply perceptive. Forgiveness opens the door to peace between people and opens the space for peace within each person. The victim cannot have peace without forgiving. The perpetrator will not have genuine peace while unforgiven. There cannot be peace between victim and perpetrator while the injury lies between them. The invitation to forgive is an invitation to search out the perpetrator's humanity. When we forgive, we recognize the reality that there, but for the grace of God, go I.
If I traded lives with my father, if I had experienced the stresses and pressures my father faced, if I had to bear the burdens he bore, would I have behaved as he did? I do not know. I hope I would have been different, but I do not know.
My father has long since died, but if I could speak to him today, I would want to tell him that I had forgiven him. What would I say to him? I would begin by thanking him for all the wonderful things he did for me as my father, but then I would tell him that there was this one thing that hurt me very much. I would tell him how what he did to my mother affected me, how it pained me. Perhaps he would hear me out; perhaps he would not. But still I would forgive him.
Since I cannot speak to him, I have had to forgive him in my heart. If my father were here today, whether he asked for forgiveness or not, and even if he refused to admit that what he had done was wrong or could not explain why he had done what he did, I would still forgive him. Why would I do such a thing? I would walk the path of forgiveness with him because I know it is the only way to heal the pain in my boyhood heart. Forgiving my father frees me.
We are called to forgive each other time and time again; it is the nature of being in a relationship. Yes, it can be very hard to forgive others, but often it can be harder still to forgive ourselves. When I reflect back across the years to my father's drunken tirades, I realize now that it was not just with him that I was angry. I was angry with myself. That small boy, trembling in fear, I had not been able to stand up to my father or protect my mother. So many years later, I realize that I not only have to forgive my father. I have to forgive myself.
When I no longer hold his offenses against him, and can also forgive myself, those memories of him no longer exert any control over my moods or my disposition. His violence and my inability to protect my mother no longer define me. I am not the small boy cowering in fear of his drunken rage. I have a new and different story. Forgiveness has liberated both of us. We are free.
I invite you to look within your own heart, within your own family, and within your own community, and consider the relationships that are in need of a forgiving heart. We each have the capacity to write a new story, and to experience the healing and freedom that comes when we let go of our grievances -- when we forgive.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Tutu Global Forgiveness Challenge, which is a free 30-day online program developed by Desmond and Mpho Tutu to teach the practical steps to forgiveness they share in their new book, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. Learn about the campaign here, and sign up to participate yourself. Read all posts in the series here.