I have carried an old handcuff key on my key ring for years. The story behind it is too long to tell here. I carry it as a reminder of a scene you used to see in the movies. There would be two men on a train, wearing suits and hats. The camera would focus in on their hands, and you could see they were handcuffed together. One was a policeman and the other a criminal in transit. Of course, you knew the guy in the aisle seat was the policeman. When they got to their destination, the policeman would remove the cuffs and go his way, while the other went to jail. But as long as they remained cuffed together, each was in a very real sense the prisoner of the other.
I think that scene is a kind of parable of forgiveness. As long as I refuse to forgive, I am in voluntary bondage to the person I will not forgive. I've known a lot of people who carry grudges, who refuse to forgive until the offending party offers the appropriate apology, or whatever is required to "earn" or "deserve" forgiveness. It seems to me they are generally an unhappy lot. It strikes me as a bit like refusing to come in out of the rain until the person who broke my umbrella gets me a new one.
I can't think of any reason to refuse forgiveness but the thought that somehow, someday I can get some kind of vengeance or justice, that the person will be sorry for what he did to me, and I will turn out to be "right." I realize there are behaviors which really hurt people. We have probably all felt the rage, the desire for vengeance because of some betrayal or cruelty, or some horrible crime we see on the news. Some hurts overwhelm our coping mechanisms. We need time to deal with those. Those things leave scars, and painful memories. And yes, they retain power to trigger anger. Yet sooner or later, we have to let it go. To move on, we have to stop obsessing over a debt that will not be paid.
But in my experience, most retained anger and grudges are over small stuff, made larger by our refusal to forgive. Those things can fester deep within us, with no hope of real healing until we let them go.
Most of us have known people who have harbored resentment over something that happened years ago. It seems that hanging onto those things coarsens the person who hangs onto them. The anger and unwillingness to forgive find their way into other relationships. There is an aura of warning, of "don't mess with me!" that fosters cautious relationships. Family and friends are tacitly put on notice that peace and approval are contingent on proper treatment.
I don't see myself as an expert on forgiveness. Most of the time, I don't hold on to anger, and just let it go with not much effort. But now and then, something gets under my skin, and just sits there for a while. I don't like that feeling. It feels as if I've given someone or something the power to decide what I will feel and what I will think about. It feels like a denial of who I want to be.
Sometimes we hurt other people. Sometimes other people hurt us. It's called life. On this Valentine's Day, as we remember the people we love, I think it's also a good time to ask and offer forgiveness. Love always gets nervous unless forgiveness is part of the equation. Life and love are more fun when seasoned with forgiveness.
JIM DINSMORE lives in Tehachapi. His column, "The Human Scene" appears regularly in the Tehachapi News.