On Fresh Starts & Forgiveness in the New Year
New Year’s resolutions don’t work for most of us. We tend to intuit this, yet we continue to promise ourselves – and maybe even God – that we will do better, starting “this year.” In the past, my own list has included the cliched “getting healthier,” but with no clear steps on how to reach this abstract goal.
It’s true that there is something psychologically hopeful for us as we flip the calendar to a new year. We see “January 1,” and we believe that this time, this year, things will improve. We will make those changes in our lives. We will do and be better somehow.
Forgiveness is another lofty aspiration, a spiritual one, that may seem strange to connect to a new year or to any sort of resolution. I think most of us, if we reflect long enough, will agree that we need to work on forgiveness. But we don’t know how or where or when to begin.
As with any aspect of spiritual or personal growth, forgiveness will begin again. And again. And again. I like to tell my older girls that we can start over any time of the day. Even toward the evening, if they have had a rough day overall, they might pout and grouse, “Well, the entire day is ruined!” And I’ll smile and say, “You can still start over any time. You can make better choices right now, can’t you?”
It’s true for all of us, especially true of the process of forgiving. Most of us have heard the proverbial half-truths about forgiveness – that it’s more for our sakes than the ones who hurt us, that it’s the pathway to healing, that we don’t have to forget the offense just because we forgive the offender.
In my middle age, I’ve discovered that forgiveness involves a lot of forgetting, however. Forgetting doesn’t mean dissociation from the tragedy or trauma. It doesn’t mean denying what happened. It’s not about ignoring the reality of what hurt us and how it happened. It’s about letting go, surrender.
I hate using the word surrender, because it, like many words in the spiritual life, has become overused and misunderstood. When I use the word surrender, I mean a freedom in handing over our woundedness and brokenness into the hands of God. It can be visualized through prayer. It can be a lifting up, an offering, a sigh – maybe at Communion, maybe after Confession, maybe in the middle of the night through tears.
Forgiveness is, indeed, a vital aspect of our need for wholeness. No one wants to be fragmented because of some act of betrayal, a vile exchange of words, or unthinkable abuse. The truth is, it’s impossible to forget such things, at least in the subconscious recesses of our memories, even viscerally. But we can forget in the sense that we release it to God, that we relinquish any suffocating attachments that remain on our part.
All fresh starts begin with detachment. No one can be truly free to live in God, to hear His voice, to remain focused on the work to which he or she is assigned, unless s/he actively works on detachment. This, like everything else we strive to achieve, waxes and wanes, often daily.
I recall the interior battles I’ve had, especially after Sarah was born, and my ability to give to God what I couldn’t understand, what was senseless and angered me, and what gave me no hope rose and fell throughout the day. The intensity of living as Church Militant can be excruciating, and the process of forgiving, especially oneself, is no different.
The work of a true Christian is always arduous and difficult. This is the very essence of fortitude. To begin the work of detachment, we recognize God’s hand moving in our lives, particularly the minutiae. As our perspective shifts to one in which Divine Providence guides everything, it becomes slightly easier to trust this God and to give Him our hurts, to entrust them to His care.
But because the human condition is such that we snatch what we have already given away, we tend to do that with forgiveness, too. As we mature spiritually, we learn that the interior work we must do in cooperation with God’s grace is constant and paradoxical and even confusing. All fresh starts are birthed from some sort of conclusion. Every beginning has an ending, and every ending begins something anew.
We can consider the metaphor of death and resurrection in our own process of forgiving. In order to forgive, something must end, something must die. I must end my resentment. The hatred I feel towards myself or someone else must dissolve. This is very much an act of the will, and once the will makes such a choice, the heart often softens and follows suit. Then we can see the opportunities before us that were stalled by our inability to forgive.
Forgiveness, like all beginnings and endings, does not happen in one fell swoop, either. I might believe I have made my peace with a specific portion of my past, then suddenly memories surface ten years later and I’m back in the thick of my emotional tirade all over again. This is true of most things – of grief, of learning, in marriage. We rise and we fall. We stop, or at least pause, but then begin again.
Spiritual progress is only thwarted by our own stubborn pride. We are human, after all. It takes time, experience, and some distance between myself and my pain before I begin to see the small but significant ways I have moved forward. But humility grounds us, doesn’t it? Humility reminds us, every time we feel we have stumbled or failed, that it’s not about the regression, but what is reflected and what is learned.
Regression and failure, especially in forgiveness, are inevitable. But so is love. So is hope. Perhaps we love more fully and hope more honestly when we have failed so miserably, or because of it. Life is not linear, and neither is spiritual growth. As long as we continue to open our hands and hearts and say to God, “Here is my pain again,” we are making progress. When we return to Him over and over, ashamed as we may be for the patterns in our lives we cannot seem to break, it’s the openness and willingness to change that pulls on the abundance of God’s mercy and breaks us open.
It is in the breaking open where God does His greatest work in us. So, this is a new calendar year, and we begin again, hopeful that this year will be different. And it will be. It can be better, but it won’t be perfect. We won’t forgive suddenly, and we won’t detach or forget or surrender all at once. But we can start over any time. And we can embrace the gift of what lies beneath each ending and death as the chance for a small resurrection.