62. The Apology

62. The Apology

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

The Apology

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.

~Les Brown

I moved to the Phoenix area in my early twenties, and to expand my social life I joined a young adult group at my church. At every gathering I met new friends who helped me to feel more accepted and at home. Because I love music, I started singing in the choir, where I met Lisa. We were about the same age, both a little on the geeky/nerdy side. No matter, our voices blended well together, and soon we began composing songs. Finding people with similar interests helped ease my feelings of loneliness after moving to a new city.

“Are you going to go on the retreat?” Lisa asked. Once or twice a year, the young adult group put on a retreat.

I hesitated. I had little experience with retreats and I still felt like an outsider.

“Come on,” Lisa said. “Everyone goes.”

“Okay.” I reluctantly agreed. After all, some cute guys were in the group. Perhaps I would have an opportunity to get to know one of them better.

As the retreat weekend approached, I learned that the theme was forgiveness. My experience with forgiveness could pretty much be summed up with a heartfelt “I’m sorry!” when I bump someone in the grocery store, or a reluctant non-apologetic “Sorry.” This forced apology I learned around the age of four. I hadn’t grown much since then.

In my twenties, the world revolved around me and what I wanted. What I feared. What I dreamed. What I hated. I liked being around other people. And, as most people do, I learned how to be pleasant enough without giving in and having to apologize any more than necessary. In short, the forgiveness theme made me uncomfortable. I would attend the retreat, but I planned to sit quietly in the background and watch.

The retreat was held at a camp in Prescott, Arizona, a gloriously wooded paradise that emanated peace and solitude. The first night we gathered in the common room where we also ate our meals. According to plan, I found a spot in the back where I could watch, unobserved. Lisa sat at the front, ending up across from me as we were in a rather disjointed circle. I finger-waved at her, but pretended not to see when she indicated I should sit by her.

The leader, a deacon at our church, got up and spoke about the healing power of forgiveness. His words were motivating and touching.

“Now comes the hard part,” he said. “I want to invite you to look into your hearts and if you feel moved to do so, go to a person here in the room and ask to be forgiven for something you’ve done.”

Initially, there was total silence.

Was he kidding?

Who was going to publicly acknowledge that they’d screwed up?

Everyone got busy. Picking their nails. Tying their shoes. Evading the glances of others.

Then Lisa stood up.

We all watched, secretly glad someone else was going first in front of forty witnesses. I was impressed.

My admiration turned to embarrassment, however, as Lisa made her way through the crowd toward me.

Lisa planted her feet firmly in front of me.

I looked down. I couldn’t meet her eye.

“Kathleen, I’d like to ask your forgiveness.”

I shook my head. Then nodded, not sure how to respond. I felt the heat rise into my cheeks. I could hardly breathe knowing that everyone could hear and see all this. I had no idea what I was forgiving her for.

I wanted her to just go away.

“I have been jealous of you and how easily you joined our group. Even though you became my friend when we worked on music together, I still thought you were doing it for yourself. I’ve held that against you and I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I choked out. Stunned, I stood up, gave her an awkward hug and then sat back down. Lisa turned and went back to her seat.

Applause broke out and the tension in the room evaporated. All except mine.

Lisa’s bravery broke the ice and everyone started to ask forgiveness for various injuries, some big, some small. Echoes of “I’m sorry,” and “please forgive me,” laughter, and tears floated around as I sat in a fog of incomprehension.

What had just happened?

I mentally reviewed experiences I’d had with the group. Lisa was usually there, and she laughed and joked with the group. But there was a difference. More reserved than I, Lisa always joined the periphery of the group. I hadn’t notice her loneliness.

But why had she asked my forgiveness?

I was the one who had neglected to see the situation through anyone’s eyes but my own. I was the one who hadn’t once thought about what it must be like to be the shy one, the one left out. It had never occurred to me she had a different experience than I did.

Then it hit me.

She needed to ask my forgiveness in order to forgive herself for holding something against me I hadn’t even intended. My lack of empathy and compassion had created a dissonance between us.

The world began to change for me. I learned empathy the day that Lisa asked my forgiveness. I had read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee several times. But I realized that I had never understood the message Atticus Finch taught his children: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”

Soon the weekend was over, and my life gained momentum. I wish I could say I had instant empathy. My journey, however, was longer. At first I avoided Lisa because I felt so uncomfortable with the knowledge that I’d hurt her enough that she needed to apologize in order to feel better. How messed up is that? After an uncomfortable apology on my part we reconnected, but our friendship was never the same.

I met and married a man from the group and we moved away from Phoenix. I lost touch with Lisa after I moved, but her actions and words stuck with me. Life’s funny in how many chances it gives you to learn a lesson. Each time I found myself unable to sleep, or found myself alone and angry because I couldn’t let go of a perceived injury, I would remember.

Lisa’s bravery became my salvation.

Through the years my friendships were better, stronger, deeper. I learned compassion and empathy. I apologized and forgave quickly. I watched carefully, ensuring that I never overlooked someone in the same way again.

Lisa allowed me the gift of friendship because her example taught me to forgive.

~Kathleen Birmingham

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