This summer I have written about making sincere apologies, and today I share one of the reasons why helping others understand its importnce matters so much to me.
When I was a senior in high school, age 18, I had already spent a lot of years wrapped up in bitterness. My biological father, a pastor in my hometown, and his absence in my life left me feeling very bitter after years of trying to be so good just to catch his attention. But no matter that I maintained a 4.0 grade point average, played well in sports (okay decent enough to get by), sang in some amazing choirs, or even had a leadership role in my church youth group, my biological father was never going to notice me. Not even if his church was across the street from my high school. Not even if he happened to be eating in the same restaurant as me. In fact, he didn’t even know who I was when we were in the same place, and it happened a few times.
But I knew who he was. I remember meeting him at his sister’s funeral when I was five and I somehow always knew that I didn’t share genes with my dad who raised me. I knew that my friends at school, who also had divorced parents, still saw their biological dads. All those years of trying to be good enough to be noticed (I was also the typical middle child) never paid off.
In fact, for most of my teen years, no matter that I did have a dad who loved me, I was bitter. I took it out on my family, especially my older sister. The few times we were around my biological father, or any family member from his side, my oldest sister seemed to be the only one they wanted to talk to. I never felt noticed. I have memories of being ten, sitting in my biological father’s huge car when he decided to see us a few times, and him never saying anything to me. And I was just too scared to start a conversation.
Why am I revealing all of this? Because it hurt so bad. It turned into a cycle of hurt and hate for me. It still hurts when I allow my mind to feel the pain of a young girl and adolescent who felt lost and unloved, despite that I did have love in my life, but we tend to define ourselves as humans by the negative instead of the positive.
When I was 18, I realized I didn’t want to hold on to this hurt and hate anymore. The hate that I felt in my heart towards family members was unnatural. So I sought counseling with a licensed counselor in my church. When I explained to him how bitter I was, he asked me some questions of what I hoped for if I could confront my biological father. I wanted my biological father to beg me for forgiveness. I wanted him to feel my pain and beg me for forgiveness! That actually consumed me and I didn’t know how to process these huge emotions or get out of this painful cycle that was interfering with my life and my relationships.
Even though it was an incredible release to talk about this with someone who knew me, saw me, believed in me, my counselor loved me enough to tell me the truth. What I hoped for was not reality. My biological father was not going to beg me for forgiveness because it wasn’t on his mind like it was mine. He had removed himself from the situation. The hurt I felt was mine. And while I deserved an apology, the way in which I hoped it would happen was unrealistic and unhealthy to harbor. This was in a church setting I am being counseled in, remember, so please receive this in that light without judgement, but I was counseled to pray about it intensely and allow God to take care of the situation that was out of my hands and when the right moment came, I would have His wisdom to guide me.
And that’s what I did. I prayed about it for over a year.
That year I learned how to let it go and to forgive someone who hurt me deeply. In the process, I embraced my freshman year of college and continued to excel in academics. I made so many new friends, moved out on my own, and kept a job that I did well in. I appreciated and loved my dad who wanted to be my dad, and it seemed to be less and less important that we didn’t share DNA. The bitterness started dissipating over time and I enjoyed my life in a way that I had never enjoyed it before. It was freedom. Liberation. The bitterness lost to an overreaching joy that started to blossom and helped me to follow my dreams of moving to Texas and going to an out-of-state school.
But wouldn’t you know, that two months before I was to leave, I once again found myself in the same restaurant as my biological father. In fact, he walked right past me and I knew that even though I knew who he was, he didn’t know me apart from anyone else. Honestly, it stung. It hurt, even though I was transformed by the forgiveness that had taken root in my life; it was forgiveness he never asked for, and certainly didn’t deserve. However, a peace settled over me. This was my chance to face him before I moved away to Texas, and I knew with complete certainty that this was the moment I had prayed for. I no longer expected him to beg me for forgiveness, and I didn’t need that from him either. But I wanted him to know that I made it. I was living the life I wanted to live and the pain I had carried for so many years did not define nor hold me back in any way.
So I marched over to his table with both confidence, peace, and legs that felt like noodles! I introduced myself. He was very surprised and so were the church members who were dining with him. When he told them he was my dad, I corrected him to let them know that he was my biological father but I already had a dad. I told him I just wanted him to see me. I was doing so well in school and was about to move to Texas, but I wanted him to see me and know that I was real. After a few minutes of awkward conversation, on even shakier legs, I walked away and we left that restaurant. I was proud of how I carried myself. I knew that my prayers were heard. Forgiveness wasn’t for my biological father. It was for me. How he neglected his children was not about me in any way, though I felt the pain of that, but I was worth everything even if he wasn’t going to be in my life. It was healing.
The Cycle of Forgiving
Through the years, I have had to learn how to forgive him over and over. When I met my first class of fifth grade students the first year of teaching, and I felt the protectiveness of a momma bear, I thought of him and how he abandoned my family and I had to forgive him again. Every time I carried my own children inside of me, it triggered hurt that he could so easily leave us behind. I had to forgive him because the cycle of hurt and hate could easily consume me. He’s never said he was sorry. He probably never will. Although, I hope for his own soul, he will take ownership of his wrongdoing and I wish him well. He isn’t my burden to carry.
Forgiveness is a cycle. My biological father wasn’t the last person I’ve struggled to forgive, but the example of how I was able to move on without him uttering a word has helped me forgive others, too. It’s not easy, even right now, I know I need counseling to help me process emotions for another family member who has hurt me my whole life. I have been shoving the pain aside because I know they will never own their actions towards me, but I want to move on in a healthy and whole way. When we are hurt deeply, we develop triggers and those triggers force us to deal with the pain all over again.
It reminds me of the cycle of grief. Over time the triggers are further away and less intense, but it’s still there and sometimes takes me off guard. The recent triggers have forced me to make the decision to seek help. Like so many other educators, I am loaded down with responsibilities to help others learn. For myself, I want to unload this burden that I can’t remove by myself so I can enjoy more parts of my life, like teaching and my family.
Choosing to Forgive
I chose forgiveness for myself and I will choose it all over again, for my mental and spiritual health. Unforgiveness, for me, turns into bitterness, and I know it can spill over into the other relationships in my life. It is too heavy to carry. People depend on me, my children especially. I’ve felt the burden of carrying around dead weight and I don’t want it. I want life. Liberation. A more clear mind.
Forgiveness is most challenging when the hurt runs deep. But carrying around a grudge can impact our lives in unhealthy ways that break down our mental, physical, and spiritual health. Learning how to forgive is a process. Had it not been for my counselor and my faith, I would not have known how to move through it. I’ve relied on my faith for years so that I would not get sucked back into bitterness from actions others have done that I cannot control. Other times, professional help is necessary. You may find forgiveness and freedom in another way and I respect that as much as I respect my own path.
But that’s what I wish for you: a life of freedom from hurt that was never your fault.
Melody McAllister is a wife, mother of five, educator, and author. She and her family relocated to Alaska from the Dallas area in 2019. McAllister is 2017 Garland NAACP Educator of the Year and author of the I’m Sorry Story, a children’s book about taking responsibility for mistakes and making sincere apologies.