In the movie “27 Dresses,” Jane embarrasses her younger sister Tess in the days just before Tess’s wedding by confiding to a newspaper reporter how greedy, demanding, and out of control the bride-to-be is. Tess explodes when the feature story appears, and it seems the sisters’ relationship is ruined forever.
But a remarkably brief time later, Tess tells Jane, “I’ve decided to forgive you.” She then checks off a line on a piece of paper she’s holding—as if forgiving her sister was an item on her to-do list. If it were only that simple.
Everyone knows that forgiveness is not so easy that it can be put on a chore list next to “pick up dry cleaning” and “rotate tires.” It’s complicated. Messy. Guilt-inducing. Especially as the holidays approach.
A New Kind of Normal
Jana Cranmer knows the difficulty involved in forgiving family. The California native was rocked when her parents split up after 27 years of marriage. The divorce was complicated and took
a full year to finalize. Family traditions that Cranmer and her adult siblings had enjoyed their entire lives had to change as their family changed. And since Mom and Dad weren’t speaking to each other, it was unclear how the situation would all work out.
Cranmer, her brother, and her sister had to make decisions about where each holiday event would occur and with whom. “Every holiday is stressful,” Cranmer confesses. “The kids have to be the adults.”
There is a constant give and take of how each new wrinkle should be handled. “Every holiday there was a new issue,” Cranmer recalls. “I resented having to take responsibilities that I shouldn’t have had to take.”
The divorce caused Cranmer to experience aspects of the grief cycle. At first she didn’t want to believe it was true. Then anger set in; she withdrew from her dad and kept her distance for more than two years. After a particularly blistering phone call from him, Cranmer told her father to never speak to her again. “I wondered if I could have any relationship with my dad at all,” she shares. “Were the wounds worth it?”
Cranmer’s reaction makes perfect sense to Dan Jenkins, director of Lighthouse Psychological Services, Inc., a counseling center in San Diego. “Withdrawing builds a wall of protection around the person who feels wronged. We don’t want to get hurt again, so we cut that person off,” Jenkins explains. “In the short run, it is easier to avoid dealing with it altogether.” But that choice comes with a price.
Eventually Cranmer’s stance toward her father softened. “I decided I needed to continue this relationship,” she remembers. “To deny the relationship meant I had to erase my past. I didn’t want to not think about my childhood. I still loved [my dad].”
That meant forgiving him, even though he had not asked for it. “I may never get an explicit apology,” Cranmer says. “The closest he’s come is when he said, ‘I know this has been really hard for you.’ So in some ways I feel like my pain hasn’t really been validated.”
What’s in it for You?
While many feel justified in waiting for an apology before granting forgiveness, Jenkins says this perspective misses the point. “A lot of the times it simply won’t happen,” he admits. For forgiveness to occur, one must choose to do so regardless of what the other person does. “Forgiveness has more to do with the person who has been hurt than the offender,” Jenkins adds.
In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu says there is a significant precedent for choosing to forgive before a person asks for it.
“Jesus did not wait until those who were nailing him to the cross had asked for forgiveness,” Tutu writes. “He was ready, as they drove in the nails, to pray to his Father to forgive them and he even provided an excuse for what they were doing. If the victim could forgive only when the culprit confessed, then the victim would be locked into the culprit’s whim, locked into victimhood, whatever her own attitude or intention. That would be palpably unjust.”
Forgiveness is a choice to not resent the offender any more. And it’s rarely instantaneous. “I tend to not use phrases like, ‘I have forgiven that person,’” Jenkins says. “It’s more accurate to say, ‘I am forgiving that person.’”
A Work in Progress
Christians sometimes think they have forgiven someone, but then are surprised when they still feel anger toward that person. “When Jesus told us to forgive 70 times 7, He was telling us that forgiveness is a process—that we are to wake up the next day and know we are in the process of forgiving, that we are seeing things differently from how we used to see them,” Jenkins explains.
Forgiveness is also a choice, and anger is a sign that there is still more work to be done. But one has to be realistic about what is possible. Our feelings, despite our wanting to forgive, can’t be ignored. Jenkins recommends that people find someone trustworthy to talk with about their emotions or journal about them—whatever it takes to keep from burying them under the surface. The old saying “time heals all wounds” is actually a myth. If past hurts aren’t confronted, they’ll keep opening up and making us miserable.
“How you deal with your feelings determines your moral value,” Jenkins says. “You don’t have to act on your feelings. You can choose to behave despite your feelings.”
For Cranmer, the choice was her future or her past. She realized that it might take her and her father a long time to reconcile, but at least she could choose to do something about their relationship. Cranmer began talking with her father more. She opted for openness and honesty over avoidance.
“Forgiveness means releasing my father from blame,” she shares. “I know that it won’t restore my relationship with him to what it was or rewrite history. [But] I decided that it was time to move forward.”
Cranmer hopes to have clearer lines of communication with both of her parents this holiday season. She hopes to be a little more honest, to choose forgiveness more frequently, and to take away some of the tension by not letting the past rule the present.
“They were good parents,” she shares. “They instilled basic principles in me, even though they didn’t adhere to their own standards. I know they’re human. It won’t be easy, but it’s still my choice to forgive and live differently.”
In “27 Dresses,” it took a long chat about past hurts before true forgiveness could take place between Tess and Jane. And while that’s just a movie, those who have had similar experiences know that the future—especially future holidays—depends on how we confront the past.
As Christians we are called to love and forgive others, and we are never more like Christ than when we forgive.
Choosing forgiveness, while risky, is essentially choosing the future over the past. We can’t bring back the past, but we can have the strength not to let it rule what’s ahead. Sounds a lot like the meaning of Christmas, doesn’t it?