Life is precarious, people aren’t perfect, and so it’s inevitable that at some point we’ll be hurt or injured emotionally by somebody’s words or actions. The offense may be something relatively mild (making a thoughtless remark) or horrendous (child abuse).
The question is how do we heal? Should we forgive, and if so, why? And how? And what does forgiveness mean, anyway?
Reasons to forgive:
The alternative is resentment and stewing over the matter, which is bound to wear you down emotionally and physically. Resentment is exhausting or worse – it can lead to clinical depression, anxiety or panic attacks, immune system disruption, cardiac problems, and other stress-induced physical problems. It’s been said that “resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die”.
A caveat: Anger is slightly different. Anger is like a case of food poisoning that can be intense but over relatively quickly. Resentment bears more resemblance to a chronic, debilitating illness that slowly and painfully saps our life force. We can acknowledge and express our anger and then let it go. There is wisdom in the saying, “Don’t go to sleep angry”. If you need to address an issue with somebody, do so as soon as practically possible. “Anger ventilated often hurries toward forgiveness; anger concealed often hardens into revenge.” (Edward G. Bulwer-Lutton)
“Forgiveness means letting go of the past.” (Gerald Jampolsky) For some of us, releasing our stronghold on the past doesn’t come easily, for at a subconscious level we feel that if we struggle hard enough, we might be able to change history. However, a ”repetition compulsion”, or becoming embroiled in a traumatic event or behavior pattern again and again, can trip us up in many ways.
For instance, if we’ve been hurt by a previous romantic partner’s untreated drug addiction, we might unconsciously seek out a similar sort of partner in the future, due to our wanting to bring about a different ending this time around, and thus “fix” or “master” the situation. However, odds are that by hanging onto the past in this way we’ll open ourselves up to more misery.
Thus, forgiving what has happened is the best way of moving forward in a positive direction. Harboring resentment is like trying to drive with the brake on, and an effective life is not lived looking through the rearview mirror.
“Hanging on to resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head” (Anonymous). Do you really want to give someone else that sort of power over you?
You might consider if in some way you want to remain tied to the object of your resentment, at least in your mind, by continuing to mentally rehash the situation. Being bound to another person by animosity will merely bring you heartache and sap your energy for other, more fruitful, pursuits. If you do want to salvage the relationship with the object of your resentment, recognize this, begin the process of forgiving them, repair that which can be mended, and build the relationship on a foundation of forgiveness, love, and accountability.
Forgiveness does not mean that the other person immediately gains your trust. However, if the other person has stated their intention to behave differently in the future, you can be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. In other words, as Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, don’t use “idiot compassion” and skirt confronting an issue and setting clear boundaries because you’re trying to maintain your image as a “nice person”. Nobody said that forgiveness means being a doormat.
Forgiveness empowers you. “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” (Gandhi) Accepting and being at peace that a specific situation did occur, and that we can release our hold on it, gives us control. Forgiveness shows that we are taking responsibility for our own happiness, rather than allowing someone else’s actions (or inaction) to determine our state of mind. We take on the role of hero or heroine, rather than victim.
“One forgives to the degree that one loves.” (Francois de La Rouchefoucauld) I don’t interpret this as necessarily saying that we love the individual who swindled us out of our life savings, for instance, or the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11/01 attacks on the U.S. However, we can still believe in the power of love that exists within our world, our relationships, and ourselves. We can refuse to let the light of love in our hearts be extinguished. While marinating in hurt hampers our ability to love, forgiveness gives us this power.
No, forgiveness is not always easy. However, it’s preferable to the alternative.
Ways to forgive:
Imagine the other person/offending party as a little child. Consider what may have happened to them, to cause them to treat you poorly. Keep in mind that forgiveness refers to the actor, not the act.
Remember that we’re all doing the best we can, given our current resources. Accept the other person’s emotional shortcomings.
Express your feelings on paper. If appropriate, share what you’ve written with the other person. Either way, get it out and over with. Don’t stew. At the same time, acknowledge that feelings of anger may resurface from time to time, and that anger and forgiveness can exist at the same time. What you’re trying to do is to tip the scales in favor of forgiveness.
Contemplate people who have forgiven their enemies for horrible injustices. Use such people as inspiration.
Ask yourself what you would prefer to dwell in – pain or peace. Make the choice for peace. You may need to make it again and again, but the very act of recognizing that you can choose, and then doing so, strengthens you.