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How to Forgive the Most Difficult Person in Your Life (Or Outside of It)

 Sometimes, when considering an individual who has caused me pain, I like to imagine that person as he or she once was: as a child, filled with innocent joy.

sad people reflecting and finding healing while in nature

When Lent begins tomorrow, we will embark on a journey of epic proportions, what Pope Benedict XVI called “a privileged time of interior pilgrimage towards Him Who is the fount of mercy . . . like a long 'retreat' during which we can turn back into ourselves and listen to the voice of God.” It “stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life.” While it is therefore in many ways a quiet, reflective time, “The Battle” from the soundtrack of The Chronicles of Narnia remains softly in the background of the scene. For, it is also a “period of spiritual 'combat' which we must experience alongside Jesus, not with pride and presumption, but using the arms of faith: prayer, listening to the word of God and penance. In this way we will be able to celebrate Easter in truth, ready to renew the promises of our Baptism.”

As we draw nearer to Lent, we may consider any anger in our own hearts that cripples us. In many cases, it may involve this momentous task: forgiving the most difficult person in our lives—or outside of it.

Now, first, I would like to clarify that forgiveness does not mean returning to an abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationship. Nor does it, in any way, excuse wrongdoing. Forgiveness may instead bring peace to our own hearts and allow us to view others with greater love, regardless of whether they are in our lives. To rid ourselves of whatever prevents us from a purer, more giving love towards those around us. 

For most of us, this is a work in progress. Nevertheless, it answers the profound questions that Pope Benedict suggested above: 

Who are we? What path must we take in life?

In this instance, I would like to apply that to two further questions of my own: 

How would we like to define ourselves? And how might we, in turn, view others as a result?

Sometimes, when considering an individual who has caused me pain, I like to imagine that person as he or she once was: as a child, filled with innocent joy. Before any coldness took hold. Before bitterness entered the heart. Before wonder was exchanged for cynicism, love for lack of scruples, kindness for cruelty. It helps remind me that, deep inside, there must still remain some of that child—of the potential to seek goodness and beauty once again—and that I should always be charitable, no matter what that person does to me.

This may be applied to those we know personally, and those we have never met who still manage to impact us. It may include those in our lives now, and those, once trusted, but now far removed. 

Those who broke our hearts. Those who betrayed us. Those who used us. Those who abandoned us. Those who would never abandon us, but wounded us all the same.

Those who hurt us in any way.

When considering this image of a child, I recommend beginning with a prayer to ask for God’s assistance in the endeavor. Similar to how one might visualize the Mysteries of the Rosary when meditating upon them, you may also wish to return in your mind to a place of peace. Perhaps, like me, your place is near the sea. You might imagine the salt air and the sound of the waves lapping gently (or crashing) against the shore, the Greatest Painter illuminating each with an array of color just before dusk. And certainly, if you have the opportunity to go to a Eucharistic adoration chapel, that is a wonderful place to prayerfully reflect on such.

Once you are in the place that makes you feel at peace—whether literally or figuratively—imagine that child dancing along the shore. The child that the person hurting you once was.  And may one day be again.

It may seem unrealistic. Too hard. 

It may hurt. 

But, if I may say so, it also brings beauty.

During this reflection, we may want to call to mind anything that we like about the person that we are attempting to forgive. Or, at least, any potential for goodness that we see. Such a method may likewise be used to develop a greater love in general, whether forgiveness is the specific goal in mind or not.

When it comes to someone we know (or knew) well, we often can refer to a related positive memory. If you cannot draw upon a single example, you may want to stop and reflect further. Could it be that there is still too much bitterness, anger, or sadness to filter, or that you simply don’t know enough about the person? For example, perhaps you came to dislike a public figure based on a news article or two that you read. In that instance, further research may be warranted to find a “good thing” about that person. You might argue that you don’t have time for this, but, if you have time to comment about your dislike of someone on social media, do you have time to research? 😉 We humans can be so contrary at times! It is, nevertheless, important to caution ourselves against a tendency to rush to unfairly label and condemn—in effect, to dehumanize—rather than seek to find some redeeming quality.

Yet, if you truly struggle with finding a positive aspect of the person, simply view him or her as a child of God and, as before, draw upon the image mentioned previously. Let God help you with the rest. Such an experience may occur when our pain overtakes our ability to see as clearly as we might like—in which case, starting here as a first step is already momentous. This method may also prove especially useful in situations where someone appears to have allowed evil to fully consume his or her heart. Those who completely embrace and rejoice in evil should likewise be distinguished from individuals who have many good qualities, but are on a slippery slope due to significant mistakes in some key moral areas; in the latter instance, ‘Find a Good Thing’ research may be deemed especially beneficial. Such an act may also help us grow in humility, for we must make efforts to not confuse the two cases.

As challenging as it may be, that also means that public figures with a direct influence in our lives, such as politicians, are not immune to forgiveness in our hearts. Sometimes this can be very personal, even if we have not met the person. Let’s say that the decisions of a politician made the last few months of your loved one’s life more difficult. You may even wonder if your friend would have lived longer if it had not been for those decisions. It may be difficult to forgive someone you have loved, but, for some, it can be even more difficult to forgive one for whom you have had no love at all. To attempt to create the image of a child in your mind for that person may seem impossible, even preposterous, at first. And yet to hold on to that anger in your heart will only hurt you further and draw you farther away from the identity that you seek. That is, your true identity. And the deepest parts of your potential.

It’s too hard. I know it is—this scenario and that scenario—and I’m sending virtual hugs. It may take time, and we may need to be gentle and forgiving of ourselves as we struggle to reach it. And yet, all the same, it can be done.

Pope Saint John Paul II met with the man who made an attempt on his life. His would-be assassin would later credit the saint for the turn-around in his life.

We know that forgiveness brings more peace in our own hearts as we draw closer to God. But we have no idea how beautifully it may also impact others around us.

Last week, Bishop David O’Connell was murdered in California. He was known for his great love and generosity towards others. While we never met, I believe, from what I read, that he would have chosen the JPII path. To forgive his killer.

We hope that we will never have to forgive in such a horrifying context. And yet the example set by these two incredible men may lead us in any instance, big or small, in our own lives.

Sometimes forgiveness will have to be reinitiated again and again . . . but, little by little, healing may take place.

And that is always worth it.

May we align our suffering with the Cross, from which Our Lord spoke of those who crucified Him, “Father, forgive them . . . 

May we lean on Him and find healing, strength, and understanding.

Have a blessed Lent.             

Gina Marinello-Sweeney

Gina Marinello-Sweeney is the author of The Veritas Chronicles, a contemporary YA trilogy that has been compared to the writing of L.M. Montgomery. The first book in the series, I Thirst, received the 2013 YATR Literary Award for Best Prologue from Young Adult Teen Readers. Gina lives in Southern California with her husband, where she is at work on a fairy tale novel and short story collection. Visit for more information.
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