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Forgive and forget

30 November, 1999

You don’t have to be long in the tooth before forgiveness may become a real and demanding issue in your life. Many young people are confronted with friends or adults who are disloyal to them or who hurt them in other ways. Below are some stories of young people coming to terms with the need to forgive and forget.

Story 1: Betrayal by a friend
It’s a year now since Jo’s then best friend, Susan, went out with Jo’s boyfriend, Darren (the names have been changed to protect the guilty). Jo and Susan were best friends – until Jo found out that Susan had betrayed her. But slowly, Jo found the courage to forgive.

Jo, then 15, had met Darren during the summer holidays when they worked part-time in the same supermarket. “He was my first real boyfriend. I was mad about him, and really thought he liked me.

“My parents really liked him too, and he spent a lot of time in our house. I have brothers the same age and they got on well together. In August, I went away to Spain on a family holiday. I didn’t want to leave Darren, and begged Mum to let me stay at home on my own, but she wouldn’t hear of it. I felt, and still feel, I’m too old for holidays with the family, even though I get on well with them all. Anyway, I went and had a great time. Darren phoned a lot the first week, less the second. I didn’t really suspect anything. I just thought he had problems getting through, or couldn’t afford a new phone card.”

Jo’s friend Susan also knew Darren well as the three of them hung around together a lot. “I knew Susan liked Darren – he was very popular with everyone really – but I didn’t realise she was into him. Actually, she was trying to go out with someone else, and promised to fill me in on progress when I got back.

“I arrived home tanned, looking great, with new clothes, and presents for Darren, Susan and some other mates. I was really excited about seeing all my friends again, and couldn’t wait to see Darren. When I phoned, his Mum said he was out. Afterwards, when I thought about it, she sounded a little odd, as if she was embarrassed, but I suppose I didn’t put anything on it at the time.”

It took a day for Jo to meet up with Darren and she knew immediately he was different. “He was awkward, didn’t stay too long and said he had to work late. He was embarrassed to take the present. I knew something was up. The next day another friend rang and said ‘Look, I think you ought to know what’s been going on’. She told me that Darren and Susan had been all over each other at the disco, and someone else had seen them together near Susan’s house on two nights.

“I was really upset, but I believed it immediately. I wasn’t so shocked about Darren because I had been only going out with him a few months and didn’t know him so well. But Susan and I had been friends since Sixth Class. How could she do that to me? I rang her, and she didn’t deny it. I felt she was waiting on the call. I had been wondering why she hadn’t been in touch with me, so now I understood.

“She said the usual crap, that it just happened, and it didn’t mean anything, but I was finished with both of them. I was really upset, and I remember I had a row with my Mum because she began to say there’s more fish in the sea and all that, which I didn’t want to hear. Anyway, I was more upset by Susan’s betrayal than by Darren’s.

“That happened in August, and we all went back to school three weeks later. Susan and I are in the same school and we are in the same group for some options. I really minded everyone knowing and looking at us as if they expected a fight between us. I didn’t have much to do with her for weeks, even though another friend told me she wanted to be friends. It was difficult avoiding her, and I didn’t want to talk about it or have people taking sides. It was my business, nobody else’s.

“Then we had a retreat and they were talking about forgiveness. The priest said that before we knelt down to pray we needed to make our peace with anyone we were at enmity with. It made me think. A while later, I said ‘hullo’ to Susan, and a few days later we walked home from school together. She wasn’t with Darren any more either. We gradually became friends again, and we laugh about it now. It’s made us talk about trust and about other things we mightn’t have thought too much about.

“I could have become eaten up with anger about Susan and become really cold. After we became friends again, I felt freer. Sometimes, if you don’t forgive, you’re the one who suffers most.”

Story 2: “I have forgiven my father’s killers”
Gavin Power was only 5 years old when his dad was killed in a sectarian murder. Now 19, he has found the courage to forgive.

Gavin Power was 19 in July this year. He has just finished his A-levels, hopes to study biomedicine at Coleraine University, likes hip hop and rap music, has some close friends and a long-standing girlfriend.

Gavin lives in west Belfast. When he was five his father was killed in a sectarian murder, and the death has been the defining incident in Gavin’s life. “When it happened, I felt singled out, isolated, separated from the rest of the world. As a child, to see your mother crying is one of the worst things. You look up to your parents for strength, and if you feel you can’t rely on them, who can you rely on? Our family was in a shambles at that time.

“I had been close to my father. I remember walking with him to the shop and sitting close beside him on the chair at home. I remember him giving me a feeling of security and comfort.”

Gavin’s mother, Bernadette is a Catholic, and their strength at that time came from faithful friends rather than from the extended family. Going back into school was difficult for the little boy. “I felt different. I felt I couldn’t join in with the rest. I was a child, but I was broken. The others were going back to homes where everything was fine. I was not, and I couldn’t deal with it. The fact that life all around me seemed to go on as normal made it worse. My father’s death killed my childhood. I had to grow up before I could grow up.”

At first Gavin gave little thought to his father’s killers, but as the years passed, their unseen presence began to intrude. “As I grew older, I realised what I had lost and how much they had put me through. They were never caught. In Northern Ireland people know they can do these things and get away with it. But even if they had been caught, they still wouldn’t understand the full meaning of what they had done to us, so that didn’t make any difference.

“In adolescence I allied himself with black culture, people like Malcolm X. I identified with the underdog. I liked Bob Marley’s music, and used rap to tell my own story.”

Was he angry? “I have been raised a Catholic Christian. Anger was never bred into me. My main feeling in adolescence was sickness. What happened was so cruel. I was angry with God in the sense that I questioned is this what life is meant to be like? Is this what we’re expected to put up with? We were taught to trust in Him and everything will fall into place, but that was not the case.”

