What Would I, at 70, Tell Me at 40?

That question keeps popping up years after my wife Martha was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1997. She had turned 50 three weeks earlier. I’m not plagued by this question in the sense of feeling guilt or shame. I realize I can’t go back and do a do-over. 

Rather, the question prompts other questions: Is there anything I could share with our children? Or anyone with young families and busy lives? What could I share with someone pulled by the pressures of careers, children, making a living, whatever? 

You know the kinds of stresses I’m talking about—the typical variety of trying to get through the day while making a mark at work and making time for your children and yourself. 

Yes, each of us must learn our own lessons in our own way and time. But part of that process is having the humility to learn from one another. 

After reflecting on our grueling journey, I would share with a younger Martha and Carlen three things right now: First, be willing to forgive each other—and quickly. Second, take time to be quiet with each other. Third, experience God intimately—as divine Love, not as a religious belief.  

Today, I’m discussing forgiveness. I’ll pick up on the others in the next few weeks. 

Before getting into forgiveness, though, here’s some background. In 1983, I left a reporting job with a major newspaper to start a regional magazine. I was 38. My wife Martha, 36, was serving on the St. Petersburg City Council. By then, she had successfully managed five local political campaigns, including her own. When I launched our magazine, our children were 8, 6, and 3. Busy days and nights … and fun. 

This picture is from my 40th birthday party... 

There’s not enough time with this note to cover all that I’ve learned about forgiveness, but here are some hard-won insights that I at 70 would share with me at 40:

1) Busy as you are, Martha and Carlen, make time to forgive each other. And ALL who have hurt you. Do it quick—don’t drag it out. And don’t be selective with your forgiveness. If you try to do that, it somehow casts a shadow over all else. How do I know? Because I’ve tried numerous times to forgive one person I liked and not forgive another I liked less. It didn’t work.

2) Second, forgiveness is not some pious virtue as many of us have been led to believe over the course of our lives. Forgiveness, in fact, is as self-interested a trait as I’ve seen. You may remember the story of Peter asking Jesus whether forgiving someone seven times is enough (Matt. 18:21-22). Jesus said no, we need to be willing to forgive someone 70 times seven. 

Our four-year-old granddaughter might say: “Goodness, that’s a lot of forgiving.” 

Yes, it is. 

My take on what Jesus means—learned the hard way, I might add—is this: “Carlen, how long do you want to be free of the cold, dark cell of self-absorption, self-righteousness, and self-promotion that you’ve built over a lifetime? That’s how long and how often you need to forgive others, as well as yourself.” 

In Wishful Thinking, writer Frederick Buechner describes the absolute need for forgiveness as clearly as anyone I’ve come across: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” 

That’s what I mean about forgiveness being self-interested—you forgive in order to free yourself. 

3) Realize that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. I didn’t understand this before our crisis. Forgiveness requires one person—you, Carlen—working through issues with your God. Reconciliation requires two to tango—you, Martha or Carlen, and the person you’ve forgiven. Once you forgive within your heart, you may or may not need to reconcile with that person.   

Do you remember, Carlen, when you used to wait for Martha to say, “I’m sorry,” and to initiate your coming back together after she blew up at you? It was her fault, right? You sulked for hours, maybe days, before either of you decided to address the issue at hand—if you did at all. 

That kind of argument didn’t just evaporate. Instead, by not addressing it head on, it sank deep into your memory and consciousness. And it lay there quietly, ready to pounce when the next issue, big or little, triggered Martha’s hot temper and your suffocating self-righteousness. 

4) Finally, Carlen, I’m now convinced that forgiveness, or its lack, can be a matter of life or death, of good health or ill. It took me 17 years of living with Alzheimer’s and of digging deep as I could into a wide variety of spiritual and health practices to understand this.

If you let issues fester long enough without redress, they pile up into what I call a “closet”—its door never to be opened except to throw more stuff in. In time that closet door will burst open, spewing a bitter mix of who knows what in all directions throughout your mind and body. I explore this in greater detail here and in my forthcoming book, A Path Revealed.

Maybe you have your own stories about forgiveness. If you would like to share, please go to #APathRevealed or email me at carlen@carlenmaddux.com.

Next week I’ll discuss carving out time to be quiet and intimate with each other.   

Until then, 

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