aim higher: forgive often

Grace is a tricky thing.

 I have a weakness for wild Italian Catholic women who are fiercely loyal to their friends and family. The ones I have known through the years are, at turns, heartbreakingly tender and almost cruel when they feel wounded. I love the way they cuss a blue streak, saying they have had enough as they storm through the house to violently pour a glass of wine. I used to think we offenders had finally crossed THE LINE, and there would soon be no way back. Now I know that as they stomp through the kitchen, cussing like a sailor, they are finding a way to bend and shift, making room to forgive so the relationship can survive. 

These Italians seem to know that humans only come in one variety: the broken kind. Even the most loyal among us eventually betray. We want to be generous, but sometimes selfishness wins. We want to be magnanimous, but holding a grudge sometimes feels justified. All of us make mistakes, and eventually, some of those mistakes hurt the people around us.

Forgiveness is always necessary, often intentional, and present in any lasting relationship.

Knowing this, why is forgiveness hard to muster? If we are certain that our actions will eventually hurt those around us, why is apologizing such a hill to climb? (Maybe because, as Bono sings, “It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain, when you start out the climb.”) In this series in which we explore the gaps between what we know to be true and how we behave at times, it is helpful to think about what relationship actually require of us. 

There is a divide between what we hope from each other and what we receive. There is a gap between what we thought we could allow and what we must endure to love our people. Our lines have to move if we hope to maintain friendships. Relationships require resilient flexibility.

We already know this in select friendships. Consider the notion of “free pass people.” These are the folks who have found their way into my heart and soul without me having placed them in that privileged category. I care deeply about choices people make, and I live by a code that demands I own my own choices and acknowledge how those choices impact others. Logic would say that I have the same standards for my nearest and dearest. I don’t though. My free pass people don’t have to perform. They don’t have to be consistently and thoughtfully congruent. They simply exist, and I instinctively respond to their wins with celebration, and to their failures with grace and understanding.

I am for them. Everytime. Without question.

Hard conversations still happen—motives and actions are explored and thought through—but all of that occurs on a bed of compassion and hope. The beautiful reality is that such challenging conversations are productive BECAUSE they occur in the context of forgiveness and love. Forgiveness comes easy for these folks, as if there is a deep well of grace that simply pours over them before either of us know such an act is required.

One of the sadnesses of my life, a reality that reveals my internal life is wildly incongruent with the person I want to be, is that my free pass people are very few indeed. Sadly, the folks I claim to love but silently judge, measure or withhold affection from are many. When my children fight I remind them that forgiveness is the bedrock of every human relationship. It is a muscle that must be developed if it is not naturally strong. Forgiving others (and forgiving ourselves) allows us to live with hope and to practice living in the present. We know our kids have to learn this, and I think we all might benefit from closing the gap between what we teach them and demonstrate ourselves.

Perhaps the best way to increase our access to fierce and frequent forgiving is to pay attention to our own dependence on grace. I am a mess, so if anyone is gonna stick with me through life, I will have to be one of their free pass folks. Knowing this, the work of my adult life is to expand my own number so that more and more of my community gets my forgiveness, grace and presence before they even ask.

This is a high bar, yes. But we are already meet it abundantly! We just have an incredibly difficult entrance exam before we grant such privileges. We are very good at seeing the good in a person behaving badly if we deeply love them. We can do better. We need to do better.

My favorite Italian in Nashville has for years noticed that I often use the word, grace. The first few times, she cocked her head as confusion flickered across her eyes. Soon after she would ask me why I chose that word in the instance in which I had used it. “Grace” is not a word she hears a lot. But here is the marvelous truth: She issues me grace on the reg. She finds the word awkward, and is never sure why I talk about it so often, and yet it flows out of her instinctively when I need it.

I think this is why I love my Italians. Their sacrifice and support of others is predicated on their commitment to the people they love, not on our worthy behavior. We can learn a lot from this kind of expansive love. Call it grace, or just call it Tuesday, but allow yourself to acknowledge that every single relationship in your life will demand flexibility and an expansion of what is forgivable. Throw a dish, stomp and cuss, and then get over yourself and offer grace to the people around you who need forgiveness. (It might soon be you.)