I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately. Not the “noun” kind of forgiveness that mostly exists in theory, but the “verb” kind. You know, the kind of forgiveness that takes a spiritual concept to the level of action that many people talk about, but rarely understand.
Like most of my life lessons, the way that I experienced forgiveness as a child should have informed the way I acted on it as an adult. This isn’t the case.
My first lessons in forgiveness came courtesy of the daily conflicts I had with my siblings.
I grew up with two sisters and one brother. As the baby of the family, I held no real power. So holding a grudge was not something I was even in the position to do. By virtue of birth order alone, I was the most forgiving. The victim of countless childhood pranks, inside jokes , secrets that I was never let in on, and teasing that rivaled the cruelest of playground bullies, my siblings were the first people who ever did me wrong. As a result, they were the first people I ever learned to forgive.
For the most part, it was the two middle kids. My sister, Cherie, was 4 years older and my brother, Haisan, was 2 years older. You’d think they would have had better things to do with their time, but no. They reaped havoc on my innocence as entertainment and found joy in seeing me beg to hang out with them.
Their favorite method of mocking me was to remix the words of popular songs to shame me about my personal flaws…to taunt me about preteen secrets they claimed I was “too much of a baby” to know. Seemed kind of silly at the time, but in retrospect, teasing me in song was the perfect cover! When Mama wasn’t around, they would sing the remixed songs often enough that the real words no longer existed in my head. One of their most memorable versions was the 1979 Sister Sledge hit, He’s The Greatest Dancer . I was all of six years old when they remixed the chorus with one single line that, even 36 years later, haunts me.
The chorus, as Sister Sledge sang it, simply went:
(I wonder why) He’s the greatest dancer.
(I wonder why), That I’ve ever seen.
Their terrorizing take on it:
(I wonder why) He’s the greatest dancer.
(I wonder why) Tyra’s coo-coo stinks!
To be clear, coo-coo was the word my family used to refer to a girl’s private parts. So you can imagine my horror each time I heard them sing this chorus. Even when I heard the song on the radio, their mean words rang through my head and instantly made me cry. They would laugh—no—crack up! When Mama was around, they’d mumble the words to the song and when I would tell on them, they would claim their innocence by insisting that they were just plain singing! Even them humming the tune was enough to send me into full out crybaby mode!
“Maaaaaaaaa!!! They messin’ with me!”
More often than not, Mama would just yell back, “Y’all leave Tyra alone!”
Cherie and Haisan would laugh, then move on to other things. I would sit around feeling sorry for myself. Feeling sorry for being the baby of the family and not having anyone to help me gang up on them.
No matter how hurt I claimed to be, though, all it ever took to get back in my graces was a simple “Come on, Tyra. Let’s play cards,” or some other halfhearted statement that was more of a demand than a request.
Michele, my oldest sister, rarely participated in any of the pranks or inside jokes. The way she teased me was not exactly offensive. Her tone was always loving and full of the giggling kind of mocking that was far more endearing than it was mean. She called me “Plas,” a nickname that made fun of the way the dried up saliva looked around my mouth when I woke up in the morning. Sometimes, she would tickle me a little too long, turning my spells of laughter into pleas for help. On more than one occasion, she conned me into sitting on the big couch next to her, for the sole purpose of exposing my post-bath, still filthy, fat little feet to Mama in a sneaky sort of way. The look on my face when Mama ordered me back into the tub was enough to make Michele laugh until tears fell. Hers and mine.
I could probably write a short book detailing all the terrible things my siblings did to me growing up. That book would be an interesting read and would serve as a cautionary tale to those who were born last in the line of their parents’ children. Some of the stories would leave readers doubled over from laughter. Others might trigger the slight sting felt by many of us when we are reminded of how cruel the rites of passage through siblinghood can be.
I could totally write this book, but I would rather write a different book instead. This book would focus on the crimes committed by my siblings, but only as a way to highlight how my relationship with my sisters and brother taught me to forgive on a daily basis. This day to day forgiveness, as a child, was almost instinctive: a survival tactic. An act of love. Yet, as an adult, I often struggle to locate this nature inside. To move past that point of pain. To get to that moment of head- nodding agreement where the idea of accepting an invitation to “play cards” is viewed as something more than stupidity or self-betrayal.
The old adage, “You can forgive but you can never forget” has gotten me off the “forgiveness hook” more times than I can recall. With this belief, there is no need to create space in my life for those who have done me wrong. Far too often, I have said, “Well, I am not carrying a grudge, but I will never allow (insert name here) the opportunity to hurt me again.”
In so many ways, I have been justified. There have been those “seasonal” folks in my life who did not deserve the opportunity to “play cards” with me ever again. But what happens when the harm comes from a parent? A sibling? A best friend? Someone you need to love in order to forgive. Someone you need to forgive in order to love.
In keeping some people at the distance of the unforgiven, am I also preventing the opportunity for redemption: The chance for those who have done me wrong to show improve and deliver joy rather than pain? In marking these folks as unforgivable, am I also marking myself as such?
The heart can be a tricky space of conflict. It is a space where hate, anger, and blame can exist at the same time as love, calm, and forgiveness. As humans, we tend to compartmentalize these emotions and, like a game of cards, deal them out as we deem necessary.
I’m beginning to learn that these emotions cannot exist harmoniously inside of me. As I continue to seek and deliver joy in my life, I wonder if I will be able to practice the kind of forgiveness I had within me as a child. I have to wonder if I will ever be able to “play cards” with my mother and father. But most of all, I have to wonder: Who might be reluctant to “play cards” with me?