"For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar lov'd him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty
Have you ever done anything unforgivable? Has anyone done anything against you that you think is forever unforgivable?
Who are our favorite targets of eternal unforgiveness? Perhaps an ex. Parents, of course, are often high on the list. Sometimes political or spiritual leaders who have betrayed our trust. Someone who has committed an act of violence against us or against someone we love. Someone who has hurt our children. Or any children. And, secretly perhaps, ourselves.
If we start our list of those from whom we would withhold forgiveness, we might find that some of those at the top are people we once loved. Maybe we still do. Like Caesar, we are most vulnerable to those to whom we have exposed our tender hearts. From those, we receive the unkindest cuts of all.
Therapists’ couches are populated with legions come to exorcise the demons of childhood, set upon them by well-meaning or sometimes not-so-well-meaning parents, by bullies, by best friends gone bad. At some point, forgiveness will enter the conversation, and become the key to freedom and moving on.
Not long after my mother died, I had a dream about her. In the dream she was standing alone chest deep in a small, shallow pond, fully clothed. She looked confused and disoriented. She tried to move to the side of the pond to get out, but wherever she turned, she couldn’t seem to reach the edge. I was standing nearby. Initially, I felt detached, like a neutral observer, but as I watched, I felt my heart slowly soften, and I was filled with such deep, sad compassion. I wanted to take her in my arms and lift her up out of the water. I wanted to wrap her in warm blankets and stroke her hair and soothe her with lullabies.
When I woke up, I knew that whatever grievances I still harbored had dissolved. I saw her as she was, as we all are, perfect in her imperfection, loving in her own way, battling her own demons as best she could. A lot like me.
At some point in our lives, most of us find ourselves in our own pond of murky water, not sure how we got in there, not seeing how to get out. There are secrets lurking in the water. Draining the pond will give us a way out but will expose what we want to keep hidden. A tough choice.
A memory that still crushes my chest with shame is something that happened when my son, James, was two. At that time, I was living in Abidan, Ivory Coast, and I had traveled with him to Dakar, Senagal, where I was scheduled to participate in a panel discussion. Earlier that day, I had taken a ferry with some friends to do some sightseeing. As we were walking onto the dock to head back, I was horrified to see the ferry casting off. Somehow we had misjudged the time, waiting till the next ferry would cause me to miss the panel. The ferry was still close enough to the dock that people, who like me had apparently thought they had more time, were reaching out and grabbing the rail, and stepping across to board.
Easy enough, but for me to do that, I had to hand my toddler to someone standing at the rail so that my hands were free to get on board myself. I can remember like I am reliving it right now, holding him out across the water while a friend reached out from the boat. I could see that she had him, but still I held on, asking her several times to assure me that she had him. She did. Letting go of him above that dark, oily water was terrifying. She clasped him in her arms while I easily took hold of the rail and jumped on board. I made it in time to the panel, but my mind was still on that dock, that moment of handing him over seared on my soul like a brand.
I’ll tell you I did much worse things than that as a mother. Things I have acknowledged and moved on from. So why is that that scene, even now, decades later, as I dredge it up from the murky depths of my dark pond of secrets to write the words, causes my heart to pound like the tell-tale heart of Poe? In my rational mind, I know James was not in any danger. But in my motherly mind, terrorized by goblins of the night, I have a secret fear that in that moment I was more concerned about being late to speak, about letting people down and the attendant embarrassment, than I was about my child.
True or not, it doesn’t matter. I’ll never know. But how do I forgive myself for that? The unkindest cuts of all, the ones that haunt us, are sometimes ones we inflict upon ourselves.