The Forgiving Person

As I sit on our deck watching the birds flit around in my garden contemplating this article about forgiveness, a neighbour comes calling. “This is so peaceful,” she says as she scans the garden. “You’ve really created a place that feeds the soul.”

I look out at our garden. It’s really just a funny little plot of land that we have tried to transform from an ordinary backyard to something that resembles the BC rain forests. We have a “wannabe” mountain, a tiny lake-like pond and flowerbeds along the edges filled with gigantic Hosta plants that are doing exceptionally well this year.

My neighbor and I sit in silence for a long time — just feeling the garden, watching the visiting squirrels, butterflies, and sparrows that make the garden seem alive. Six years ago when we moved into this house, the backyard was nothing but an uneven piece of dry land, scattered with garbage hidden in the overgrown grass. After loads and loads of dirt, rocks and more rocks, and the painful search for easy-care shade perennials with a slightly aggressive personality, we started to have a semblance of a garden. I can’t take much credit. It was built on the advice of friends, gifts from my children, and constant watering by my husband. Only recently have visiting guests described it as peaceful. Before this most of them looked at the mess with some doubt that it would ever be finished.

When she leaves, I continue to struggle to define the word “forgiveness” and what it means to me. When our daughter was murdered twenty years ago, we chose the word forgiveness as our goal. Since then I’ve realized that the word comes laden with unrealistic expectations, misconceptions pressures and failures for many crime victims. It is a word that crime victims have called the “F” word — and rightly so — because it has not been helpful for them.

Yet the word forgiveness won’t be dismissed. In today’s world, it can still grab the front page headline in a newspaper. It remains important to us because forgiveness is one of the virtues that is needed to sustain, peace, love and justice — all those things we yearn for and need in our lives.

I look out at my garden, it has just been called a place of peace. Is forgiveness part of the process of creating peace in the garden? I wonder. Are there similarities? I begin to explore it.

My gardening started with a huge desire to have a garden. One certainly needs to be motivated to endure all the pain and tedium of the back breaking labor needed to landscape a garden. There is nothing fun about hauling load after load of rock and shoveling the soil — that heavy rich nourishing soil.

And yes, in the same way forgiveness needs to start with a strong desire to forgive. In spring an avid gardener will rearrange their entire budget and time schedule to acquire plants. They almost become obsessed. Sometimes forgiveness will demand this same single-mindedness. To those who know the true worth of peace, the question of “who will pay” and “what is justice” will become almost irrelevant. They will be willing to sacrifice everything for the promise of peace to the point where they are willing to pay the price themselves. One almost needs an obsession with peace in order to enter into the demanding forgiveness process.

To garden I had to accept the limitations and challenges of my garden plot. In the garden magazines that pile up in the corner of my living room there are countless stories of gardeners adapting and conquering what at first seemed an insurmountable challenge. Some of the most unusual gardens are a direct result of an impossible cliff, an unsightly quarry, and in our case, immense trees that cast off a dense shade. Attaining peace through forgiveness requires all of us to have a creativity that can surmount impossible odds, a resilient ability to bounce back and an unshakable belief that we can transform anything that is hurled at us into something beautiful and peaceful.

A good gardener is aware of the hostile environment in which they garden. They know the strength of the searing sun, the power of the severe winds and the density of the overwhelming shade. They need to protect their plants from the rabbits that nibble on the plants, the cats that violate the soil and people who want to dance on the grass. They know the predator of every plant — and how to protect. Forgiveness is not condoning abuse or allowing toxic people to run our lives, it is about setting up boundaries and nourishing life.

The gardener needs to be creative, almost an artist, to capture that elusive design of a perfect garden. For five years my garden wasn’t complete; something was missing. I started to read books on garden design and came across the feng shui five elements of good gardening — wood, fire, water, earth and metal. I had the first four — I needed the fifth — metal. That’s when I remembered my father’s bird feeder that I had stored in our garage after his death. My father had taken old metal parts lying around his garage to create this bird feeder out of two tin plates, a car axle, license plates cut into washers and welded them together to create a very practical functional bird feeder that also became a metal piece of art. When we planted the bird feeder, the garden finally had harmony — the last ingredient of peace.

Since then I’ve realized that the bird feeder has also become a symbol of redemption and love. It is a constant reminder that old throw-away pieces of metal can be recycled into something beautiful and functional. Eventually a forgiving person will want to be an emotional environmentalist, willing to dig through the muck of a conflict in the hope of redemption. It is about remaining loving and open to people who want to be part of our lives. The birds see the bird feeder as a welcome mat to come and feast. The same birds who can be so destructive in spring can also give much joy and life in fall when the plants are mature.

In the end, forgiveness is about taking back control of our lives and transforming conflict into something meaningful. We can’t control others or force them to change, but we can change and take control of our lives. We can’t control the forests outside, but if we have a plot of land in the back yard, we can transform it into a garden. Always remembering that it is one thing to attain a peaceful garden, it’s an entirely different achievement to attain a peaceful life and then to maintain it. Even with the best of intentions, sometimes my life, like my garden looks like a tired unsightly grouping of drooping flowers, rocks, and a “wannabe” mountain.

Yet twenty years ago when my husband and I chose this troublesome word as our goal, we knew it wouldn’t be easy. Forgiveness didn’t allow us to escape the grief, trauma and all of the aftermath of murder but in the end it has remained a worthy goal. Like a garden it remains something we continually work at, never quite finished as we continue to cultivate forgiveness in our lives. But like our garden, we can also take time to enjoy the places of peace we have created in our lives, the relationships that have been sustained, the love that continues to grow and revisit with pride the places that were broken that are stronger now — all of which was promised in the word forgiveness.

By Wilma Derksen, July 2006.

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