One of my first memories—one I can relive in my mind, without looking at an old photo or hearing retold by one of my parents—is from around 1986, I’d guess. My family had moved into a new home not long before, and I remember feeling pride, a sense of “this land is my land,” territorial ownership. There were lots of kids in our new neighborhood, and they were always out and about on bicycles and rollerskates and skateboards. We had a driveway that was perfect for rolling down on any of these vehicles, and the other kids knew this too. One afternoon while my mom napped, I remember sitting in the living room and watching through the big window as a bunch of boys on bikes and skateboards repeatedly scooted up our neighbors’ driveway and back down ours. My heart began to pound and I was filled with fury. Were they allowed to just do that? No. That’s my driveway. Private property, I’d heard of that before and knew what it meant.
So, I marched my little 5-year-old self to the front door and flung it open, and in a voice that I’m sure wasn’t remotely threatening, hollered at them with all the authority I could summon, “Get off our property!” and immediately flushed red in the face and shut the door. Take that, you naughty kids. (Did I mention I’ve been a Rules Girl from the time I was small?) I turned around to see my mom standing in the entryway behind me, and just the look on her face told me I shouldn’t have yelled at those kids. I don’t recall her exact words, but she explained it was OK for them to be in our driveway, and they weren’t doing anything wrong.
Oh. I felt deflated and very, very embarrassed. And it seems like such a silly thing, but I never forgot it.
Why, oh why, is that the childhood memory that comes flashing back to me so effortlessly?
There are others I can recall along the same vein, and I can see them so clearly… Cutting my baby sister’s hair with my preschool scissors and throwing the pieces behind the living room couch. Saying “stupid” (or maybe it was “butt” or “shut up” or one of the other words we weren’t allowed to say)—not at anyone in particular, but just because I was curious what would happen if I did—and being sent to my room. In elementary school, playing tricks on an unpopular girl at a slumber party. In middle school, laughing with a group of girls in the lunchroom at the expense of a boy in our class. As a teenager, snooping to read something that didn’t belong to me (and worse, getting caught).
Of course, the little-kid stuff makes for funny stories now. The middle- and high-school sins are a little more painful to recall… And what about all the stuff I’ve done as an adult who knew better? What about that time I screamed at my child in utter frustration or let a bad word slip in front of her? (It wasn’t “butt.”) I remember those things, too. There are a lot of them.
All regrets. All memories that replay clear as day at unexpected times. That feeling in the pit of my stomach… I wish, I wish, I wish I could go back and not do that one thing. Choose silence in that one moment instead of saying something unkind or unhelpful. Choose to speak up on behalf of someone even if it means I might be ostracized. Give myself five seconds to calm down before reacting to my kid drawing on the wall or spilling her juice again.
I have a sharp memory and can recall conversations—old ones, you’ve been warned—pretty accurately most of the time. (My husband likes to say, “Uh oh, she’s logging it away!”) It was super for helping me get through school with good grades. Not so great when I’m trying to forgive others and leave the past behind. Not great at all when I’m trying to forgive myself.
But then again, maybe those memories, as much as I hate reliving them, can help me to recognize the difference between the person I’ve been in the past and—by God’s grace—the person I want to be in the present. Maybe by not being able to forget my mistakes (ugh), I’ll handle things a little better the next time around. Maybe. I hope.
The book Unconditional? by Brian Zahnd significantly altered the way I understand forgiveness—changing not only the way I *try to* respond to being wronged, but the way I handle forgiving myself when I mess up and allowing myself the same amazing grace God offers me. I love how Zahnd throws the old “forgive and forget” concept out the window (because we can always forgive, but can we ever truly forget?):
The way of forgiveness does not forget the past, but through truth and reconciliation it finds a way beyond toxic memory.
Through the act of forgiveness the past is not forgotten, but by faith in God’s redemptive work it comes to be viewed in a new way. The injustice is to be remembered, but it is not allowed to poison the present and dictate the future.
My older daughter is 6, almost 7. We’re similarly wired—she, too, has a sharp memory. Unfortunately, this means that she, too, has trouble letting go of her own mistakes. A month or so ago, she said what I’m sure is the ultimate of bad words in her blissfully unexposed mind—“Shut up!”—to an adult in our family. She was frustrated enough to shout, and that’s rare for her. But the moment those words came out and her eyes darted around the room to find mine, I saw her crumble under the weight of her mistake, and my heart broke for her and the feelings I knew she was feeling, because they are all too familiar to me. I didn’t have to say a word of correction, because she was already sobbing and apologizing. It took several minutes to calm her down, to assure her repeatedly that it was just a mistake, that we all make mistakes, and that the person she had offended had already accepted her plea for forgiveness. It was forgotten.
She did not forget it, though. She is her mama’s daughter, and I know that if I were to bring up the story today, she would cry all over again. I imagine it might someday be her version of my “yelling at the bad neighbor kids” story. I hate that for her. I don’t want her to log it away and carry it with her. I want her to log it away but let it go, and let it change her. Thank God for His grace and for the knowledge that He’s already made our wrongs right. I’m thankful that I can share this truth with her. My little girl and I, we will be on this journey together. I hope that He uses her memories to teach her, as He has used mine to teach me. And I pray that she grows up to be a woman full of grace who is able to move past her own mistakes, forgive others, and forgive herself.