After my first semester of college, I decide to spend part of my Christmas break with my dad in Los Angeles. C’mon who wouldn’t want to spend a few weeks in 70 degree weather after a tough first semester as a freshman in college?
The fact is this was the trip to L.A. that changed my life forever.
I had spent summers and Christmas breaks with my dad for the last 10 years, but now I was 18 – a grown man (or so I thought).
I know you’re thinking I chose to go out there so that I could have a wild time hanging out in L. A. The fact is, I was afraid to leave the house. Dad was living in South Central L.A. at the time about a mile from the heart of Inglewood. This was the late 80’s and gangs ran the block. I was a kid from Nashville, and I didn’t want to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not to mention, I wouldn’t dare wear ANYTHING red or blue. However, my dad’s favorite outfit was of course, red sweatpants, a blue t-shirt and a red cap. I remember walking about 20 feet behind him when we went out for Mexican dinner on Crenshaw Blvd. I figured if there was a drive by, I wouldn’t get shot as long as I didn’t look like I was with him.
Ok, back to the reason this was the moment that changed my life.
I decided that on this trip, I wanted to have a heart to heart with my dad about our past and our future. I guess that’s what you do when you’re a grown man right?
It was late in the evening and we were hanging out on the couch when I said to my dad, “For my entire life I’ve heard how much I’m just like my dad. I’ve heard a lot of things about you over the years, and most of it was NOT good.” This statement really got my dad’s attention. I continued to say, “now that I’m grown, I really want to get to know you for myself. I want to develop a real relationship with you as a man. I want you to know that I forgive you for not being there for me growing up. I know you were young and you made mistakes that you wish that you could change. Dad, that’s the past and we can’t change what happened, so let’s just focus on building our relationship starting today.”
That was the moment. In that statement, I had erased 18 years of guilt for my dad and pain for myself.
Eighteen years of regret built up inside of him for not being there for me while I was growing up.
Eighteen years of me wondering why.
Eighteen years of us both pretending that all of the pain was erased and forgiven.
In that moment, I forgave him and most importantly, he forgave himself. I felt the power of the moment. I could sense the burden of guilt being lifted off my dad. I knew this was a moment that would change my life, but I didn’t really know how or to what degree. My dad says to this day he still remembers that moment as a turning point in his life.
We’ve all heard sermons in church about unconditional love as it relates to God’s love for us. Unconditional love is often mentioned at wedding ceremonies as the guiding principle to a happy, long-lasting marriage. Based on these teachings, I had a pretty good idea what unconditional love meant. I knew that it was a deeper love that remained committed no matter what the circumstances. It meant loving someone in spite of their mistakes and shortcomings.
But one day, I heard a preacher talk about unconditional forgiveness. His message really stuck with me, because I thought, “this means that you have to forgive someone regardless of what they’ve done to you or a loved one”. In other words, you have to forgive AND forget!
I immediately began to think of the families of those that lost loved ones to domestic violence or senseless acts of violence (drive-by shootings, gang related violence, vehicular homicide caused by DUI). Typically, you see those family members saying, “he/she/they need to pay for what they did to…” However, there has been a rare instance of unconditional forgiveness where the family member says, “I forgive him/her for what they’ve done. And I’d like to pray for them and their families as we all find ways to cope with this tragedy.”
Now let’s be honest. How many of us could truly say that after our little girl or boy has been murdered before fulfilling all the dreams or purpose life seemed to promise? This kind of forgiveness is rare. It’s not easy to forgive when you’re in this kind of pain, but some people are able to forgive unconditionally.
In my case, I feel that I was able to forgive my dad unconditionally, because I saw in his eyes the pain and regret he felt. I could hear it in his voice when I talked about the things going on in my life. I knew that he was young and immature and frankly not ready to be a real father to me. How could I truly hold that over his head when I could see the pain he was already in? Once he saw and felt my forgiveness, he was able to open up to me and be a better man, father and friend. And frankly, I was able to receive and return that love unconditionally.
In order to get to unconditional forgiveness, you first have to love yourself and others unconditionally. I challenge each of you, parents and children alike, to seek the power of unconditional love and unconditional forgiveness. Regardless of the pain caused or felt, you should not carry such a heavy burden around with you.