Many people think of forgiveness as a saintly, unselfish act. We sometimes feel that by forgiving the person who has wronged us, we are wiping clean the memory of the event. We may even feel that by forgiving, we are accepting or even condoning the behavior that wounded us.
But this is not the case at all. Forgiving a person does not excuse or erase the hurtful episode. This type of thinking gets it eh way of our being able to forgive, or even think about forgiving someone. “Why would I do that?” we say, “I’m still mad about it. I’m still hurt.”
By thinking this way, we fail to see that by how holding onto hurt and anger we are really only continuing it. It pains no one but ourselves.
As Shakespeare so aptly put it, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
But by shifting our thinking, we can stop the hurt.
Once we realize that forgiving a person is not about them, but about us we make the first shift. Carrying around resentment hurts us, not them. Letting go of that resentment benefits us, not them.
When we forgive we are letting ourselves off the hook: we are no longer punishing ourselves.
Anger and resentment led me to have an affair. For years I got together with two guys named Ben and Jerry. I put on weight. it was the weight of ice cream, but also the weight of anger. I was so angry with my father for the way he treated me I built a wall around me of my own flesh.
But then, I decided to forgive him, and the weight came off!
When we decide it’s time to forgive we are not forgiving the act or the result, but instead allowing ourselves to stop feeling the uncomfortable emotions, the hurt, blame and anger that go along with holding a grudge. You forgive so that you can move on.
A ceremony of release might be helpful. On small strips of paper, write down each thing the person did that hurt you. Each and every thing that still hurts you, that you are still thinking about, that you are still angry about. It might take an hour, an evening, or a weekend. Read each one aloud. After they have all been read, burn them or tear them, or bury them. Sit on a riverbank and let the tiny strips float down stream. Do whatever you need to do for them to be released, forever gone.
If the person is still a part of your life, try to make a list of their good qualities, or nice things they have done for you. This is another important way to shift your thinking.
By holding onto the event and our negative feelings, we pay the price over and over again by bringing anger and bitterness into our relationships and experiences. By not forgiving, we destroy our ability to enjoy the present.
When we are not able to enjoy the present, we open the door to depression and anxiety. How can a life have meaning if there is little or nothing to enjoy about it? The grudge is a wedge between us and other people. It prohibits intimate connection. Getting rid of the anger frees you. Forgiving frees you.
By writing down the hurt and acknowledging your anger you accept that it is there. Then you let it go. Next, you shift your thinking, creating new pathways in the brain by shifting your view.
Sit in a quiet place and think about the person who hurt you. Is there any other way to see them besides as the person who hurt you? Ask yourself these questions about the person or event:
What were they like as a child? Do they have any troubles in their life? Try and see them in a little different way than just someone who hurt you or as an event that was personal.
If you could shift, and see the other person’s side of the problem what would it look like? What motivated them to do what they did and treat you that way? Was it really about you? Or about something else gone wrong in their life? Where they actively trying to hurt you, or was it an unforeseen accident?
Once we can make the mind-shift and see the situation from another angle, we can go to new emotional levels, and escape the confines of anger, revenge and hate. These are the very emotions that, while they may feel as though they are fueling us, they actually holding us back, stunting our ability to really experience anything else because our rage seeps into every other relationship we have.
Sometimes, our hurt is so great we feel that if we get rid of the anger, hurt and resentment, there won’t be anything left of us.
This is never really true. We were something, someone, a whole person before the event, and once we release the feelings of abandonment, rejection or betrayal we open ourselves to discovery, acceptance and loyalty and love. We become whole again.
If the person who needs to be forgiven is a partner or spouse, think about how you would like your relationship to change, to benefit you. Now imagine yourself being the change you want to see in the relationship. The relationship can be made whole, and you will reap the benefits of letting go of negative emotions. You and your partner will no longer be held in a stalemate of resentment.
Once you forgive successfully, you feel the burden lifted. There is a sense of freedom and elation. We sometimes think that if we hold a grudge long enough, punish a person sufficiently, we will free ourselves. It never works that way. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
All people are fallible. Everyone makes mistakes. Since we all make mistakes, by forgiving others we are recognizing that we are not perfect either, and that we too, deserved to be forgiven. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
Research on the mind shows a definite correlation between forgiveness and health. The physical body, when it holds onto anger, shows increased signs of stress. The heart, in particular, suffers. But by recognizing and then consciously letting go of our anger, trying to see the situation from another angle and understand it in a new way, you allow yourself to react in a new way, physically and emotionally.
Even if you come to the conclusion that the person who wronged you did it because they are unable to behave any other way, you have gained insight and reason. Perhaps their whole life they have been treated just this way and do not know anything different. This is particularly true of abuse. Abuse is a cyclic. By forgiving, you take yourself out of the cycle because you are in effect stopping the cycle. You are seeing it in a different way, something an abuser is unable to do. But it can be done.
Gandhi also recognized that forgiveness does not come easily. “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”
Corrie Ten Boom, concentration camp survivor and author of The Hiding Place said “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”
It is hard to forgive someone when they have wounded us deeply. It is hard, when someone asks for forgiveness to be able to give up our desire to punish and seek revenge.
The task is even more difficult if the offender does not or cannot ask for forgiveness. How can they accept responsibility if, for example, they are dead? In this case we must imagine that they truly want to be forgiven. We must imagine that they accept responsibility for what they did. Then we move forward and actively release them. In doing so, we release ourselves. We become whole again.
Eastern philosophy recognizes the importance of forgiveness as well. If you believe in karma, then you can forgive because you know that that every person who makes a mistake will sooner or later have to face the consequences of those actions. Karma will find you, in this life or another. If you are able to forgive, then you have released yourself from the lesson and can move on, but the person who wronged you must recognize what they have done in order to move on, in this life or the next.
When you decide to forgive you self-advocate. When you forgive others, you are saying that you too make mistakes and deserve to be forgiven. Forgiveness may not be an easy task, but one that is well worth the effort.