84. Forged by Fire

84. Forged by Fire

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Forged by Fire

In order to hold on to thoughts of anger, bitterness, revenge, guilt, and shame, we have to use a lot of energy.

~Edwene Gaines

House fires happen for many reasons. Faulty wiring. A candle left unattended. A cooking accident. But the fire that damaged our home had a different and terrifying reason.

We woke to the ear-splitting scream of smoke detectors at 1:00 a.m. Flames danced across the carpet, throwing thick black smoke. I grabbed the dog while my husband and our children ran outside to wait for the fire department. We watched helplessly as the blaze grew brighter.

The next day we surveyed the damage. Two rooms in our modest home were charred while the rest of the house sustained heavy smoke damage. Heat made drywall nails bulge from the walls. I thought the experience of watching our house burn couldn’t get worse, but I was wrong. The fire marshal told us the fire started when someone cut my daughter’s bedroom screen, broke the window, and tossed a Molotov cocktail inside. Given the late night attack, it was evident someone intended not only to damage our home, but to hurt or even kill us.

Almost immediately, investigators operated on the theory that a disgruntled youth was to blame for the fire because of my job as a juvenile probation officer. The thought of being targeted terrified me and I anxiously awaited word on who could have done it. Although the police interviewed dozens of people, no leads panned out. When a detective told me there wasn’t anything more they could do, I couldn’t believe it.

Our family stayed in a rental apartment while the restoration company worked to put our home back together. I spent half my time replacing possessions and the other half worrying about what might happen next. Since I had no answers, I tried to calm myself by making up my own. I formed an image of the perpetrator as a dangerous but transient stranger. I told myself he’d surely have left town by now, and that he knew better than to ever return.

More than three months later, we moved back into our completely restored home. The scent of new paint made it seem brand new, but that didn’t remove the old memories and fear. At bedtime my eyes stayed wide open. Every time a car drove down the street I ran to the window and peeked out. We decided to put security lights all around the house and I left the porch light on every night.

It’s impossible to maintain a high level of anxiety forever. When no new calamity occurred, my fear subsided but unfortunately it was replaced by something else—rage. I dreamt about someone trying to set our house on fire again, but this time setting himself ablaze. I didn’t try to save him. I fantasized about the perpetrator being caught and me testifying against him in court. I demanded the judge make him suffer the way we had suffered.

Macabre fantasies colored each of my days, but the hues were dark and disjointed. They seeped into nearly every thought I had. My feelings scared me almost as much as the fire. Then on a beautiful Sunday morning, our minister preached a sermon on forgiveness. I fidgeted while he spoke about bearing no malice until two sentences made me sit stock-still.

“It’s possible forgiveness could prompt a wrongdoer to turn over a new leaf. But the person you really change when you forgive someone is yourself.”

I chewed my lip. I knew how much my anger festered, but hadn’t a clue how I could forgive a nameless, faceless person. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to try. There had to be another option. I thought about therapy. I considered hypnosis. I wondered if I could simply banish my anger through sheer force of will. But nothing made sense until I remembered how holding a pen in my hand and putting my thoughts on paper helped unburden me when I had a problem. That’s when a light bulb went off. I decided to write a letter to the person who firebombed our house.

I wrote about the destruction of both irreplaceable family photographs and my husband’s high school ring. I described my daughter’s tears, my son’s wary expression, and the nightmares that haunted me. I poured out every detail of how the fire impacted our family. When I had no words left, I put down the pen and took a deep breath. My shoulders felt lighter than they had in months.

I put aside the letter for one week. Then I picked it up and read what I’d written. It surprised me to notice how many questions filled the pages. Why did you do it? What did you hope to accomplish? Do you regret what you did? I sighed, knowing the answers would never come. Then my eyes widened. It really didn’t matter who set the fire, what we lost, or how it damaged our home. What did matter was how I let a paralyzing event take ragged bites from my soul. I knew what I had to do and smoothed the letter to add a postscript.

“Since the night of the fire, all my thoughts were entwined with what you did. I felt helpless and angry. I wanted revenge. People often strike out at others when they’re hurting. I wonder if you felt damaged and broken on the night you came to my house with hate in your heart. Though the fire didn’t destroy me, it did change me. I’ve been forged into a stronger and more resilient person. I’ve learned to find peace. Although I’ll never understand what drove you to such a reckless act, I want you to know I forgive you. I hope you’ve been able to heal and find peace, too.”

Nothing can change what happened to our family on that dark and frightening night. But by choosing to forgive, I’ve been able to relinquish the role of victim. I don’t dwell on the fire anymore. The past has no power over the present now that I’ve finally let it go.

~Pat Wahler

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