Dear Souls and Hearts members,
I have a treat for you. This week I’m sharing a powerful reflection written by Souls and Hearts Contributor Tom McCabe, a Catholic theologian and expert in forgiveness. Tom’s work in the field of forgiveness is a true gift to the world, and it’s an honor to participate in his creative, grounded approach to teaching and leading people to freedom. So without further ado, here is Tom McCabe:
Better Homes and Pardons –
Finding Freedom Through Forgiveness
By Tom McCabe
Take a moment, if you will, to look into your mind’s eye and picture an image of a cheerful, lively, and loving extended family gathering. It is a cool summer evening. Everyone is gathered on the patio around one long table too small for the number of people around it, but no one cares or even notices because they are enthralled with each other’s company. Everyone is leaning in and engaged in the conversation, almost waiting with bated breath on what is being shared. There is laughter, encouragement, meaningful sharing, and you can sense a palpable closeness with one another. I am smiling even as I write this!
I am smiling even as I write this because, I don’t know about you, but that is the kind of encounter I want. I work hard to cultivate a family and friendships that are trusting, joyful, encouraging, and intimate. I long for relationships that are unified, affirming, forgiving, and supportive, where we can laugh and cry and “do life” together. Raise your hand if you want this kind of family and friendships. Yes, you who are reading this, raise it!
It struck me recently that this kind of family does not happen by accident. Rather, it happens on purpose. In other words, if I want the kind of family that does not hold grudges nor animosity toward one another, if I want friendships that love each other enough not to carry resentments, if I want to experience empathy and affirmation despite all my warts, then I must start creating it one relationship, one interaction at a time.
You might be saying, “It is nice to dream about it, but it is easier said than done. I am doing my part, but I can’t change other people.” I hear you – yes, it is easy to talk about unity, and it is true that to maintain open and caring relationships requires work. And you would be right if you said that we cannot force others to love us or to be friends. But it is possible for YOU and ME to cultivate meaningful relationships. This commitment to authentic friendship can be liberating.
But a common obstacle to this kind of unity and commitment to love is an unforgiving heart. It is true, we all have experiences that wound us and often bind us in mind, body, and spirit. And so, we must begin with freeing ourselves from our tendencies to resentment. To that end, then, I ask you these questions. Are you where you want to be in living in greater peace and freedom from resentment? If no, to what extent are you willing to commit to gain the freedom and peace that you desire?
Put another way, if you cannot let go of some bitterness, or if emotionally it still stings, or if you are not the channel of love you want to be, then what are you holding onto that is more important to you than the joy and freedom that awaits you? Is it hurt, fear, shame, or might it be anger, resentment, or pride? Perhaps it is subtler than that. Maybe it is your inability to trust that things will be better if you forgive, or worse yet, you are unwilling to let go of the control that comes from holding onto the prison of bitterness. And oftentimes, that bitterness is pointed right at yourself. You may be finding it hard to forgive yourself for past failures. Well, I encourage you right now to move out of it for the good of your family, your friends and yourself and toward the eternal good that God has prepared for you.
When my son, Max, was eleven years old he was infatuated by superheroes. One day he asked me, “Dad, if you could be any superhero, what would it be?” I pondered that question for a moment,
“I really don’t know, Max. What about you?”
Without hesitation he replied, “I’d be Flash with lightning speed. Yeah, he is cool. He can move faster than the speed of sound and he is immune to the effects of friction, G-force and inertia. It would be soooo awesome!”
“Hmm… you’ve really thought about this, Max.” I said, “Okay give me a minute.”
So, I pondered his question. Then slowly my eyes lit up and I said, “Yep, I got it. I would be Mercy Man with lightning speed love. He’s immune to resentment and to being depressed by bad or annoying people.”
Max looked confused, “Mercy Man? Who’s that?”
“Well,” I said, “Mercy Man is capable of forgiving anyone for anything. You’ve heard me say that love conquers all things, right? Well, If I could have heroic compassion and forgive as Jesus forgives, then wow! I think I’d be able to have a big impact.”
Max frowned. “Dad, that’s’ stupid. Anyone can do that. That’s easy.”
