I sat down with an elder recently, a wise man who has seen a lot of life and who has learned deeply from his experience. The man was one of those folks to whom it was easy to talk. And so I found myself telling him about something that happened to me a while back, about an occasion when someone whom I had admired and liked and trusted had behaved in a way that left me feeling angry and disappointed.
The man listened carefully. And then he uttered something simple and – at least for me – revelatory. He said:
That person hurt you.
I say that his simple statement was revelatory because I have a pretty old story – a story that goes back to my childhood – that goes something like this:
I am unflappable. Harsh words and actions don’t stick to me.
Nothing gets through my armor.
What that wise man reminded me or taught me, what he gently confronted me with that day (assuming that “gentle confrontation” is a category that even makes sense), was that my old story was not 100 percent true. I really am pretty grounded, pretty calm. But I am not immune or impervious to pain. Certain words and actions and inactions, well, my armor doesn’t stop them. They really do hurt.
And then in that moment of clarity, I had a second revelation, a second flash of understanding. Having named that the actions of this person whom I had trusted had hurt me, I realized that I was suddenly a big step closer to forgiving them.
In our culture, we have an often pathological relationship with hurt. We say, “I’m over it.” We say, “I’ve moved on.” We say, “It’s no big deal.” But more often than not, what we really mean is, “I am not talking about this, but I am full of resentment.” Maybe we even mean, “I am seething. I am shaking with unnamed anger.”
There is a reason that in the truth and reconciliation work that Desmond Tutu and his friends pioneered, the work begins with Truth. If we are going to forgive – if we are going to let go of the strands of embitterment that tie us to another person, that use up space in our hearts, that weigh us down – then we need to begin by acknowledging that what the other did or left undone was, indeed, a big deal. That it did indeed hurt.
That is because it is hard – maybe even impossible – to heal an unnamed wound.
If you are at all like me, then maybe there is a hurt in your life that you are called to name. Perhaps you are called to name it to the one who hurt you. Or – if doing so would not be safe or not be kind – then perhaps you are called to name it to yourself and to another person and to God.
After we name the hurt, we may not be ready to forgive right away. Depending on the nature of the hurt, we may not be ready to forgive ever. When that happens, we can say to God: I can’t forgive – at least not yet. I need you to do it for me. In the meantime, I name this hurt before you. And I ask you to help me to put the burden of my anger down.
That is a prayer to which God always says yes.
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. He served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon.