There was a time in my life when I felt defined by how others treated me. I carried around what had happened to me, which continued to hurt me and also limit my progress. But it wasn’t who I really was. The thing that made a difference in how I felt about myself was realizing my own power to choose. The scriptures call this freedom the “agency” of man, or the ability to “act” and not merely “to be acted upon.” The Declaration of Independence describes it as part of an unalienable endowment from our Creator. But how can this be true? We all experience times when other people’s choices “act upon” us, when our freedom is restricted or altogether taken away.
I have come to learn that God’s plan helps us to be free from the inside out, making us powerful agents in our own story. In other words, our very souls have sovereignty. His is not a plan of “freedom from” something else, but of “freedom to act in the dignity of our own choice.” I would like to share several experiences that helped me to declare my independence. The first was to forgive and the second was to actively accept responsibility for my own actions.
My growing-up years were blessed by loving, devoted parents, but they were also pockmarked by the sadness and division of divorce, the confusion and anguish of sexual abuse, and the defensive posture resulting from conflict I could not control. Even after I left home, I felt trapped by the effects of my experiences, long after the direct harm was past. I went away to college, attended counseling, and began to get some perspective on my situation. With perspective came a great deal of anger. I could sense that my Heavenly Father was leading and teaching me, but I didn’t know where to put all the hurt and blame.
During a church mission to The Netherlands, I met and served many people, both the Dutch and the refugees they hosted, who were recovering from the effects of war. The broader the world became to me, the more I saw that my struggles were not unique; they were but a drop in the vast ocean of human suffering. It all felt so overwhelming at times. Where was God in all of this? Didn’t He care how His children were hurting each other?
It came to a head one day when I was looking out the window from a city bus. I saw a frustrated and tired mom yell fiercely at her son for doing something. When she turned her back to keep walking, the boy turned to his younger brother and hit him in the face. Such a small moment. Such an insignificant, mundane occurrence, but I sat there and cried. The smallest boy was so confused and hurt. I just wanted to jump off the bus and hug him.
The things is, these were not bad people. They seemed representative to me of how we are all hurting, plagued by insecurities, failing energies, and unmet needs. But our response to these deficits can trickle down and have terrible consequences in the lives of others. How can we ever be truly free if all we do is react to the triggers of conflict, selfishness and competition all around us?
This experience helped me to see that things are more complex than the “good guy” and the “bad guy.” I began to think about the mom and the older brother. Surely the mom wasn’t a bad mom. Just an ordinary one at the end of a long day. And the older brother seemed to be trying to find power in his life, perhaps the only way he knew how. Maybe those who had hurt me when I was young had been hurt somehow, too. I know that there is no excuse for the abuse of another person. (And please don’t read anything I write today to lead you to believe that you should stay in or enable an abusive relationship!) But with the gradations of human experience playing out before my eyes, I began to feel an ounce of compassion for the “bad guys” in my story.
When I got home from my mission, I had the opportunity to share my feelings with my mom on a quiet day before Christmas. Hugging me, she told me how sorry she was. I realized that I had craved an apology. I had wanted someone to recognize my pain and make amends. But it also wasn’t what I really needed. An apology could never change what had happened or restore what I had lost. It would never be enough.
As I had that thought, the story of Jacob and Esau came to my mind. I had just been reading in my scriptures of how Esau runs to meet Jacob, and embraces him, and falls on his neck, and kisses him after years apart. And whereas both had been struggling with the heart-breaking deficits and wounds in their relationship, they both take the opportunity to say, “I have enough.”
I suddenly felt how very true those words were. Things would never be the same as they were before I was hurt, but I had enough to move forward. As with Jacob and Esau, the grace of Christ had played out over a number of years, mending wounds and opening up a space for compassion and forgiveness. I thought of my heartache in context of all I had seen and learned on my mission and felt a kind of crossroads open up in my heart. I could either continue to harbor anger and bitterness from my past or I could try to find a way to let it completely go.
