When I was a teenager, I invested $400 in 20 years of anger and a big, hard, life-changing lesson. I had seen this guy around – a friend of a friend named Justin – carrying the exact model of guitar that I wanted, and there was a rumor that he was looking to sell it. I tracked him down in a parking lot by the beach where high schoolers hung out on summer nights.
He was among a group of kids smoking cigarettes on a Mexican blanket in the back of a van. As I approached him, he nodded at me in recognition, and I asked him about the guitar. He said he had paid $800 for the instrument but was willing to let it go for half of that because he needed money fast. So fast, in fact, that he wanted me to pay him for it on the spot even though he didn’t have the guitar with him. That way, he explained, he would know I was serious about it and he wouldn’t sell it to another guy that he had already promised it to. I went home and returned with my money, which I handed over, and he agreed to meet me at a coffee shop the next morning with the guitar.
Only, as you can probably guess, he didn’t show up.
I found out where he lived and went to his house. He answered the door flanked by a large, red-faced man several years older than us who looked twitchy, and had scabs on his knuckles. I asked for the guitar.
“What guitar?” Justin replied. “Are you talking about my cousin’s guitar?”
“Yeah,” the man asked, “are you talking about my guitar?” and he pointed to the guitar, which lay on a dirty couch behind them.
“Well it’s my guitar actually,” I stated, trying to sound tougher than I felt. “I paid Justin 400 bucks for it yesterday.”
“Why would you make up a story like that?” his cousin challenged, sneering to reveal a mouthful of broken teeth. “He can’t sell my guitar. Can you, Justin?”
“Nope,” said Justin. “I barely know this loser.”
“Did this little boy give you 400 bucks?” Cousin asked.
“Of course not. Cuz then I’d have 400 bucks. But I’m broke, see?” and he pulled out his wallet and opened it to show that it was empty.
“Well then,” said Cousin, turning back to me, “it looks like you just came here to try to cheat us and that’s not very nice.”
“You’re the ones who are cheating me!” I countered, but my instincts were telling me that no good would come out of pushing this.
“Is this little boy threatening us at our own house, Justin?” Cousin asked.
“It kinda sounds like it,” Justin replied. “It kinda sounds like he wants to fight.” The two of them edged toward me.
“I don’t want to fight,” I said, “I just want the guitar that I paid for.”
“If you don’t want trouble,” said Cousin, “then get off our porch and don’t show your face around here again.”
So I left.
At that age, in that time and place, I believed that getting an adult involved – even one with a badge – simply wasn’t an option. Not solving your own problems was looked down upon, and there was no real escape from retribution for squealing in a small town. No, the only way to manage such an issue was to beat someone up. My guy friends said things like, “You need to go back over there and pound the money out of him!” But I was a skinny pacifist and Justin and his cousin were the burly sons of lobstermen. I suggested that maybe a whole gang of us could visit Justin’s house, but my friends sheepishly declined, murmuring things like, “I don’t have any beef with him . . .”
I only encountered Justin once more in person. I ran into him at a restaurant a few months later, where he was sitting at a table with his friends (no Cousin, luckily). I walked over to him and said, “You still owe me 400 bucks.”
“Yeah?” he replied, “Get in line. I owe money to a lot of people.” And at this he shrugged and looked to his friends who all laughed and started yelling out how much he owed them.
I wish I could say that was the end of it, but I had hundreds – no, thousands – of encounters with him in my mind during and after this time. The incident generated many negative conclusions: that I was an idiot, that people are bad and untrustworthy, that I was weak, that Boston is full of thugs, that I wasn’t manly, that I couldn’t count on my friends, and so on. I had daydreams in which I would imagine myself destroying his life, or going back with a gun or a knife and getting my money, or stealing the guitar.
Sometimes I would forget about the whole thing for a month or six months or a year, but whenever I remembered it again I still felt upset.
It was many years before I entertained the idea of forgiveness. I didn’t like him and I didn’t want to give him anything he didn’t deserve, but I was beginning to get a sense of just how much my own resentment had poisoned me. So I tried it. I said to myself, “I forgive Justin for stealing my money,” and I felt a little relieved.
But shortly thereafter, I caught myself replaying the story and feeling angry. I hadn’t let it go. I was frustrated. I forgave him again. And then I caught myself again. And I repeated this cycle a few more times before a deeper understanding began to dawn on me.
First, I decided that it would be worth $400 to really let this go. So I reframed it – I decided I was letting him have the $400 willingly so that I could just be done with this. I hoped that if I could convince myself that I was choosing this, there would be nothing to resent.
Unfortunately, this strategy wasn’t enough to help me get over the whole thing, but there was value in being rational about the various costs and payoffs involved. I was getting nothing but pain for my $400 as long as I held onto my story. And, Briana once reminded me, if I had taken on those guys: “You would have been paying four hundred dollars to get your butt kicked.”
Second, I discovered that forgiveness is almost always a many-layered process and constitutes more work than we tend to expect. In my case, I had some anger about having gotten ripped off, but I was gradually getting to a place where $400 wasn’t that much money. The actual theft wasn’t the biggest thing. More bothersome was the sense that my instincts were wrong, that I was helpless, that I was a wimp, and especially that I should have done something differently.
I looked long and hard at all of this, and it took me on a deeper journey into my psyche that revealed that these thoughts all had deeper roots. There was a certain mistrust for the world that was important to recognize, but more importantly, a mistrust of myself, and lots of self-blame. I systematically unearthed everything I found and forgave it all.
Third, I realized that true forgiveness is not a single act, but a commitment. I’ve written about this idea in several articles and books, but never before told the story that led me to it. Until I had this revelation, I believed that a proper act of forgiveness should last forever and the resentment should never come back. Thus, I had also some self-blame around not having forgiven correctly, since it wasn’t sticking.
Then I learned that the “correct” way to forgive is to make an agreement with myself that I am going to forgive over and over, as many times as it takes. It’s also an agreement to be mindful enough to notice when I’ve picked up my resentment again, to stop indulging in it, and let it go once more.
So, in the end, perhaps $400 was a bargain for the insights I finally got.
What have you invested in (whether with dollars, energy, time, or some other commodity) that has thus far yielded only pain? Is it possible to reframe it such that you offer to willingly give what has already been given – in exchange for growth, insight, and freedom?
Where is forgiveness in order? Besides the most obvious object of forgiveness, what sub-resentments exist? (It’s worth getting a pen and paper for this, since it might be a long list.) Are you willing to make a lifelong commitment to forgive and thus be freed from a story that has kept you enslaved? It’s heroism, truly.
Dr. Peter Borten