Over and over again I meet people in the hospital whose pain cannot be alleviated by medications, because even though they feel it in their body, it is soul pain. It is the pain of being out of synch with the world in which they live, the pain that grips when an important relationship (with self, with others, with nature or with God) has been severely damaged and a person can see no way past the brokenness.
One of the peculiar characteristics of this kind of soul pain is that its source is rarely in the present. Physical pain exists primarily in the present moment. This bone is broken now. This cut is bleeding now. This muscle is cramping now. Soul pain is different. That person left me then. That person lied to me then. That person took something precious from me … or ridiculed me … or shamed me then. And regardless of what that other person is doing now, I remain in the moment of pain or brokenness, repeating the story of loss, failure or powerlessness over and over in my mind, the pain growing with each repetition.
When someone is experiencing this kind of soul pain, others will tell them, “you need to forget about it … move on … let go.” But most people don’t know how to do that, and even if they did, ignoring soul pain is about as effective as ignoring physical pain. If we ignore a wound, the problem may get far worse. Today’s Gospel offers the cure for soul pain: choosing to love. Jesus tells us, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
There will be people who set themselves up as our enemies through no fault of our own. Some people are lucky and have rarely felt threatened by an enemy. Others have experienced bullying and abuse from a very young age. For some, the enemy who causes repeated pain, lives in the same house. For others, the enemy is a distant political group or corporate giant. In every case, the enemy is someone (or some group) that is in a position to take something that we value from us.
When someone tries to take something from us, our instinct is to hold on tighter. Jesus tells us to make a different choice: if someone is going to take from us, Jesus challenges us to give even more than they would take. That puts us in a position of power. We are making decisions for our own life; and because we were the one who made the decision, the memory encodes differently on our brains. Instead of a memory of failure, we have a memory of success, a memory of choosing to live according to our values. Memories of failure activate the threat response centers of our brain. We are constantly on alert, bracing for the next threat. Memories of positive choices, even if those choices were difficult, strengthen our ability to make new choices in the future. So often the people that I meet in the hospital whose pain is unrelenting have very good reasons to be angry, very good reasons to desire retribution. They are correct when they say that the other person does not deserve forgiveness. What they fail to realize is that in feeding their anger they are not punishing the other person, they are only hurting themselves more. If we forgive a debt, it does not mean the debt was not owed; it means we are no longer trying to build our lives around receiving a payment that may never come. When we choose to love our enemy and forgive those who have hurt us, we are free to live in the present rather than remain trapped in the past. We are once again free to experience the kingdom of heaven that is already in our midst.