Charlie: I recently attended my grandson Devin’s Little League game, something that has become one of my favorite things to do these days. I sat on the sidelines in my lawn-chair enjoying the game with Devin’s parents Cassia and her husband (my son) Jesse and Devin’s younger brother Ashton. One of the things that four-year-old Ashton and I like to do is to wrestle and roughhouse together. I’m usually careful not to let things get out of hand but accidents sometimes do happen, and the other day, one did. I was on the grass on my hands and knees and Ashton was jumping on and off my back.
The third time he jumped on me, he fell off before he could steady himself and hurt his back. He was in pain and since he hasn’t (yet) learned to stifle his tears, he cried and freely called out how much “it hurts”. His mom hurried over and we both tried to comfort the little guy. I felt terrible, not just guilty for not preventing the mishap, but because if there’s anything more painful than seeing your own child in pain, it’s seeing your grandchild in pain. And what hurts even more than that is feeling responsible for having contributed to his pain.
Fortunately, the injury was minor and in a few minutes Ashton had stopped crying and was laughing at some funny noises that I was making and the incident was history. After Devin’s game ended we all walked back to the parking lot together. On the way I apologized and told Ashton that I was sorry about what happened. He looked at me and said, “That’s all right, Poppa. I forgive you”.
I was blown away by his words and by the obvious sincerity with which they were uttered. I checked with Cassia who told me that she and Jesse hadn’t spoken very much about the concept of forgiveness with Ashton and hadn’t ever instructed him to forgive others. Ashton has always been a highly sensitive and empathic child, and very attuned and responsive to others’ feelings and emotions.
It’s been my belief that we are all inherently compassionate and empathic and don’t need to be commanded to apologize or forgive if we have witnessed those responses being modeled by others. When we are forced, threatened, or shamed into expressing contrition (usually by others who experienced similar forms of coercion themselves) there is a tendency to apologize out of fear or obligation that may be void of genuine feelings of remorse. This pattern damages our natural tendency to experience care for each other often producing the opposite effect on children than that which we desire: a diminishment of compassion and empathy.
The incident served as a powerful reminder and affirmation of my trust that caring is an integral aspect of all human beings and is hardwired into all of us and that when we defer to the wisdom of our heart, rather than to the judgments of the mind, we can see beyond our conditioned thinking and into a deeper level of truth. Perhaps that’s what was meant in the bible where it is written: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Forgiveness, as many of us have come to know, is not given exclusively for the benefit of the forgiven, but also for the benefit of the forgiver. Letting go of a grievance or past injury doesn’t remove the responsibility of the so-called “perpetrator” it allows for both parties to more clearly understand the conditions and circumstances that gave rise to the disturbance, enabling both parties to recognize, learn from, and implement any lessons that the experience holds. The offering of forgiveness is itself redemptive in that it relieves the giver of the emotional weight of any resentment that he or she may be carrying. It’s been said that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting it to kill someone else.
When we recognize that trying to punish someone with our resentment is ultimately harmful to ourselves, the impulse to do so begins to diminish. At that point, the inclination to forgive, for most of us, arises naturally and we can more accurately assess our situation.
Forgiveness is a process, not an event. It often doesn’t occur in a single instant, but instead, over time. Sometimes in a matter of minutes or even seconds, and sometimes it may take months or even longer. Usually it doesn’t occur as quickly as it did for Ashton. Perhaps if we were all more able to see the world through the eyes of a little child, it would.