I raised my eyebrows, “Anyone? Easy? Really?!” I replied. “To forgive is much harder for people than you think. I too find it hard at times to forgive even though I know that much good can come from it. And yes, I do think it’s super-human and heroic to forgive. I can’t do it on my own, but through Christ all things are possible!”
On the surface we may think it’s a cake walk to pardon others. However, upon further reflection it seems to me that there are many people, families, communities and even the culture at large that have serious difficulty forgiving others. In fact, I believe this ‘unforgiving-ness’ is leaving serious effects on all those groups.
The Chris Carrier Story
When I run across someone with heroic compassion, it astounds me. In the summer of 1996 Chris Carrier was a 32-year-old husband and father of two beautiful little girls. One evening Chris went to visit his ailing elderly friend in a nursing home. Chris brought a small amount of his friend’s favorite fish spread, smoked amber ack. He made sure his friend was well situated and comfortable in bed, and then Chris left for the evening.
But it was the last time Chris would see him because his friend died that night.
Who was this elderly man? His name was David McAllister. David, it was said, was a lonely 77-year-old frail and blind man who had no one visiting him and no one to look after him. In fact, people were going out of their way to avoid him. But why?
Prior to his death McAllister was suspected of cruelly harming a child. Then, when nearing death, he confessed to abducting, stabbing, shooting a boy in the head, and leaving him for dead 22 years prior. Once his confession hit the news, people went out of their way to alienate McAllister.
After his death, the elderly man’s body remained unclaimed at the hospital. But Chris Carrier, this young husband and father, wanted to pay his respects.
Later a news reporter asked Chris, “why, after hearing the news about David McAllister, did you want to visit him?” The reporter reminded Chris that McAllister was a selfish outcast of society and a criminal, based upon what he had done. Chris patiently responded, “I wanted to help him put that all behind him. I tried to let him know that he had a friend.”
This story really pierced the first time I heard it. I was a young dad with six children. Could I have done what Chris Carrier did? If someone had harmed one of my children, I would have been incensed with anger, rage, and possibly long-term bitterness.
Inside of me something stirred, “What would compel Chris to do and say such a thing? What gall did he have to show compassion to David McAllister? David deserves to be spurned. He deserves to be left ailing and alone just as he left that poor innocent child to die. And if I were to pardon him, I feel like I would be weak in my defense of my family. But more than that, I feel like I would be betraying my own children by not protecting them in some way.”
Ahhh… but what does defense and real protection look like? It is true that justice should be served, and of course we must protect children. But by showing McAllister mercy, would I really be compromising my role as protector? Could I be training my children to be even stronger, more courageous individuals? I want to tell you the rest of the story, but not yet.
The Cancer of Resentment
Are there experiences in your past that might cause resentment to well up in you? Are there people that you can’t seem to forgive? Is there a memory that comes to mind that might evoke bitterness or animosity? Have you considered what is the source of your resentment? Have you pondered what holds you back from forgiving to the point where you are finding freedom to love?
Let’s look at the act of not being able to forgive for a moment. In our attempt to cope or to protect ourselves or to seek justice, we might choose a path of unforgiveness when offended. In the moment it might seem like the right thing to do. I propose, however, that unforgiveness is like a deadly cancer.
And what is cancer? In simple terms, cancer is a malignant growth or tumor resulting from the rapid division and multiplication of abnormal cells. Cancer can start almost anywhere in the body. Normally human cells grow and divide as the body needs them. When these cells grow old, they die, and then new cells replace them. But when cancer develops, this normal process of cell growth malfunctions. Cells become abnormal and instead of dying off, they form new abnormal cells which, over time, grow into what we call tumors.
These tumors are malignant which means they can spread into nearby tissues. Unfortunately, cancer can often evade our immune system or even hi-jack it in certain circumstances. The results are not good – it is typically hard to contain and often resulting in detriment to the body and to life itself.
Unforgiven-ness is like a cancer. It is a malignant, invasive, and deadly growth caused by embittered resentment toward another that is hard to contain and can result in isolation, depression, and a division of relationships.
