I took a lot of long road trips this summer. If you have ever ridden with me, you know that I almost always do the driving. I am a bit of a control freak, and also suffer from motion sickness. Combine the two and you get someone who volunteers to drive every time.
I notice that on a long drive, my left shoulder and arm begin to ache. It can be annoying after a couple hours, and excruciating on a really long drive. It is always my left arm because although I am right handed, I mostly drive left handed.
On our last long trip, I pointed this out to Rusty. ‘You know why, don’t you?’ he said. ‘No,’ I admitted, ‘not really.’ (Then he stopped to relish one of those moments when he knew something and I didn’t. I let him, since I know how hard it is to be married to a know-it-all.)
‘It’s because you drove stick shift for so many years,’ he explained. And he was right, of course. My first car was a stick, and I drove a manual almost exclusively for my first sixteen years or so of driving. My left hand was steering because my right hand was shifting. Muscle memory had done the rest. And now, although I have driven an automatic for the last ten years, that muscle memory makes my left hand take the wheel. Even when I correct myself and place my right hand up, it doesn’t take long for my concentration to drift, and my left to take over. So as often as I tell myself on those long drives to switch hands, my left works hard to go back to where it is comfortable: on the wheel.
I think that there is an emotional muscle memory as well. I think that this is one of the reasons that it can be hard to really forgive someone. It is because even when we forgive, but we rarely forget. When someone has hurt us or wronged us, it is so easy- comforting even- to turn that offense over and over in our minds. Repeatedly we examine it, assuring ourselves that we were in the right, that it was indeed a grievous wrong. In this way, we create an emotional muscle memory that flashes up at the strangest times.
It might pop up when dealing with the person that you thought you forgave. It might be when something else stresses you emotionally- something seemingly unrelated. But because that emotional muscle memory is there, we dredge up these past hurts again, turning them over and over, like some wretched treasure that we are unwilling to part with. It is as exhausting as driving for hours with just one hand. And yet, even though we know that relief comes with just switching hands- or in this case consciously switching off that wounded inner dialogue- we can easily sabotage that relief by switching right back again.
This is perhaps one reason when Peter asked Jesus if seven times was an adequate number of times to forgive a brother who has sinned against him, Jesus replied ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven .’
There are times when I know I need to forgive someone seventy times seven times. Because even when I say ‘I forgive you’, that emotional muscle memory can pull me back out of forgiveness again. Actually, I think the number of times depends on the intent. I need to say ‘I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you….” until I don’t just say it, I mean it. Only then will it stop exhausting me, freeing me for better things.
Who do you need to forgive?