When I sat down to ice cream for a little overdue one-on-one time with my teenager, I was not expecting to talk about faith, forgiveness, and Holocaust poetry.
My daughter with some kind of Chocoholic’s Blizzard, and myself with a Peanut Butter Bash sundae, we started out talking about her mission trip to Chicago last year, and how on the way back they stopped for ice cream and she tried a Blizzard. She was hooked.
Then she said, “Hey, mom?” (This phrase usually comes right before something I may or may not be able to answer without a doctorate.)
“What do you do when you believe in something…and then you’re not sure if you believe it?”
I contemplated adding one of my pastors to speed dial.
“Can you be a little more specific, kiddo?
“Well…,” she spooned a chunk of brownie from the chocolate ice cream, “how do you forgive someone who’s done something really awful? Like mass murderers. People who have done really terrible things…people who don’t deserve to be in this world.”
Whoa. People who don’t “deserve” to be in this world?
Part of me thought, This child thinks the world is an inherently good place and there are certain people who are damaging it. But “deserve” struck me as harsh coming from someone so young. It would take hours to debate who deserves what and why there are evil people in the world. And good and evil are perceptions. People do awful things because they’re convinced they are right. And people do evil things because they are ill. And others do evil things as an instantaneous reaction. Many shades of gray.
I chose to look past the “deserve” part and get at what she really seemed to be asking: how do you forgive? And what do you do when you believe in forgiveness, but can’t rationalize forgiving someone for something heinous?
Is there a correct answer?
“You can forgive someone because it’s what your heart or faith tells you to do. We’ve learned that we need to forgive someone 70 times 7 times, right?” She nods. “There’s more to it than just forgiving. It helps if the other person seeks forgiveness, and that other person should really want to change or try to do better. Some people are incapable of accepting forgiveness.”
I believe that to be true, but I wasn’t sure I was answering the question. So I went a different route.
“Forgiveness is for you. When you forgive someone for what they’ve done wrong – to you personally – you take back your life. As long as you hold on to the hurt, they will always have control over that part of your life.”
I added, “There’s human forgiveness and divine forgiveness. My take is we should forgive each other in order to heal. And prevenient grace says we’re forgiven by God no matter what…but that doesn’t mean we can just do whatever we want. We need to try to do better, and do the right things.”
She seemed to think about this. I know I was…turning over my own thoughts on faith and forgiveness. I remembered some of Jesus’ final words from the cross: “Father, forgive them. The do not know what they do.” It reminded me that I’ve been forgiven many times – by God and by people I may have wronged. Knowing that I’m forgiven makes me want to try to “do better.” I might not succeed, but I keep trying.
Part of me is glad that my daughter is not one to follow blindly. She questions, and in my mind, that’s not only okay…that’s good.
Then she said, “There was one day in my world studies class, when we were studying the Holocaust and World War II, and our teacher gave us an unfinished poem that was written inside one of the boxcars of a train that took people to the death camps, and she asked us to finish it…”
The poem was actually written after the Holocaust and not literally inside a boxcar. It’s “written in pencil in the sealed railway car” by Dan Pagis – poet, teacher of medieval Hebrew literature, concentration camp survivor.
here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my older son
cain son of adam
tell him that I
Another translation shows the fifth line as “cain the human being”.
My daughter said, “I finished it to say ‘forgive him’.”
tell him that I forgive him
I’d never heard of this poem before, so my almost-16-year-old taught me something.
Forgiveness isn’t easy. I sat across from my daughter, marveling at how important this concept, this philosophy is to her. I know she’s forgiven plenty, including the boys who bullied her in junior high, and the girls who talk about her behind her back.
Part of me longed for an easy conversation about music or shoe shopping. Yet this person across from me, like many of her friends, are the answers we seek. The peacekeepers and peacemakers. Wisdom doesn’t always come with age. Sometimes it just comes from paying attention. The graduating classes of 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015…they have their work cut out for them. But I think they know more and understand better than many of us ever will. I feel obligated to help them succeed.