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On Forgiveness and Syphilis

By Kellie Purcill

Roughly ten years and several eons ago, I read in Matthew that we are required to forgive “even seven times seventy times”. Some quick mental arithmetic and I realised that meant we’re expected to forgive four hundred and ninety times. That’s a sizable number, especially when it’s relating to someone who has hurt or offended you. At the time, I was trying to come to terms with abandonment by not one but three fathers in my life, and the effort was exactly like trying to swim butterfly stroke through custard. In short, it wasn’t pretty, it was messy, and obviously wasn’t working.

Then, I read the following from Jeanne Ray’s ‘Eat Cake’:

The truth of the matter is that I didn’t bear my father any particular ill will. I had for a short time when I was young. I thought he was a terrible man. But as I got older it occurred to me that just because someone isn’t cut out to be a husband or a father doesn’t make him terrible, only terribly disappointing. (p. 54)

In the fey, curious workings of my brain, I could somehow accept the grief and hurt my fathers had caused by changing my definitions. My Dads weren’t terrible, just (simply, awfully) terribly disappointing. It was much easier to forgive them for being so disappointing and then step over the hurdle which had (just one page earlier) seemed as impossible and painful as burrowing through the planet using my head as a shovel. Suddenly I could – and did – forgive them, and moved on.

Fast forward ten years. Ten years of life, and friends, and no-longer-friends, family spats and silences, ten years of working out just what my mother-in-law meant during the last conversation, practicing and failing patience, and thinking that forgiving people was mostly a matter of rearranging words to make the taste less awful. Ha! I thought. This forgiveness thing is EASY!

Then my husband left my sons and me. For the first counsellor in my sons’ Primary.

For the first few months, I was haemorrhaging pain and bewilderment too badly to think about anything besides breathing, making sure my boys ate vegetables each day, and idly wondering if my pillows would ever be dry again. But the time came when I realised I had to address my feelings towards my ex-husband. My anger, confusion and hurt because of what he had done were starting to deform my life, and who I was. So I added to my prayers “Please help me know how to even BEGIN to forgive him.”

Straight back came “Pray for those who despitefully use you”. I nearly choked. The Lord wanted me to PRAY for the jerk? It took me over an hour to finish that prayer. I spent most of it stalking around my lounge room, in the dark, first feeling abandoned even in my prayers, then overwhelmed with such an unfair answer. Finally, I knelt back beside my bed, bowed my head, and lay my sincere, humbling prayer at the feet of Almighty God.

“Please don’t let him die from syphilis. Syphilis is a horrible way to die.” I can see the funny side of it now. Anyone who I’ve spoken to about it either gapes at me like a drowning fish or needs a toilet break from laughing so hard, but I sincerely, genuinely meant it. The words weren’t written in bile, snark didn’t curl the edges, there was no bitter postscript added to the end. It was the only thing I could honesty pray for him.

The Lord knew it, and accepted my prayer.

I’ve been helped beyond remembrance in trying to forgive my ex. Friends have shared scriptures, talks, personal experiences and their own fantasies should forgiveness ever involve a Tazer, a punch to the mouth and/or fire ants. I have been both gently and sternly directed in what I should do, read, think, say and pray for in letting go of my hurt, pain and anger.

I’ve had to forgive myself. I’ve had to forgive others for insensitive comments and actions, and the parts they have played in the death of my marriage. But one thing I haven’t had to do is forgive my ex-husband for his infidelity. I thought in the beginning that forgiveness was identifying every single scratch, pain, itch, gaping head wound or death rattle and graciously give the benediction “I forgive you” for each one. I couldn’t do that. Not when the damage was so devastating, and constant. Instead, like finding one thing to pray for, I found one thing to forgive. I don’t have to forgive my ex-husband’s actions individually, each studied in microscopic detail, because I forgive him for being an idiot.

I have forgiven him that, and he has given me the opportunity to practice forgiveness over and over again for his idiocy, repeatedly demonstrated in his dealings with myself, my sons, and even the Lord. But being able to lump his actions under “being an idiot” is a sweet, cool salve on the sometimes raging fever of my fury and pained disappointment. Because somehow, being able to forgive him for the summarising “idiocy” has let the details slowly fade from sight, from feeling, and even (almost impossibly) from memory. Isn’t that what forgiveness is, that sins will be remembered no more? I once understood that to apply strictly to my sins, but I am now wordlessly thankful to know the blessing of having others’ sins fade from my own memory.

