A picture is worth a thousand words?

A friend tagged me in this Facebook picture. The year was 1989. I'm not sure of the month. So I was either thirty years old or about to turn thirty. It's interesting what you remember specifically about a certain age.

When I look at this picture, I feel as if I don't know this person. It's not the eighties hair. I remember thinking I needed as much volume as possible and getting regular perms for years. I remember the clothes and even that necklace. I remember my friendship with Kelly and bits and pieces of her special day. But when I look at "me" in the picture, there is a disconnect.

Although none of us likes the negative aspects of aging, I wouldn't go back to being this person "for all the tea in China," as they say.

So, what specifically do I remember about the year I turned thirty? Interestingly enough, the first and most vivid memory I have of that year is that my dad declined an invitation to celebrate my thirtieth birthday with me because I wanted to drive to the beach for dinner. It took an hour to drive to Newport Beach from where we lived. And I wanted to celebrate by going to my favorite restaurant. He said that he would go if we went to Cask 'n Cleaver (a restaurant that was five minutes from his house), but he wasn't driving an hour to the Chart House. I remember the exact words that followed his "no." He laughed and said, "I'm not married to her."

Why is it that memories like that are etched in your brain? If we forgive, why can't we just delete the memory? I rarely think about my thirtieth birthday these days. I'm not harboring resentment or nursing an old wound. It's just a fact of my life. When I think about my thirtieth birthday, I remember my dad's response to the birthday invitation. I guess I always will. One of the realities of my life is that my dad was never willing to be inconvenienced. What's changed in the 51-year-old Shari is my understanding that this was not about me. It wasn't personal. However, 30-year-old Shari experienced it as deeply personal.

That memory is fairly benign and one that I laugh about now. There are more intense memories that I wouldn't share on my blog because it would be inappropriate. I left many details out of my book when it came to the deepest pain of my past life because I did not want to hurt or humiliate people, nor did I want to be self-serving or self-indulgent. I truly have forgiven (and not just my dad). But the whole point I'm trying to illustrate is that the memories don't just disappear because we forgive.

We can't wipe our brains clean of memories when it comes to cruel words and actions. Especially those situations and relationships where the wounds have been inflicted and reopened repeatedly. When I revisit memories of being treated with contempt, cruelty and indifference, the pain of those wounds resurfaces even though I believe I've moved past them and truly forgiven. It's kind of like herpes zoster, which lies dormant until it is reactivated by something; stress or a compromised immune system. Memories are triggered by surrounding events. Ironically, my fortieth birthday holds intensely painful memories of conflict and rejection that were far more devastating than my thirtieth birthday. I don't think about those events very often. But there is a pathway in my brain that connects two major events; my fortieth birthday party and the painful rejection that came in an email the night before. The memories will be forever intertwined.

What this means is that forgiveness is not a one time event that removes all past pain. We must choose to forgive again and again, every time the memory is triggered, every time the pain is brought to the surface. If we have forgiven, we want God's best and God's mercy to come to the person who wronged us. We don't want them to suffer. We say in our hearts: I release you from owing me anything. I set you free.

But does that mean we run back to the person or the turbulent relationship? More and more I believe the answer to that question is no. Sometimes we have to surrender a person or a relationship to God and step back. Whether the step back is temporary or permanent depends on many variables. Every situation is different. Sometimes there comes a realization that the relationship we once pursued and longed for will never be possible. What is broken cannot be fixed by us. We stop trying to fix it.

I never had peace about certain broken relationships in my life until I came to the realization that I cannot fix what is broken and God does not hold me accountable for someone else's heart. As long as I truly forgive (and continue to forgive when the memories resurface), holding no bitterness in my heart, I am free to choose some relationships and not others. I will never have my guard up so high that my heart is closed to genuine healing and restoration. But I am not interested in a facade or simply being willingly used by someone for their own purposes. That's not a relationship.

I remember my Christian counselor telling me once that there is suffering that glorifies God and there is suffering that does not bring any glory to God because it is enabling ungodly behavior. That stuck with me. Much of my life was spent enabling ungodly behavior while thinking I was doing something noble and self-sacrificing and loving. That thinking was reinforced by my environment and my spiritual conditioning.

This whole post was "inspired" by an old picture from another time, a time when there was a lot of pain in that young woman's life. I see it in her eyes. You probably don't because you don't know what her life was like. The surface of a person's life never tells the whole story. I have several friends who have told me repeatedly that I lived in denial and they knew it, but they couldn't say it while I was still choosing it. I tell them there is a difference between being in denial of your circumstances and trying to rise above what you feel powerless to change.

My coping mechanism has always been to look at my blessings instead of my problems, to remind myself of those less fortunate than me instead of those with seemingly "greener grass." I remember one of the valuable tools my dad gave me early in life was this statement: "Shari, a lot of people spend their lives trading one set of problems for another set of problems. If they'd just work on the problems they have, they'd be better off. Learn from other people's mistakes and don't have to make them all yourself." I remembered those words and I tried to live by them. That coping style served me so well that I stayed in an abusive relationship for 27 years, determined to accept the problems I had. I now realize that I played a role in the toxicity of my life. I was also unhealthy. I enabled as a form of self-protection, not as self-sacrifice. I had to change once I saw my role. Change was painful and scary.

The last eight years of my life have been the polar opposite. I am blessed beyond words. God has redeemed my life in ways the young woman in that picture could not have even imagined. My dreams were not as big as God's plans were for me. I've tasted freedom and joy. I finally know what it's like to be loved and valued. Which makes me much less likely to settle for artificiality in any relationship. I'm not needy like I used to be. I'm not looking for love and approval anywhere I can get it. I'm no longer trying to be whatever someone else wants me to be to fit into their definition of lovable. That's one of the ways I know I'm healing from the past.

If you're in the middle of turbulent times, be assured that God has a plan for your life and He will not abandon you. There were times in my life that I did not believe God saw or cared or would ever rescue me out of certain circumstances. But He did more than rescue me. He delivered me. He redeemed me. And He is healing me continuously. I'm not special. He will do that for you too. Sometimes you just have to wait for Him when His timing isn't what you'd like it to be.

In hindsight, I see how every painful experience has helped to develop my character and deepen my trust in God. I'm thankful for the painful experiences because through my own challenges and difficulties, I am better equipped to help other hurting people. I am more compassionate because of what I've gone through. I am more forgiving because I recognize my own need to be forgiven.

Did the locusts eat a few years of my life? Oh, absolutely. Or at least it seemed so at the time. But none of those years seem wasted compared with what I have gained.

God works ALL THINGS for our good. Believe it.