When unforgiveness grows, our emotional immunity to it is dulled or dies. As our will becomes weakened, we become angry, hardened, less understanding and perhaps impatient. We become more prone to feeling hurt and offended in the future. And this heightened stress level can actually stunt our body’s immune system and harm other bodily systems!
What makes the unforgiving heart so cancerous is that it can spread not only through the unforgiving person (which is made manifest through our emotions, our psyche and even in our physical being), but it can also spread throughout the whole family. In some cases, an embittered disposition can even extend across a culture and society at large if the offense is felt in a broad societal way.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, is an ointment for healing. It too can spread, but it spreads compassion, freedom, and joy. It is more like the morning sun that rises over the horizon, warming the earth and cultivating all life.
Forgiveness is enlightenment. It is a liberator of captives potentially for the one who was offended, but it can even spread to those around him or her and to the person that was the transgressor.
Here is the main point. If we can live a life of forgiveness first as individual persons, then within our families, then within the culture in which we find ourselves, we will all have happier, healthier lives and society. Now that is an idea worth spreading!
The Seeming Paradox
Here is the seeming paradox about forgiveness. To people that cannot forgive, forgiveness seems foolish and weak. It is viewed as a crutch for persons that cannot or will not stand up for themselves.
The truth of the matter is that forgiveness does not express weakness. It expresses strength. It requires a strength of will that extends mercy despite being wronged. It acknowledges that an offense occurred but reciprocates that offense with justice imbued with mercy. And, as paradoxical as this may seem, the end result of forgiveness is freedom.
How so? When you are wronged, you deserve an apology. You have a right to be angry. But that anger, if left unchecked, leads down a nasty path toward deeper hurt, resentment, bitterness, vengeful anger, rage, stress, isolation, and the depression that accompanies an unforgiving heart.
On the other hand, if you acknowledge that a wrong has been committed either by yourself or by someone else, and yet you choose to channel that righteous anger by responding with mercy and a passion to make things right, then you open yourself up to seeking a restoration for yourself and possibly for others. To forgive is to be free. But the real fuel that frees us to forgive is love.
There is a progressive nature to forgiveness. It begins with truth, is fueled by love, and ends in freedom.
Forgiveness begins with truth, is fueled by love, and ends in freedom.
Here is how it works. By stating the truth about the situation, you acknowledge that a wrong was made. But instead of remaining in hurt, you relinquish its grasp on you and allow it to be replaced/filled by a love, a mercy, an empathy that satisfies and fills your mind and heart like a mountain reservoir that overflows by a spring run-off of clear, refreshing water from the snow-capped mountains above it.
As a result, you become fueled not by a bad memory of the past, but rather by knowledge of the joy you now dwell in. Your reservoir becomes less murky and stagnant. You can now see more clearly and receive love more easily.
Now your reservoir is full of joy and mercy to such an extent that it cannot contain it. It must spill over to the valley below. And you will find yourself extending compassion and forgiveness, perhaps first to yourself, and then to the person(s) that committed the offense which results in an interior freedom away from hate and isolation to a commitment to love.
Mother Teresa put it beautifully. Until you know how God thirsts for you, you cannot begin to know who God wants to be for you and who you are to be for Him.
The Rest of the Story!
Let’s go back to the Chris Carrier Story. In December of 1996 an innocent and unsuspecting boy was walking home from school on the last day before Christmas break. David McAllister had worked for the boy’s dad and was angry at his employer. He pulled up in a car alongside the boy, introduced himself, and explained that the boy’s father was throwing a company Christmas party and needed the boy’s help.
The boy trustingly got into the car. From here McAllister drove out of town with the boy, stabbed him, dragged him into the woods, shot him, burned a lit cigarette into his flesh to see if he was dead and left him.
Miraculously, the boy did not die. A hunter found him six days later in the Everglades. The boy recovered.
The boy who experienced all this trauma was Chris Carrier.
Twenty-two years later when Chris, who was left blind in one eye due to the injury to his head, had learned that the man who had brutalized him was still alive, he sought out the elderly man, forgave him and befriended him. The old man began to cry when he realized who the young man was. Chris after visiting him for the first time said, “I told him I forgave him and that from now on there would be nothing like anger or revenge between us, nothing except a new friendship.”