His father’s death deprived Gavin of a male role model and meant he grew up in an all female household. He describes himself as over-sensitive, believes he does not measure up or fit in to a traditional male sphere. “For instance, many people would think it’s manly to get into fights. I would see people fighting, regarding themselves as the hoods, with others looking up to them. I would think maybe their parents don’t care for them, and I would pity them. But people would think you’re soft to think like that. There is positive in it too. I can relate to women, though I feel there is a loss of the male side.”

Gavin Power had a lot to forgive, so it’s not surprising that the road to forgiveness was a long one. “Forgiveness is a choice. A year or two ago I began to realise the burden I was carrying on my shoulders because I could not forgive. There was a weight that wouldn’t go away. I was trapped as a boy, and knew that if I was to get out of this shell, I would have to let go and cut those emotional ties binding me to the past.

“I prayed for the strength to want to forgive. For me this involved knowing the depth of the pain, and letting God take over. For the first time, I began to think about the people who did it in a new way. I wondered what they had been through. Had they been abused as children, for example? I began to think of them in a way I would not have been able to do before.

“The whole process took about a year. I went to Mass every day, I spent time praying. All of a sudden, it seemed to be no longer a problem, and more of an experience.
“Forgiving has really helped. Since I forgave, a weight seems to have been lifted off me. I still have pain. It will always be there, and helps to keep me in tune with all that has happened. It’s hard being so sensitive and I can still get hurt very easily. But I have some very good friends. I now realise that more positive things have come out of it than bad, which you might think is a strange thing to say.

“The good things are that I have had a real introduction to God. He used to be more of a shadowy figure but through my father’s death, I have been forced to meet him. I turned to him when I needed him, I have been able to trust him and I no longer feel guilty and ashamed of myself.

“The older I get, the less I think of my father. The memories start to fade. This hurts in the sense that I have only a few precious memories and have gone over and over them so much that I have them worn out. My father was taken away, but I haven’t lost him. I know he is waiting for me, and we will meet again. When I think of him now, I wonder would he be proud of me and what relationship would we have with each other? I think he would be proud of me. I have turned to God and forgiven.

“Am I happy? I’m working towards it. I’m content. I think happiness is being able to accept the positive in the experience. I think I was tested and came through and it teaches me not to be afraid. Growing up, I used to feel so hurt. I would ask myself ’Am I living or am I dying?’ If you suffer too much, you’re creating your own death, you’re losing your enjoyment in life. These days I know I’m living.”

I Confess …
How would you feel about going on television or radio and confessing your sins to the nation? Maybe on Jerry Springer or Gerry Ryan? Or maybe Jenny Jones or Kilroy? More and more people like to do a public confession thing today – to tell all no matter how embarrassing or sensational their story. But there’s another less dramatic but more meaningful way of admitting our sins and failures – going to the sacrament of confession. Tom Ryan explains why confession still has a lot going for it.

Do you remember your first confession? Preparing for it in school, learning to say the Act of Sorrow, imagining what it would be like to come face-to-face with the priest and have to reveal your list of terrible sins? Can you remember the day itself, the excitement, the curiosity, the trepidation perhaps, and then the relief when it was all over?

Maybe you don’t remember your first confession too well or at all, but you have other memories of confession. Maybe it’s of going along with your parents and family at Christmas or Easter or on a Saturday afternoon, and lining up outside a box for what seemed like ages before it was your turn to face the music. Maybe it’s of gathering with the rest of your class during a school retreat for a communal celebration before a gang of priests. Maybe there is one particular experience that stands out more vividly than all the rest – when you felt closer to God than ever before, and felt overwhelmed by his love and forgiveness, or when the priest said something that helped you and that stuck in your mind. Or maybe it’s a more painful memory.

If your memories of confession are happy ones, then, more than likely, you continue to go, occasionally at least. But if you don’t go regularly anymore, then it might be worth asking yourself why this is so.

Some young people see confession as a total waste of time. It does nothing for them, they say. They don’t see why they should spill their guts to a priest when they can confess directly to God, if they really feel like doing so. Or they may have the attitude that since they seem to confess the same sins all the time anyhow, what is the point in going at all, what difference does it make?

And then there is peer pressure. Many young people don’t go because their friends don’t. To be known as someone who goes to confession might be to risk being seen as some kind of religious nut. Even lots of young people who do go to confession think like that. They don’t admit that they go because they’re afraid of being ridiculed by their friends.

Whether you go to confession or you don’t, maybe you could take some time out to think again about this sacrament and why the church sees it as important. Look at your own attitudes to confession and see how valid or thought-out they really are. Maybe you don’t know enough about the sacrament, maybe you have had a bad experience of it that has turned you right off, maybe it is just laziness that has gotten to you, whatever the reason, perhaps you could make a decision to give the sacrament another shot. If you prepare well, if you know what you’re doing, if you choose an appropriate time and place and even priest, then you’ll find that the Sacrament of Forgiveness, which is what confession is, is a beautiful celebration of God’s love for you, warts and all, that can make a huge difference to your life and the kind of person you are.

The benefits of forgiveness
Forgiving people can help reduce blood pressure and anxiety, according to a new study.

Last year, researchers at the University of Tennessee attempted to measure the effects of forgiveness by studying 107 young people. Students were asked about two occasions in which they felt betrayed. The most common examples mentioned were their parents’ divorce and a boy/girlfriend two-timing or infidelity.

During interviews, researchers measured heart rate, blood pressure, facial tension and sweatiness. Those students who were least ready to forgive in response to a detailed questionnaire showed higher blood pressure rates and more tension than softer-hearted buddies. Women proved to be less forgiving than men, and more likely to hold on to grudges against those they felt had betrayed them.

This article first appeared in Face-Up, a teen magazine produced by the Irish Redemptorists.

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