Saturday, February 6, 2010


The Gift of Forgiveness

In recent months, two people I knew all too briefly died. The first was Forrest Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, prolific writer, and my neighbor in the 1970s. He died Sept. 24, the day after his sixty-first birthday.

The second was Vernor Schenck, who died Oct. 16 after learning a little more than a month earlier he had cancer. He was 90. I’d met him last January during an interview after he’d learned the Public Relations Society of America had named its lifetime achievement award after him. During the interview, he said he had written about his life. “It was therapeutic, and it led to a much better relationship with my grown children. I’m happy to say I have a good relationship with all of them today,” he said. He made it clear that was his greatest achievement.

When Schenck walked into the office a couple of months ago, I asked him how he was. “I’ve got cancer,” he said, “and it’s closing in fast.”
I told him I was sorry. “Don’t be,” he said. “I’ve had a great life. I’m 90 years old. I’ve told the doctors I don’t want any treatment. I’ll have hospice, but right now I’m not in any pain.”
I told him he had done the really important things in life, including healing relationships with his children. “That’s right,” he said, smiling.

After Church learned in 2006 that he had esophageal cancer, I heard him speak on public radio a couple of times. We all die in the middle of our story, he said. The important thing, he underscored, was to die without any unfinished business. He meant making amends for past wrongs and extending forgiveness to others.
Church had taken care of a lot of his own unfinished business when he quit drinking in 2001. In his book Bringing God Home, he described how he had neglected his family and even himself because of what he called his affair with alcohol. By taking responsibility for actions and making amends, Church transformed resentments into peace.

I had been divorced many years before I made amends to my ex-husband. For a long time, I stubbornly said I wouldn’t talk about my part in the dissolution of our marriage until he talked about his. Then I realized two things: His part was none of my business, and my continuing refusal to look at my part was poisoning me. Resentment, I’ve heard it said, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.  I wrote a letter to my ex-husband, listing instances I had been self-centered and less than an ideal and supportive mate. To this day, I have no idea if he ever read it or simply put it in the waste basket. It doesn’t matter. I wrote the letter for my own spiritual health, and I felt wonderful after I dropped it in the mail. When I accepted responsibility, I stopped drinking the poison of resentment.

After my father died years ago, I still had some resentment toward him. He hadn’t been a perfect father, but I hadn’t been a perfect daughter either. For years I’d focused on his shortcomings—his temper and his prejudices. I wrote a letter, forgiving him his outbursts and thanking him for exposing me to culture, including plays in New York, and providing my sisters and brother and me with all the books we could want between our house and the library across the street. I apologized for wasting a semester’s worth of private college tuition while I stayed up late in the dorm discussing the war or playing bridge until the wee hours.

Of course, I’ve had plenty of others to make amends to and to forgive. Sometimes I create new resentments. Some resentments take time to reach my consciousness. I’m convinced they do only when I’m ready to see them. I can help the process by going into the silence of prayer and meditation, something I resist too easily. Once I see my part, I can apologize. That’s all I can do. The outcome is never in my hands. I know, though, that if I don’t feel peace afterward, I haven’t wiped the slate clean. It’s a sign I still hold resentments and need to get back to the work of forgiveness or making amends to others. It’s an ongoing process.

These thoughtful, articulate men reminded me by their actions in life the peace that comes from taking care of business. Their deaths emphasize the need to not waste another minute.

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