I’ve been teaching a lot of memoir writing recently, which is always a lively mix of craft and therapy. The memoirist usually begins believing she will tell her story; in fact, her actual work is to learn to retell her story. Inevitably, she comes to learn that the old story she had told herself filled with villains and victims, with bad things and good things, simply will not do. She must learn to see her life differently in order to tell a story about it that will be both interesting and of use to other people.
This new perception nearly always includes forgiveness. I don’t know anyone who has not at some point in their life felt wronged. The absent parent, the abusive boyfriend, the schoolyard bully. Such characters seem to wield enormous power—the power of cruelty—a power so great we are forced to condemn them in our imagination to the prison of villainy. In real life, they won: they beat us, or ignored us, or mocked us; but in our imagination we arise victorious, for we are virtuous and they are forever evil. To forgive them would be set them free and lose all the power we claimed by their imprisonment.
Yet forgive we must, because it is not their freedom that is at stake but ours. A world full of villains, of broken men and women bent on cruelty for cruelty’s sake, is an unsafe world. Yet the act of forgiveness is not to decide not to hate cruel people, but rather to learn to perceive those people we called cruel as like ourselves. Or in other words, forgiveness is the act of learning to see people as they actually are, not as what they have done.
Once it became clear that Sawyer was going to need some kind of special attention, I had to begin my forgiving. First, I had to forgive life itself. It is easy enough for me to call life unfair, to see it as a cruel engine of chance doing this and that to me for no reason. This was not a life with which I was interested in living, and so I had to forgive to see life as it was.
Next, I had to forgive Sawyer. I was constantly forgiving Sawyer. When we say a child is “on the spectrum” we are always talking about behavior, or what he is doing. If I only looked at what he was doing, Sawyer could turn into my enemy, an inscrutable child whose actions left me feeling like a powerless failure. Day after day after day I taught myself to focus the lens of my perception past the flurry his behavior to the stillness of his self. I am still teaching myself to do this.
Finally, I had to forgive myself. I had to forgive myself for ever hating him, for ever wanting him to just act like everyone else, for ever not knowing what to do. I say finally, but all the forgiveness in the world is useless without this foundational forgiveness. If I am wrong, if I am broken, then the world and all its inhabitants are wrong and broken as well. I am the prisoner and the warden, locking myself up and setting myself free as the lens of my imagination turns.
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I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.