Seventy times seven

 

A youth from Ivory Coast narrates how she succeeded, during her teens, in not giving way to grudge and hatred.

I was born in Man, a little city built on green hills in the most picturesque area of the Ivory Coast. From my house, I have a clear view of Mount Toukoui, the highest peak in my country. I grew up here with my parents and nine brothers. I had a very serene childhood… at least until my father sought a relationship with another woman and began to neglect the family.

From that moment, the atmosphere at home became intolerable, full of tension and ill feeling which often exploded in violent quarrels. My mother often cried. We children were disoriented in the face of this situation which was so unexpected and, for us, unacceptable. We all lived under the strain of a growing oppression.

In this troubled period, when I was about thirteen years old, I made some new friends. They were my age and they wanted to put the Gospel into practice. They wanted to do this with simplicity, more with actions than with words. They tried to look at the events of their daily lives, and the people around them, in the light of the love of God. When I was with them, I really felt at home, valued, loved, and the load of bitterness that weighed on my heart became easier to carry.

The situation in my family, however, worsened because my mother, exasperated by the difficult relationship with my father, decided to leave home. This was a traumatic moment in my life. I felt so alone and discouraged and I asked myself how I could possibly see God’s love in what was happening and how I could continue to love my father and help my mother.

I knew that Jesus loved me and was close to me, but I wasn’t able to think a single thought that didn’t end up as a giant question mark. Something within me was crushed. The only word which hammered away in my head and in my heart was ‘Why?’.

My father’s new wife came to live with us but neither myself nor my brothers were able, or willing, to build a relationship with her or accept her. The older ones among us, especially, rejected her and quarrelled constantly with her and with our father.

In this situation of conflict, my father became more and more unhappy. He started to drink, neglecting little by little to look after himself and the rest of the family. He cut himself off from everyone. Sometimes we felt as though we were living in a nightmare. In order to give a bit of relief to our family, and allow us to continue with our schooling, some of our uncles invited us to take turns to stay with them.

As the years passed, two separate clans were formed within my family. On the one hand there was my father, his wife and their children, and on the other, my brothers. I tried very hard not to take sides with either of these groups or to be involved in their arguments. The only thing I really wanted was to have a family and to live in an atmosphere of real affection. Instead, I was always alone, powerless, asking myself over and over again, the same question, ‘Why?’

In the very darkest moments, it was my relationship with my friends with whom I tried to live the Gospel which gave me the strength to keep on loving both of these clans. Whenever we met together, and shared the steps we made in living the words of the Gospel, that atmosphere of unity gave new light and strength to all of us. One evening, when I felt really at rock bottom, completely blocked by the suffering caused by my family problems, I rediscovered with the help of my friends, how close Jesus was to me when, on the cross, he cried out to the Father, “My God, why have you abandoned me?”

That was the moment of his greatest suffering. Through this new understanding, every ‘why’ I uttered, acquired a much deeper meaning for me, since I too felt torn within. United to the cry of Jesus, my ‘why’ became a precious pearl to be transformed into love for others, through a greater and more practical love. During the year I lived with my uncles and I worked as hard as possible at school. Every holidays I went back home and I tried to do all I could to help, starting from the humblest domestic jobs.

Often in the evenings, I found my father drunk, asleep on the doorstep of our house. It used to break my heart to see him in this condition, so I used to take him to his room, put him to bed and do everything possible for him so that he might feel loved, even in those moments in which he himself wasn’t loving.
When I finished secondary school, I enrolled in the University of Abidjan situated on the coast, a modern city almost 500 kilometres from Man.

The relationship with my father deteriorated. I no longer managed to find an opening to talk to him or to rebuild our communication and affection. I blamed him and his wife for all the suffering of my adolescence. I felt hurt and betrayed, robbed of the affection of a family, forced to grow up alone in those years when I most needed the support of my parents.

Finally, I decided that I never wanted to see my father again. The next time I met with my friends, I couldn’t contain myself any longer and all my anger flared up: “I want to take revenge for all the pain that he and his wife have caused me. I’m going to go home and destroy everything she owns, because she’s the one who broke up my family and forced my mother out “. I was out of my mind with the pain I had endured for so long in silence. I had lost the truest part of myself, my relationship with Jesus who in so many moments had given me the joy and strength to react with love to the difficulties and misunderstandings I encountered.

My friends listened to my outburst with profound attention. While participating in what I was saying, they did not judge me in any way. This was a very strong moment for me. I suddenly discovered that the weight, previously unbearable, was now being carried together with them. The fire of love which had gone out in my heart was lit up again in me more strongly than before. I thought again of that phrase of Jesus to “forgive seventy times seven”. It was much more difficult to live these words than to take revenge, but I wanted with all my strength to truly forgive my father.

It wasn’t easy. I made many efforts and had many failures, but it was all worthwhile. When I got my degree I couldn’t bring myself to tell my father. I still lacked the courage to face him. I found a good job in a business. That was when my mother, with whom I had a beautiful relationship, urged me to call my father to let him know. I hesitated, but then I understood that the moment had finally come to take a real step towards him. I rang him up. He was happy to hear my voice and proud of my exam results. He sent me a jar of honey and from that moment on he began to give me a weekly update of himself and his life. I felt very moved by the experience of finally gathering the unexpected fruits of my suffering, through my small gesture of true forgiveness. When I finally set aside the yoke of bitterness, everything, even the smallest things became full of light, more beautiful and easier. I understood that when Jesus comes into our life, he transforms it and never leaves us on our own.

Then my father came to visit me. We spoke at length and he confided his problems and his efforts to free himself from the slavery of alcohol. He entrusted to me a large sum of money to support my brothers during their studies. By the time he left I couldn’t say which of us was more uplifted, my father or myself; we had re-established our relationship and our hearts were filled with warmth. With the excuse of the money I was administering, I was able to reunite my brothers. Together, we decided to bury the past. We planned a big surprise for my father and all of us went to visit him at his home. From that moment we all started to look at him with new eyes so that through us he could find the strength and the affection that he lacked. Now I am truly peaceful and I have rediscovered the will to live.

S. F. (Ivory Coast)

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