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How Do I Teach Forgiveness When I'm Still Learning?

My daughter was crying because her little brother scribbled all over her painting. I held her and told her a story about my brother, who once stomped in a sandcastle I had spent all day creating. Her eyes were wide, "He did? That's so naughty. Did he get time out?"

"No," I told her, "he didn't get time out." The truth is, my parents laughed. I was crushed, and I hated him for weeks because of it.

"Do you still love him?" She asked.

"Yes, I forgave him."

"What does that mean?"

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In my life I've experienced so many betrayals and losses, wounds inflicted intentionally or carelessly. But when I think about forgiveness, I think about the man who took my two sisters. They are alive, but he changed them forever with his words, his hands and his manipulations. I lost two sisters when he came into my family. I lost my sense of safety when I saw my family work to justify and cover up his actions. I lost my faith when it was all done in the name of God. I lost any sense of justice when charges were filed, but allowed to expire.

I remember being lectured by my parents to forgive, but how could I? I barely knew the depths of my grief.

I told them I would forgive, when I knew what forgiveness meant. It's been 15 years and I still don't understand forgiveness, but I know what it isn't. I know it's not forgetting, I know it's not denying my grief or rage. I also know it doesn't mean that I have to act as if nothing ever happened. Forgiveness is not silence. Forgiveness is not a denial of justice. Forgiveness is not owed anyone. Forgiveness isn't deserved. It is not clemency. It is not absolution. Forgiveness is not closeness. Forgiveness is not trust.

I want my children to have the ability to say that forgiveness isn't for the perpetrator, forgiveness is freedom for the victim.

What does it mean to forgive?

Whenever tragedy strikes in our nation, there is a call for forgiveness. After Ferguson, after Baltimore, and now the shooting of nine black people at a church in Charleston—forgiveness is fetishized. It's bandied about like some sort of snake oil for a wound that festers still.

Forgiveness is also handled unevenly—women and people of color are lauded for their ability to forgive. Forgiveness is even demanded from them as if it were something we owe one another. I recall voices crying out for forgiveness in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing protests. But I don't recall any command or cry for forgiveness after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and definitely not after the Boston Marathon bombings.

What does it mean to forgive?

It was my daughter's simple question in response to a simple hurt. How do I help her understand her brother? How do I help her find empathy and a path to compassion? How do I do those things without denying her pain, her hurt and what she needs to heal?

How can I tell her this when forgiveness as a cultural concept is so loaded with our biases and used as a tool of silence rather and the means of freedom that it ought to be?

How can I tell her all of this when, 15 years later, I am still waking up every morning and learning what it means to forgive? That every day forgiveness looks different—some days it's anger, some days it's tears, some days it's the sweat that pools on my back during the nightmares I have, and some days it's peace.

Teaching my children this lesson is important to me, because I have spent the last 15 years unlearning everything I've ever been told about forgiveness.

It's such a little moment—a ruined picture and hurt feelings—but I know this is where the patterns begin. My children will face betrayals and losses perhaps far worse than I have ever known. And voices will demand that they forgive. I want my children to have the ability to say that forgiveness isn't for the perpetrator, forgiveness is freedom for the victim.

Forgiveness is a daily acceptance of the loss and a desire for something better. Sometimes it means walking away and not coming back. Sometimes it doesn't mean that. I don't know what forgiveness always looks like; because the measure and breadth of our pain is so varied, I don't know what it will take for one person to find freedom. All I know is what it has taken for me.

How do you tell all of that to a child? I can barely even express it to adults.

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So, I held my daughter, and I told her that forgiving means understanding and while anger itself isn't wrong, that forgiveness means choosing not to live with anger forever.

"Can I be mad now?" She asked.

"Of course," I told her. Mad is fine, but it's not the end of the journey. And forgiveness is a journey. I told her she had a right not to have her creations destroyed. But I also told her that her brother didn't know—that he loves her and wants to be like her, even if that means coloring on the same piece of paper. We will teach him not to hurt, to love better. But for now, if she needs a break, I will let her have one. But when she came down, we would find a way to live together better.

Photo via Twenty20/nikmock

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