I was recently betrayed by some people whom I never would have suspected. Then again, I guess it wouldn’t have been betrayal if I had expected it. It might have been their perfidy, outright maliciousness or unthinking insensitivity. I might have felt hurt, angry or disappointed. But it wouldn’t have been betrayal, except these were people I thought I knew and never suspected their unnamed feelings, perhaps unknown even to themselves.
I am so blessed to be in this moment with a strong spiritual director and a close relationship with God. I have been working on issues of deep hurt from long ago, which makes it far easier to ask God to help with forgiveness of lesser hurts from more recent days. And part of that work of forgiveness – for yes, it is work – is to examine my own moments of betrayal.
One stood out to me in my prayers today. When I was still in college, my sister was dealing with an issue of sexuality and the stress of it was affecting our whole family. My mother, who had struggled with diabetes for decades, could no longer control her blood sugar, as it was closely linked with stress. My aunts and uncles were insisting she disown my sister for her own good. I was not close to my sister, who was 7 years older than I, but I knew following her brother’s advice would not make my mother better; Mom showed me what love really is during that time, and it is definitely not abandoning your children, no matter how much you struggle with their decisions.
My betrayal was ugly. If mom could not do something to help herself then my sister needed to get with the program and give up her silly ideas of who she thought she was. I cringe at my teenage untrained-theologian self throwing at her “God doesn’t make mistakes, so clearly you are, and it’s killing our mother.” I can imagine myself now rescinding my pacifism to beat up anyone who spoke that way to my many LGBTQ friends. But I was hurting and afraid, and in my pain I lashed out at someone who really needed me in that moment to love her, not judge her.
I wish I could say that my sister is the only person I have ever betrayed, or that that was the only time I ever betrayed her. Alas, it is the curse of siblings that we are perhaps the ones most likely to betray each other. She’s betrayed me too. And I have betrayed others.
Like many, I am quick to find excuses for others’ betrayals of me. But I am eager to disregard my own excuses in order to better beat myself up for my own acts of betrayal. My prayer word for this year is “tenderness” and it is a gift I find I must offer to myself as much as to anyone else. With forgiveness for betrayal there is much tenderness that needs to go around.
Tenderness is for the people who have betrayed; they might be unaware of their error and hugely sorry if they knew. They might regret what they did, but have no idea how to make it right. They may be so deep in their own pain and brokenness that they cannot even recognize or care about your pain at their betrayal.
But I must also have tenderness for myself as the victim of betrayal. I am not a bad person for feeling hurt or anger and a desire for revenge. I can recognize that revenge is not an appropriate action to take, while being tender with the wounded cry of my own heart that needs lament.
This has come to a head, because I found some books that had been given to me in better times by one of the people who recently betrayed me. I have planned to mail them back to her, but the note to enclose has me stymied. Do I make no mention of my hurt and our broken relationship? A chipper, “Thanks for the books!” seems inauthentic and like swallowing a bitter pill of hurt. Yet what mention of the pain doesn’t sound churlish and unforgiving, a passive aggressive snipe when all she really needs is to get her books back.
I have wondered if these books could serve as some token that would miraculously lead to the healing of our relationship. And yet the current state of my conversations with God about forgiveness indicate that just never seeing her again, which is quite possible, may be the best our relationship can be healed in the moment. “I no longer despise her, have compassion for the pain she was feeling at that time, and really wish her well in her future endeavors,’ is a far sight closer to forgiveness than I was when she first betrayed me!
Being tender with myself is leading me to put the books in a box with no note at all, no expectation that she will apologize or even feel grateful to get her property back, but no requirement for me to offer absolution either.
Forgiveness for betrayal takes time. More than 20 years after my ugly words to my sister, we are still working through our many exchanged betrayals. But I rarely dwell on them anymore. It is so extraordinary, in fact, that when I do stumble upon them in my prayers, they are worth writing about. I find God holding us all, betrayed and betrayer, in tenderness. And I pray that will be the example I follow.
What is your experience with betrayal? Have you been betrayed? Have you been the betrayer? Are you able to hold the other person with tenderness? Can you hold yourself with tenderness? What would you put in a letter to a person who betrayed you? Are there people in your family you have said particularly unkind things to – perhaps things you don’t even believe now? Can you forgive yourself? Who in your life has shown you the power of love in difficult times?
I mean it when I say that I am lucky to have a great spiritual director as I explore some of these areas of hurt in my life. Spiritual direction is not always so painful; it helps us delve into the areas of great joy in our lives too. Having someone help us touch the core of our being makes even every day decisions easier. If you would like to explore spiritual direction, contact us at Openings: Let the Spirit In.