Although people react in surprisingly different ways to this story, everyone admits that Chris Carrier’s response to the dying man is astounding. Chris was motivated not from a place of bitterness and vengeance, but rather from compassion and empathy. He possessed an interior freedom and power to love that was superhuman.
Chris really was Mercy Man in this story!
Chris knew deeply that Christ was the living water that could heal any wound. All he did was to lead David to the water.
Gymnasium of Forgiveness.
Perhaps the events of our lives may not be as traumatic as the story above, but they still impact us, nonetheless. We all need to forgive. If we want to practice forgiveness, we have a gym in our own backyard. It is said that our family and friendships are the large gym for training in forgiveness. How right this is!
The community in which we live is often the place where we practice and strengthen the virtue of forgiveness. Picture this – it is a Saturday afternoon. My wife and I are picking up the house because we have guests coming for dinner. Looking for additional help, I ask Rosemary where our children are. She says they are upstairs on our bed watching television.
“Did you tell them we need help?” I inquire.
“Yes, several times. One of them who shall go unnamed said he was tired of helping.”
My sweet wife, Rosemary, sees the look of wrath come over my face (my kids dive for cover when they see the look!). And Rosemary says quickly, “Honey! Breathe… What you want to do right now is to feed them with love.”
“Ohhhh… I’ll feed them, alright!” I reply. “I’m going to feed them meatballs with a sling shot!”
Fortunately, I can cool my jets just a tad before visiting our four oldest children with a focused “Come to Jesus” meeting that gets them off their hind parts to help us out!
For me, family life is a daily workout in the exercise of prudential judgment, justice, mercy, and discipline. But it is also training in patience, forgiveness, temperance, and persistent love.
Here is my proposition to you. If you and I want a spouse, and children, families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors to forgive, then you… and I…. need to start practicing forgiveness until it is habitual, until it is a learned trait. But it must first be practiced!
Forgiveness does not happen by chance. Rather, it happens on purpose! If forgiveness can be learned, then it can also be practiced. If it can be practiced, then it can become a habit. If it can become a habit, then it can become a way of life. Let’s make forgiveness our intentional way of life! Would your life look different for you if you were free from resentment to love generously?
All of us have been offended in some way. Many of us may be holding a grudge, perhaps big, perhaps small. These grudges can rob us of the joy that Christ wants for us. They can even harm us, quite literally. Fortunately, God has a path to freedom for all of us. Perhaps a loved one is struggling with resentment. Perhaps you can accompany this person.
Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode
Episode 105 of the IIC podcast, titled How You Hide from Your Anger at God, explores:
1) How your anger at God is far more common and intense that you realize;
2) Why you need to work through your anger at God;
3) Your hidden reasons for your anger at God;
4) Why your anger at God is so frequently banished to your unconscious;
5) Sixteen defense mechanisms that drive your anger at God outside of your awareness;
6) How your anger at God is so often overpowered by your fear of God; and
7) The signs and symptoms of your unacknowledged anger at God.
Check that episode out on whichever platform you get your podcasts or on the Interior Integration for Catholic landing page. Also, I promised my listeners a PDF of my 16 pages of show notes and you can download that outline by clicking this link.
Be With the Word for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Join Dr. Gerry and me for our podcast Be With the Word for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time. We reflect on the Mass readings through a psychological lens, grounded firmly in a Catholic understanding of human formation. In the 34-minute episode titled How My History with Authority Figures Affects My Relationship with God, Dr. Gerry invites you to notice when you have a human judgment and what is your immediate reaction. Pause and just notice it. You can stop there, or you can further reflect on it. Try to move from human judgment to a spirit of love, stillness, and recollection.
I invite you to write down issues you have with authority. By writing them down, you may better be able to understand why you have trouble in your relationship with God.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,
P.S.: Don’t forget you can get in touch with me during conversation hours, every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM EST on my cell phone: 317.567.9594, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to touch base about the podcast or these weekly reflections.