My feelings towards my ex don’t extend so far as to give thanks for his actions, but I am grateful for the principles and love God has taught me as a result. Without those, I would never have found a connection between forgiveness and syphilis, idiocy and forgetting, or known the immense beauty and benediction of forgiveness, in so many of its forms.

Have you had a moment or experience which has made forgiveness easier? How do you forgive others? Have you ever prayed for something totally not “the norm”?

About Kellie Purcill

lives way on the other side of the planet in her native Australia and gives thanks for the internet regularly. She loves books, her boys, panna cotta, collecting words, being a redhead and not putting things in order of importance when listing items. She credits writing as a major contributing factor to surviving her life with sanity mostly intact, though her (in)sanity level is subject to change without warning.

29 thoughts on “On Forgiveness and Syphilis”

  1. this was beautiful, kel, and i have learned some things because of you sharing your experience.
    there does seem to be some kind of power in the saying of the words, out loud. because you can't pray a lie, so somehow our hearts are molded in those moments of utter humility and raw honesty. you described that moment so perfectly! thank you!

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  2. Ok, I got to read this early, so that makes it make sense when I said that yesterday, I not only cried when reading this, AND it made me think, but that it seems to have permeated the way I have moved in natural space for two days now. And that I think that's what the best writing does… you read it, it causes you to _feel_ as well as think, and then it shapes your world. (Now to rush off to spend the day running back and forth in a car, but still to be thinking. Way better than just rushing around.)

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  3. Wow. What a title! And now I feel like all my pitiable attempts at forgiveness represent an anthill against your mountain of wrongs. Thank you for your example.

    Yesterday there was a BYU devotional by James Rasband (dean of the law school) about forgiveness that has begun a paradigm shift for me. It should be on speeches.byu.edu in a few days, if anyone is interested. It was an amazing talk, and your post fits perfectly with what I've been thinking about since.

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  4. And blue, I just read your comment: ya'll are absolutely right in the power of SAYING something. Also, there is power in writing it. I find that if i'm refusing to write in my journal, often there is something that I'm afraid that if I write it, it will become permanent, like a death I refuse to record, or a heartbreak that I cannot deny. The saying and the writing, instead of just thinking, becomes part of the permanent record imprint of my life. Thus giving it added power. Erasers can be nice to have, but there is no mind eraser for spoken words. I think this is why saying prayers instead of just thinking them can make a difference in the way we receive answers. Or are willing to move forward with said answer, in my case…. Thank you for the additional thought to jangle about within me today.

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  5. Um, Kel, did you write this just for me?

    I'll be back to comment more (and I'm looking forward to other's comments and the talk JennR recommended) but I need to process this first. I love your paradigm shift on forgiving him just for being an idiot and not dealing with every past, present and future hurt. Maybe I can do that?

    By the way– I think you were incredibly kind to pray he wouldn't die of syphilis. I don't think I can come up with something that generous for the bottomdweller in my life.

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  6. So, so, so good. I needed this!

    My great-aunt used to quote Elder Oaks (something he had said at their regional conference decades ago) and tell me "Don't stack other people's sins!" They are their own sins and stacking them in our hearts doesn't hurt anyone but ourselves.

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  7. Thank you. Working on this, endlessly. I don't have something insightful to say but this went right to my heart and will stay with me.
    Michelle L, I'm with you, hoping to be able to do the same.

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  8. “Please help me know how to even BEGIN to forgive him.” I loved this. So many times I've gone to pray but haven't known how to ask for what I need. Starting out at the beginning is good. I loved your whole article and marvel at the truths you shared as well as your clever writing style. Your prayer for him not to die of syphilis caught me off guard when I was drinking apple juice. Almost had a mess to clean up there. 🙂 (Yeah, I'm in the potty break crowd!)

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  9. Wow, Kel. This is an excellent post: wise, funny, generous, insightful and true. We're so lucky to have you writing for Segullah.

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  10. I agree with JennR, the BYU devotional yesterday about the atonement and forgiveness was profound. I highly recommend it. It will probably be re-broadcast on BYU-TV this Sunday or next. Two things stood out from his talk: 1) forgiveness is an act of faith in the atonement; and 2)we don't have to minimize the gravity of the offense when we forgive

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  11. This was a beautifully honest post, thank you. I admire your determination to follow God even when he asks you to do that last thing you want to do.

    The way you re-frame the offense is something that helped me move further on the path towards forgiving my Dad. It is the idea that very few people set out to be bad parents (spouses) on purpose. They may do a craptastic job of it, but usually they are too overwhelmed by life and their imperfections/sins to methodically plot out all the ways to hurt you/me. It really is their mortal failings, not intentional action, that results in those actions that we eventually forgive.

