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If you live long enough, chances are you'll be hurt by someone you counted on to be your friend. If you're like me, you may let that hurt fester and grow until it stifles your joy. When that happens, you have entered the first stage of forgiving.
I'm talking about the kind of hurts that smart and rankle within us, the kind we cannot digest as if they were only so much fiber in our interpersonal diet. Our wounds may look superficial to others, but we know better; after all, we're the ones who feel them.
I'd like to tell you a little story about a hurt I felt once, to illustrate how something that may look insignificant to outsiders can push you into the crisis of forgiveness.
It's important, to begin with, to say that I come from a long line of village blacksmiths. In fact, our family name, Smedes, is an old Dutch word for smith. From the time people first took on surnames, every male child in our family grew up to earn his living pounding on an anvil, and it was a source of family pride to be a smith worthy of the vocation.
Now on to the story. I graduated, without distinction, from Muskegon Senior High School one June Friday night. The next day I rode a Greyhound bus to Detroit, where I began work in the yards of the Smedes Iron Works, a family-run shop that my Uncle Klass built up out of a smithy he operated in a garage in his early immigrant days. Because I had neither money nor promising credentials for higher education, I was glad to accept Uncle Klass's offer to get my start in the steel business.
I was put to work out in the yard, rolling steel beams into neat stacks, cutting them withan acetylene torch into the sizes that building contractors ordered and painting them with a blend of gasoline and pitch to keep them from rusting too fast. I never did get to use the forge at which ornate forms were pounded and twisted out of red hot steel bars, the only genuine smithing still done at Smedes Iron Works.
To be honest, I was a sorry excuse for either a smith or a steelworker. I was too tall, too thin, too dreamy for any of the jobs that called for the blend of strength and talent it took to work with steel. No luster was added to the name of Smedes during my stint at the Iron Works.
My cousin Hank was different; he was born to the forge. His wrists were powerful, his hands were obedient to his mind, and he could see an artful form of steel in his mind's eye before he even put his hands to the hammer.
Hank sometimes took me along to construction sites, where we would install a gate or a fancy railing that he had crafted at the shop. He taught me how to chisel square holes into a concrete floor and set the gateposts in, pouring molten lead into the space left over. He occasionally took me into his confidence, telling me delicious family secrets about Uncle Klass and dirty jokes such as I had never heard before.
Gradually, Hank made me feel as if I were truly his friend.
But he seemed to have a dual personality. One side of him was friendly and fun; the other side was devious and cruel.
When he and I were alone, he showed me his friendly side. I accepted that part of him; it was certainly the only part that I needed.
But whenever somebody else came along while we were working -- a building inspector, for instance-Hank showed me his mean side. He turned on me, and always within earshot of the man who was watching us.
"Hey, Lew, get your skinny butt, over here and do this job right for a change."
"This jackass they foisted on me as a helper doesn't know the difference between a hammer and a curling iron, but he's the boss's nephew so I have to put up with him."
"Lew, you ain't worth nothin' around here-you just better know that."
This is how Hank would talk to me, and about me, in front of the men we both wanted badly to impress as competent workmen.
He would set me up by getting me to believe that I was his friend; then he would humiliate me. I was a pushover, because at that time I needed a friend more than I needed anything else. So when Hank would show me his friendly side on our way home even, if he had made me feel like a fool that very day -- I would fall for it, only to catch his scorn again the next day.
I hated Hank a lot, I suppose, and for a good while, too. And why shouldn't I have hated him? It hurts to be taken in as a friend and then treated like a stray dog. I knew in my heart that, even though I had set myself up as a sucker for the hurt Hank gave me, I didn't have it coming.
My hurt brought me into the first stage of forgiving-the critical stage at which I had to make a simple decision: Did I want to be healed, or did I want to go on suffering from an unfair hurt lodged in my memory?
We are always, all of us, pushed into this crucial stage when we feel that somebody has hurt us deeply. Will we let our pain hang on to our hearts where it will eat away our joy? Or will we use the miracle of forgiving to heal the hurt we didn't deserve?
Of course, we suffer a lot of superficial pains that nobody really needs to be forgiven for-mere indignities that we simply have to bear with a measure of grace.
We need to sort out our hurts and learn the difference between those that call for the miracle of forgiveness and those that can be borne with a sense of humor. If we lump all our hurts together and prescribe forgiveness for all of them, we turn the art of forgiving into something cheap and commonplace. Like good wine, forgiving must be preserved for the right occasion...