Examining Ourselves

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

I have a friend who refused to speak to her son for several years. It wasn't until he became seriously ill that the two finally reconciled. I know a woman who died without ever knowing her grandchildren because years before she had done something to offend her son. He retaliated by forbidding her any contact with her grandchildren. All of us know couples who prefer to blame each other than admit their part in a divorce. And who hasn't seen children locked in sibling rivalry, each giving back as good as they get? Year after year the insults pile up until they form a great big mountain of hurt that can never be scaled or conquered.

But by the grace of God they can be conquered. The first step is the hardest, because it involves telling the truth to the people who least want to hear it--ourselves. We have to be willing to be ruthlessly honest about our part in the conflict, determined to take the "plank" out of our own eye before trying to withdraw the "speck" from our neighbor's. Even if our share of the blame is miniscule, it still needs to be acknowledged and examined. Why? Because the truth we discover is precious. It has the potential to reshape our memories in a way that can lead to peace. As Miroslav Volf, author of The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, points out, "Only truthful memories give access to the event with which peace needs to be made."

Certainly there are cases in which people are entirely innocent--the child who is abused, the woman who's been mugged, the man who is hit by a drunk driver. But when it comes to many of our most hurtful memories, the picture may be more mixed. Here's an example from daily life. Say that my children tend to do things they know they shouldn't and that they repeat these infractions over and over (they do). Say that I tend to fly off the handle (I do). Say that they react to my anger by getting angry themselves (they do). Over and over the offenses swing back and forth. I get upset and my children get upset. If I never calm down and admit my part in what has happened, it will be difficult for my children to admit theirs. Each of us needs to build on the truth of what we have done in order to resolve the issue and restore peace in our family.

Now imagine a family in which these truths are never acknowledged. The arguments build up for years on end with no one ever taking responsibility. Such a family will rarely know peace because each person will blame someone else in the family. Forgetting their own offense, they will remember only what others have done to them. Such memories, built on half truths, are evil confections that will ruin our emotional and spiritual health if we continue to indulge them.

Recently, as I was mulling over this challenge to remember rightly by remembering truthfully, I asked God if there were memories I needed to revisit. (I didn't think there were, so it was easy to ask.) One night, while I was drifting off to sleep, I began thinking about an old friend. Maggie and I had worked together during the early years of my career. At one time we had even shared an apartment. But living in close proximity did nothing to enhance our friendship. For reasons I cannot now remember, I began to feel annoyed whenever I was around her. Though I tried to hide my feelings, I often became irritable. One day, out of blue, Maggie yelled at me, telling me in no uncertain terms how rotten I'd been to her. Then she demanded I leave, immediately. I hadn't realized how hurt she felt because we had never once discussed it. If she had come to me earlier, we might have resolved the issue. But now her anger was explosive. I was shocked. I'd never had anyone talk to me the way she did that day. Certain her offense was way out of proportion to my own, I couldn't wait to leave.

Since then, we've kept in touch off and on over the years. Though we've maintained a veneer of friendship, I've brushed off most of her attempts to get together. As I lay in bed that night, thinking about Maggie, I realized that I had never taken responsibility for my part of the conflict. I had been rude, judgmental, and insensitive, and though I had quickly apologized when confronted with my behavior, I had never sincerely asked her forgiveness for the way I had treated her. That night, as I focused on my offenses, asking God to forgive me, I felt something release inside me. A knot was untied and my resentment dissolved. The next day, I contacted Maggie to see if we could share a meal together.

A few days later we shared a pleasant lunch. Maggie told me about difficulties in her early life that helped me understand where some of her rough edges had come from. When I asked her forgiveness for how I had treated her so many years ago, she seemed completely surprised, unable to remember the fact that there had ever been tensions. (Apparently there are advantages to waiting more than 30 years to say you're sorry.) For my part, I left the restaurant that day with a greater openness to continuing our friendship, freed from the resentment I had felt for so many years.


Originally published July 14, 2020.