The sky was dark outside of Petal Middle School because of a torrential rainstorm that was bearing down on our small town. All of the students were rushing to avoid the rain – all of them except me.
I stopped by the gutter where water was gushing over the edges, put my head under the waterfall, drenched my hair, and then slicked it back. I thought it was hilarious. My teacher did not.
When I walked into class, my teacher saw my soaking wet hair and loudly ordered me to get out of the room. I walked across the hallway and looked down at the floor as the sickening feeling of adrenaline rushed through my veins, up my neck, and into my stomach.
“Joshua Rogers!” she yelled and then began unloading breathtaking adjectives at a rapid-fire pace: “foolish,” “irritating,” “unbearable.” My heart was sinking as I felt embarrassed by the fact that my classmates could overhear her.
Then she said something that I didn’t understand at the time, but I knew it was somehow a horrible indictment of me: “Joshua, there’s a book called ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People,’ and you are failing on every single point!”
I stood there in a daze, trying to swallow the lump in my throat. It physically felt as if the words had gone straight into my chest. I was hurt and disoriented. I had always wanted her to like me but suddenly, there in the hallway, I realized something: I wasn’t likable at all.
We all go through painful experiences in which people have wounded us. People get hurt in workplaces, marriages, softball leagues, and any other place where we’re in relationship with fallen human beings. But if we’re believers, we have the gift of being able to move on. It’s a process, but Jesus has forgiven our offenses. How could we withhold forgiveness from others? As He said when He sent out His disciples to heal the hurting: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). We all need the healing of forgiveness.
If we don’t forgive people, we end up stuck in the past with them. I stay in the hallway with dripping wet hair, terrified of my middle school teacher. You stay stuck in your old job with your passive aggressive coworker. You’re forever part of the church group where you got hurt by people you thought you could trust.
We really can move on and take the dark pleasure out of reliving the past, but it takes courage to let go of that soggy wet blanket of victimhood that provides a perverse sense of significance. Even as I write this, I realize there’s a part of me that hasn’t let go of that hurtful episode in the hallway; and suddenly, I’m inspired to write my teacher a letter and share it here, even though she’s not with us anymore.
Remember that time in the hallway that you basically said I wasn’t likable? That hurt so much. You made a really bad decision that morning. I don’t know what was going on with you. Were you stressed out by work? I get it. I’m not at my best when I’m anxious either. I hope others don’t hold my worst moments against me like I’ve held onto what happened that morning in the hallway.
I realize that there was so much more to you than that moment of weakness, that you were a good person who did so much to bless other people in your lifetime. I’m not going to write you off because you made a mistake that day. I’m going to cut you loose, to imagine that I’m that kid again and then imagine that you apologized — because I know you would’ve done so if I had told you how much it hurt me.
I forgive you. I love you. Thank you for all of the good things you did for me. Let’s turn out the lights in that hallway and never go back to it.
Do you know what just happened after I wrote that? I started remembering what my teacher’s voice sounded like: warm, joyful, and yes, stern at times. She had a bright smile and a hearty, happy laugh that far eclipsed her occasional look of disapproval. In the years after middle school when we would run into each other, she would ask how I was doing and look at me with genuine kindness in her eyes as she listened. After writing that letter to her in this blog post — after letting her go — I miss her all of a sudden. I wish I could see her again.
I didn’t expect to write that letter and I didn’t expect to feel that freedom after I did. The power of forgiveness snuck up on me. I thought I was releasing her, but I ended up releasing myself. I didn’t just step away from a painful moment, I stepped out of the way and saw how God can take an old wound and transform it into gratitude.
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