    Best wishes on your continuing journey down the road of forgiveness. The peace that comes from forgiving little things (like the VT who forgot to come at the appointed time) gives me courage to attempt forgiveness for the big things.

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  12. My ex left me and our 3 kids in 2003, and I am still wrestling with this very concept. I have prayed in the past to have even the DESIRE to forgive him, but I was not very sincere when I prayed, and have not really done much praying for him or about forgiveness in the past 6 years. It is probably time for me to revisit that whole thing (insert grumpy face). Thanks for this, your points are great. I will think about this for the rest of the day for sure, probably more. I also have always thought that I needed to forgive every little thing, but maybe that is overkill. Maybe that idea is one of the reasons we make forgiving harder than it should be? I am just thinking out loud here…

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  13. I also want to add that I agree with Michelle L. that you were very kind to sincerely find something to pray for your ex, that he not die of syphilis. I have not been able to be that kind about my ex (hence the no praying about it for 6 + years) and should work on finding a way to pray for him.

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  14. Thank you so much for sharing this and being so candid. My dad walked out on my mom and six kids. I can't begin to imagine her pain. For my part, I was hurt and angry for years. Forgiveness seemed impossible. Then I read an article in the Ensign that said something like, "Leave a place in your heart for forgiveness, and welcome it when it comes". I thought, "I can do that!" Several years later, I realized it had come – I wasn't angry anymore.

    However, that was during the 10 years I didn't see or talk to my dad. I actually have for the past 10 years. Forgiveness is harder now. It was easier to forgive the things in the past. It is harder to forgive when he says and does things that remind me of who he is. To have a relationship, I have to accept who he is and stop wishing he were someone else. I like the idea of finding him terribly disappointing rather than terrible. I'll work on that.

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  15. Wow. I feel for your pain.

    This reminds me a lot of Loving-Kindness meditation in Buddhism. You get centered, then wish well on on a respected, loved person. Pretty easy. Over time, you progress towards a loved person, a neutral person, and finally wishing love and kindness on someone who is hostile or who has hurt you. It can be a very difficult exercise and can take time to work through, but it is very empowering. If you've never tried it, it is something that might be an addition to our more "normal" LDS prayers.

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  16. Thanks for sharing this. It is very helpful.

    The main idea reminds me of a quote from Napoleon: Never ascribe to malice what can more easily be explained by incompetence.

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  17. This is what I needed to hear right now. And I do mean right now.

    This post reminds me of a country song "I'll Pray for You." It's great fodder for the start of praying for my ex, since I am not creative enough to pray he won't die from syphilis!

    One line from the song stands out: "I'll pray your brakes go out running down a hill." I think from now on I'll pray that his brakes don't go out going down a hill.

    Seriously though, this is beautiful and just what I needed to hear on my path to trying to forgive my ex.

    Thank you.

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  18. Kel – what an offering here. You have given so much of yourself in this post – shared so much of the process you've been through. It is obviously helpful to others with similar challenges. Thank you. And Michelle – I thought of you too as I read.

    "Benedictions of forgiveness" – such a beautiful thought. And I appreciate the insight that forgiveness can come in parts and pieces – stepping stones that push us in the right direction and comfort us, even if we haven't reached that point of full release and healing. Love you Kel for what you have been through, and the grace with which you write about it. xo

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  19. Kel, I've been mulling over your post all day. I shared it with some non-internety friends. And tonight I relistened to Elder Eyring's Where Is The Pavilion talk from the most recent conference. He touches on this very matter of praying for others:

    But if you go for the Lord to bless others, He will see and reward it. If you do this often enough and long enough, you will feel a change in your very nature through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Not only will you feel closer to Him, but you will also feel more and more that you are becoming like Him.

    So that confirms there is something powerful about this process. On the one hand, it's a bummer to ever have idiots in our lives. But on the other, perhaps a prayer of gratitude for all the lessons they provide for us. We are better because of learning those things they force us to learn.

    Thanks again for this brilliant piece of writing. ♥

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  20. Thanks, Kel.

    Beautiful in concept and prose, as always. Terribly disappointing seems to apply to many of our fathers. I feel I have forgiven my father, but not sure if the fact I don't miss him at all now that he's passed away confirms or denies that feeling.

    Makes me wonder whether we need a heavenly Father just to make up for our earthly disappointments.

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  21. Kel, this is beautiful and thoughtful and encouraging and reassuring. Thanks for sharing.

    I love the idea of forgiving someone for being disappointing. I especially love the idea that someone might forgive ME for being disappointing because I so often am, and so often unintentionally.

