I recently began the forgiveness project with a new group of inmates. In the first session I asked everyone to share a memorable experience of forgiveness. It could be an experience of forgiving after a long time of holding a grudge. Or it could be an experience of being forgiven by someone you had harmed.
One participant immediately spoke of having forgiven his father, who had been a cruel parent for many years. Another spoke of being forgiven by a member of his family.
The next man to speak said, “I have no memorable experience of forgiveness.” He went on to say that his practice was to consistently end relationships with people who harmed him. “When someone breaks my trust, that’s it,” he said. “I don’t forgive them and I don’t give them another chance to do me wrong.”
“What about being forgiven?” I asked. He replied, “I can’t remember anyone ever forgiving me.”
Several long seconds of silence passed. He looked at the man who had spoken about forgiving his father. “Let me tell you about my father,” he said. He described a man with whom he had never enjoyed a pleasant moment, a man who never displayed affection of any kind, and a man who was absent and uninvolved.
Then he began to tell something that happened when he was nine years old. His mother had asked his father to take him shopping for school. On the list were several items of clothing and a pair of boots. The boots were a coveted brand and he really looked forward to having a pair. But at the store the father refused to buy any of the items except one very inexpensive piece of clothing. “But what about the boots?” he pleaded with his father. “I’m not buying you those boots,” was the angry response. He looked around at all of us in the circle. “I remember this as if it happened yesterday.”
“From that day,” he said, “I wrote my father off because I knew he did not love me.” After a pause, he added, “So I guess you can say that I only have memorable experiences of unforgiveness.”
Before the session began, this brother told me he would be released in nine weeks. So when he had finished, I looked at him and said, “So we’ve got nine weeks to work on this, right?” He smiled and nodded. And then he said, “I’m taking this forgiveness project because I really want to know if it’s possible for me to forgive someone like my father.”
It’s always nice to know what the challenge is. And how much time you’ve got to address it.