All in the space of that hug, I chose to believe in Christ’s ability to heal, restore, and execute fair judgment in this whole mess of a mortal life. I gave up the fight for restitution and my demand for an explanation. I took a breath and I leaned into my mom’s neck, as I had wanted to so many times as a little girl, and I let the tears go. I made my choice. I wanted peace more than payment.
When I returned to college a few weeks later, I began dating a really cute guy (whom I would eventually marry). I really liked him, so I was devastated when we started to have conflict over a silly wedding date. It seemed so trivial, but it eventually took us to the brink of how much we trusted each other. My fiancé broke up with me and said something like: “Don’t worry. I don’t blame you. I know you come from a rough past.” And then left. The state. I was so mad! Who was this self-righteous guy that thought he could condescend from his perch of a perfect past to tell me that he didn’t blame me?!
After I took some time to cool down and cry a little (okay, a lot), I realized that the reason it bugged me so badly was because I didn’t want to be held hostage by my past. I wasn’t actually mad at him – just angry that my past had followed me this far and had the power to steal more joy. I had taken some pretty major steps to move forward, but I was still considered broken. And then it occurred to me that I had been carrying my past around like a badge. It had been my identity. But I did not actually want to be defined by what had happened in my life or by what others thought of me. I would rather be defined by my own choices.
When my boyfriend came back to town, we had a lot to work through. Paramount on my list was having a conversation about my accountability. I told him that he should expect me to be responsible for the mistakes I had made, so we could work through and learn from them the way we would work through his mistakes. In order to step out of the shadow of my past, I needed to be accountable for my actions. Said George Bernard Shaw: “Liberty means responsibility.” And in gospel terms, responsibility means repentance. I knew that I was not responsible for the abuse and conflict I had suffered when I was young. But I also knew that it would require humility and sensitivity to the Spirit to avoid repeating some of the destructive patterns I had seen modeled in my childhood home.
I sit at my desk now, having just gotten off the phone, laughing with my mom, and having kissed my husband as he went back to his office for a late night of work. I am truly amazed at how free I feel from all of the trauma I carried around for so long. I have released my claim on payment and have instead laid claim to my own future. In some ways, carrying the resentment and blame for my past was like wearing an old, worn-out coat. It never really kept me warm, but it was familiar. Casting it off left me feeling vulnerable and uncertain. But I also felt free. Free to leave behind the confusion, fear, and anger and move toward a life that is now full of a great deal of joy. I’m sure I still have a lot to learn, but I think God might look at me and think, “She’s finally beginning to see.”
Earlier I asked the question: Where was God in all of this? Now I can see Him in all of it. As painful as it often was, He didn’t pluck me out of the world and hold me in His arms, like I so badly wanted. He didn’t strike down the “bad guys” or force an apology. He didn’t deliver mercy or justice when I demanded them. But He did – He does – deliver. Through the years, He gave me the ability to administer mercy and justice in my own life, although it was the reverse of what I thought I wanted. He enlivened my soul with compassion (forgiveness) and a sense of my own strength (accountability). This ability – this power – was the freedom I was looking for. He didn’t change the way the world works, but He did change me.
I feel grateful for the difficulties I have gone through, because they have helped me to realize my own power to choose. True freedom is power within myself, an active “independence of mind.” It is the freedom of self-determination, the freedom inherent in my soul, no matter my circumstances. It is the ability to “stand fast,” to recognize the gradations in light and dark and to choose the light, regardless of the choices of others.
I realize that not all of you may be able to identify with my experiences when I was growing up. But we all reach similar crossroads as I have. In our interactions with others, as bumpy as they sometimes may be, it is given unto us to choose. No one can compel us to forgive. No one can force a change of heart. But in these acts, we are truly free. Forgiveness and repentance seem now to be two sides of the same coin – to release what we cannot control with grace and to claim what we must control with humility. Both are acts of freedom. And both are possible because of Christ, the One who has made us free.