    For me, this year has been a year of learning to forgive. I have had many days when I thought I couldn't, that it was just too much to ask, and then I would be inspired to pray for those who WERE despitefully using me or those I love, just as you experienced. It was a hard hard thing to do, but the peace that comes from forgiving over and over and over again is so much more rich and fulfilling than the bitterness I was holding so close.

    Thank you again.

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  22. As her best friend, I think it's important for everyone to know that Kel's journey to forgiveness was not an easy one. She was angry and hurt with everybody including God for a time, and it was easy for her to justify those feeling to herself because of what had happened. It was so unfair and she and her children did not deserve any of it.

    The turning point was that she chose to not let it define her. Kel had never been a person that was full of hatred, that treated people badly or that spent her days replaying and dwelling on the faults of other people. So when she recognized that she was going down the path to becoming that, she made the CHOICE not to.

    It was a CHOICE – not an easy one – but a CHOICE nevertheless.

    We go to church every Sunday and learn about how the Savior sacrificed his life to pay the price of sin for all of us. But when something bad happens to us, we tend to feel that it is our job to punish the perpetrator somehow for what he/she has done. It's not. What they have done is their sin. If we don't work toward forgiving them we then create our own sin. Holding on to anger is like a cancer that will slowly eat you from the inside and pull you away from the peace that true forgiveness will bring.

    It's wasn't pretty watching kel go through the process of forgiveness, it was the hardest thing I think she's ever done. But the result is seeing the light of Christ in her eyes every time I look at her. Before, when she clung to the anger, it wasn't there.

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  23. Forgiving him for his idiocy reminds me a lot of Christ's "Forgive them, for they know not what they do". I too suffered through something similar, and it was that simple thought that was the most liberating to me as I learned how to forgive and consequently find God, even in the most difficult and disappointing time of my life.

    This is a great post and describes so well the paradigm shift that all of us need to learn at some time. Thanks!

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  24. At different stages in my life, forgiveness was easier. I think it had to do with my feeling trapped vs having hope the situation would end soon. I have never been married and frankly the thought of a husband cheating on me is a huge deterrent against wanting to be married. I didn't think like that so much when I was young and think I expected that if I married someone preferably an RM in the right place at the right time that it would be a fairy tale.

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  25. Thank you. Thank you very much.
    To me, forgive is the hardest thing on earth. I simply don't know how to do it or even how to start but reading your post made me realize that I need to do it. I want to be free from the pain, the memories and all the ghosts from my past. I know I need to forgive in order to be free, but will I ever forget? How do I deal with the memories?
    I was sexually abused as a child by a family member. When I tried to talked to my own mother she didn't believe me. She does not even want me to ever talk about that again. This feeling I have is beyond " Terribly Disappointing " and to be honest sometimes trying to ignore my memories is easier than forgive..

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  26. This makes me want to laugh and cry all at the same time. I didn't marry the guy who left me for my relief society president, but it was a LONG TIME before I could forgive him. Not being able to forgive him (or her, for that matter) was the worst thing for me because I felt like I was the failure. It took a long time for me to accept that my anger was justified, that while I'd done some bad things none of them were THAT bad, and that I really didn't need to feel bad about him or me or her anymore.

    Now that I'm a decade past it and those years have dulled the edges of the hurt I still understand it, but I'm glad I'm not still in the throes of it. Thankfulness…the only thing I'm thankful about is that the guy was such an idiot I can use the memory of him to remind me how wonderful my husband is.

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  27. Thank you to all who have so generously and openly commented.

    Forgiveness is HARD. It can – as many have shared – involve immense amounts of pain, tragedy, suffering and angst. My thoughts, virtual hugs and real-time prayers are with those struggling with forgiveness, myself included.

    In writing this post I realised again that the Saviour is ready and willing to take the pain of our suffering, and understands our pain. Not only the pain we have had inflicted upon us, but the pain that comes from trying to forgive those same injustices and offences. The life God has planned for me is not the one I would be able to have if I was still hauling around (and feeding, grooming and exercising) the "stuff my ex has done" beast.

    The other idea which has helped which I couldn't include in my post – my ex doesn't deserve any more of my time, effort, emotion or life. So in giving my pain and my syphilis prayer (along with every other time I've tried and/or succeeded in forgiving) to the Lord, He has helped me uncurl my grudging fingers from the hurt and burden, and let me walk away from it.

    Thank you again, everyone, for your comments, thoughts, experiences and sharing. You are a strength to me, and a continuation in the lessons learned from my syphilis prayer.

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