I used to be a serial over-packer. I wanted to be prepared for anything, so even though I had been to camp every summer for eleven years and had never needed or used my water shoes, dangit, I would pack those stupid water shoes. I always packed extra outfits just in case I wanted options - even if just for a weekend trip. I’d often bring an extra toothbrush and extra contact lenses and a book just in case I felt like reading. I’d toss things into my suitcase and say, "just in case".
Sometime during college, when taking the Amtrak train home to Michigan had become so routine, I decided to whittle my suitcase down to the necessities. I was going home to a house with laundry machines and toiletries and mom’s cooking, so there wasn’t much that I really needed to bring with me. I could trust that most of what I needed would be provided. The first time I got off the train with just a small backpack, my mom asked, “That’s it? That’s all you brought?” I smiled and proudly showed off my little carry-on, saying, “Yep. I have everything I need.”
Overpacking had become too heavy, and once I had experienced the freedom of packing light, I never went back.
But in the past few months, I realized that I had started emotionally over-packing. I carried my burdens with me like stuffed suitcases, full of hurt and pain and baggage that I didn't want to deal with, but couldn't seem to let go. There was one particularly traumatic event last winter, and I was convinced that I would carry that burden for the rest of my life. For seven months, it severely impacted my relationships, my well-being, and virtually every aspect of my life. I had resolved to carry this around like a giant, heavy, unwieldy suitcase.
And then, a month ago, I found myself sitting across a table from that person who had hurt me more severely than anything. And, to my bemusement, I was completely and totally fine.
One day I had just decided that I didn’t want to carry it anymore. I didn’t want to wonder what had happened to him since then, or feel like I was to blame if he wasn’t doing well. I didn’t want to carry the bitterness in my heart, the anxiety in my chest from wondering if he hated me and trying to figure out whether or not I hated him, or the heaviness of seven months of silence after the devastating and extreme fallout. I didn’t want to carry it for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to carry it another day.
So I prayed over it. I prayed for healing, understanding, and resolve. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to see things from a new perspective. I thought about the times where I had hurt people, and I realized that every single time, it had been because I myself was hurting. Other people were sometimes collateral damage in my self-destruction. I knew that I would never intentionally have hurt anyone I cared for, and I wondered if the same could be said for him. Suddenly I recalled times where he had told me about the pain that he was feeling, and I wondered if what he did to me was because he couldn’t see clearly when he was in a terribly dark place that he never wanted to be in.
This isn’t to condone it. This isn’t to excuse it. But once I began to see the situation with empathy and understanding for the person who had hurt me, an incredible sensation occurred - I started to feel the pain lessening. After a few days, the bitterness and anger and hurt were nearly gone. And I realized that I had kind of accidentally forgiven a person that I could have sworn I would never be able to forgive.
And suddenly, I knew that I could forgive anything.
What a powerful truth.
Forgiveness has always been a tough subject for me. There are some grudges I’ve held for years against people I haven’t spoken to since. I’ve often prayed that God would just soften my heart and bring me forgiveness. It felt like something I tried so hard to find, and couldn’t find it.
This past fall at a women’s conference at church, I found myself ugly-crying while the pastor prayed over those of us feeling pain. It started with her saying, “I need to pray for healing over the women in this room with physical illnesses. Those of you who need a medical breakthrough….” I shrugged it off, thanking God for my physical health and thinking, phew, I’m safe! This isn’t about me!
And then she said, “Now I’d like to speak over those of you feeling emotional pain. Maybe from a conflict, from trauma, from assault.” That word- assault. The word. I broke down, knowing that this was, in fact, for me. She spoke beautiful words, validating the pain and giving us hope for healing. But then she said, “And now, girls, we’re going to move forward into forgiveness together. Come on. Let go. Forgive.”
I opened my eyes and shook my head. I can’t, I thought. I can’t. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach the point of forgiveness for this.
But here it was. It was like forgiveness was a beautiful view hidden over the edge of a cliff, and I'd stumbled upon it because I had just decided to see what was over there and climb on up. I found forgiveness because I made the choice to see things from a different perspective. That perspective led to understanding. That understanding led to forgiveness.
Traveling light is the best way to get to faraway places that seem out of your reach. We can go a lot further if we get rid of the extra baggage that weighs us down. We can climb the cliff just because we're curious what's over there, and we don't have to hesitate, looking down and wondering how we're going to get all these suitcases up there, too.
So I sent a text message. I told him I forgave him and wished him well. I expressed that I felt a terrible heaviness about the way things had unfolded, and that even though I still feel that what he did was serious and wrong, I didn’t condemn him for it and I prayed that he was able to grow from it, too. (This isn’t word-for-word, and my words to him certainly flowed better and were more eloquent).
As far as I knew, he was across the country. And as far as I knew, I’d never get a response. But a few hours later, I did. It turns out that he was visiting Chicago and my text message happened to come at a perfect time. He asked me if I wanted to meet for coffee. To my surprise, I did.
I knew that our meeting up would shock a lot of people – and believe me, it shocked me, too. I’m sure it raised a lot of questions and a lot of eyebrows. But frankly, I don’t care if you don't understand it. I don't mean that in a sassy way, like I don't care what you think, I just mean that I get it. I wouldn't understand it, either, if I didn't experience it. I'm pretty content with calling it a miracle, but this miracle just required my own change of heart. After months of carrying heavy luggage that no longer served me, I set it down, and the freedom I feel has given me acceptance, closure, and peace.
It all started with the words, "I forgive you".
And do you know what? He never actually apologized.
Perhaps the most powerful lesson that I learned about forgiveness that day was that it wasn’t for him. It was for me.
God's forgiveness has never really depended on whether or not we deserve it. That's the whole point of the Gospel - none of us deserve Christ's ultimate sacrifice, His unending grace, His continual forgiveness, or His gift of eternal life. And yet He gave it all. Calling myself a Christian means that I do my best to follow Christ's lead. So why should my forgiveness depend on whether or not someone deserves it?
It turns out that the healing power of granting forgiveness was always within my reach.
That felt so good that I began to reach out to a long list of people, some of whom I needed to forgive, and many to whom I owed apologies. Often it seemed to go both ways. Only in some cases has there been reconciliation. But regardless of the outcome, I’ve managed to empty my over-packed suitcases.
The beginning of 2017 feels like stepping off a train with just a small backpack of the few things I need to carry with me. I am packing light, able to move freely and go further now.
That's it? What about all the things I carried?
I let them go, and I have everything I need. The rest, I trust, God will provide – He always does.