The Freedom of Forgiveness
There are so many misunderstandings about forgiveness in modern culture. Some people see forgiveness as something that only reverent religious people do, and others see it as naively letting your guard down and being weak. Others see it as a unpragmatic, abstract idea. A friend will say, “you just need to forgive,” and the understandable response is, “ohhh-kay, but how?” We have heard the word our entire lives, but questions that come to mind are, “What the hell is forgiveness, really?”, “Why should I do it?” and “Exactly how can I do it?” What is Forgiveness
First of all, let’s define what we mean by forgiveness. When one is unable to forgive, in short, they are unable to let go of resentment. Resentment originates from the Latin word “sentire,” which became the French word “ressentir.” Sentir – means “to feel,” and the prefix “re,” in this case, means “again and again.” So, what we are doing when we are refusing to forgive is giving ourselves emotional distress about something that happened in the past by telling ourselves the same story about it over and over. When we unpack it, the state of non-forgiveness seems quite insane. Essentially, non-forgiveness hinders happiness by unnecessarily bringing the past into the present moment, causing us to see the world through an unrealistically bleak filter.
Forgiveness is ultimately about finding peace within yourself. You don’t have to look for peace; you find peace by letting go of grievances. When you can actually forgive, this allows you to be free and joyful – even if there are other emotions involved. When you become free, you tend to make others around you freer, including the person you feel has apparently wronged you. Freeing others is a bi-product because, ultimately, you are only responsible for your own inner life.
What Forgiveness is Not
Forgiving someone does not mean that you are condoning the person’s behavior or deciding to reconcile with them. For instance, if someone committed a crime against you, part of forgiveness will undeniably be to let go of the vengeful desire to inflict harm on the person who hurt you, but there may still be a need for justice. Another example would be if you tend to be a people-pleaser, you might fall into the trap of feeling that you are obligated to have that person in your life to some degree once you have forgiven. You may find that, ironically, part of your growth process is forgiving someone and simultaneously making sure that the person is no longer in your life. In other words, forgiving does not mean that you are a doormat – it means letting go and being free.
The Benefits of Forgiveness
When I was upset at someone as a teenager, my mother would say to me, “The best revenge is happiness.” This statement really helped me. Cleverly, she told my adolescent mind that if I wanted revenge, I had to let go of the need for revenge, then I would be happy. Happiness and the need for revenge do not coexist.
Forgiveness is not something that you do because you are a good person. You do it for you. Saint Augustine‘s famously said, “resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” It is essential to see that you are the one being hurt when you don’t forgive. Yes, as you become free of your grievances, you will be more pleasant to be around (and certainly healthier people will want to be around you), but in the end, you are the one who gets to be happy. As a result of no longer drinking the poison of your indignant thoughts, you will have better health, less depression and anxiety, better self-esteem, and improved relationships – in other words, your life will transform.
When you let the mind run wild without seeing how inefficient and overly dramatic it can be, you are kept from the joy of life that we would have experienced otherwise. Before you learn the skill of forgiveness, one can have the attitude of, “Since you hurt me, I’ll show you! I’ll be as miserable as I can about what you did.” Certainly, when people do not forgive, they can seek revenge or cause harm to that person, but if you look at your life, you will likely see that this is usually not the case. Most frequently, you will find the person for whom you hold the grudge unaffected – the drama is only happening “between your ears.”
Is the payoff of not forgiving worth it for you?
Yes, not forgiving causes you a lot of suffering, but there is something you are you are getting out of harboring resentment. There is a payoff for not forgiving, or else you wouldn’t indulge in it. The payoff is that you can be “right,” superior, and a victim. You can tell yourself excuses about why you haven’t achieved this or that, why you are unhappy, or can’t live the life you would like. It is. Of course, this is a way to transfer responsibility. Also, being unhappy in areas can just plain be comfortable simply because it is familiar. Being peaceful and free is unchartered territory for many of us, so we can be afraid to go there.
So, the big question to ask is, “Do I actually want to forgive?” In other words, do you see the value in it for yourself? Humans are like all other organisms; we seek pleasure and want to avoid pain. Have you had enough pain in your life? Do you seek freedom? Forgiving is a foundational practice for freedom from pain.
If you have decided that you want to free yourself from grievances, then there are a few steps that I would recommend taking. It takes a little work and some practice. You will most likely find some resistance in yourself at times simply because the mind is used to the habit of causing suffering. Here are the steps that I have found to be life-changing:
Is this personal?
Imagine Scenario 1: You turn a corner quickly in your car because you are running late somewhere. You accidentally cause your tires to squeal, and someone in the car next to you yells out angrily, “idiot!” It might sting a little, but you will most likely not take the comment very personally if you are a relatively well-adjusted person. You may think, “well, they are having a bad day,” but you probably won’t give it a lot of thought.
Scenario 2: Now imagine that you are going around a corner with your spouse, partner, or good friend in your car. You turn the corner, squeal your tires, and he or she calls you an idiot in the same angry tone. You may think to yourself, how dare they? I am not being treated with respect! You may find yourself yelling back at them or later starting an argument because of it. If you are like most people, comments like this from someone close to you will make you more likely to hold a grudge.
Usually, the more we care about someone and the closer we are to them, the more we get upset from things we don’t like. We tend to take these things in and own them. Consider this: Just because we know the person well, love them, or spend a lot of time with them, does not necessarily make comments or behaviors any more personal. If you look at how that person is behaving, you will see that they are likely acting similarly with other people in their lives. If someone is more reactive, judgmental, controlling, etc… that is most likely the way they operate in life, generally.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
Compassion is a vital part of forgiving because it heals your inner division and puts things in a more realistic perspective. When we hold resentments, we think that the person who hurt us could and should be different. Ask yourself, is this true? Could they have really been different? Or is this person doing the best they can with the cards that they have been dealt?
Put yourself in this person’s shoes and imagine what it might have been like to experience some of the things they have experienced. Not only have we all been conditioned to see things a certain way, but we also have a genetic predisposition that gives us strengths and limitations. Try to see the world through their eyes temporarily. We have all been wounded in different ways. See their woundings and know that when you see something that you don’t like in someone that you see their fear. Know that if the person is causing suffering to others, they are suffering themselves. If you do this, compassion will start to replace anger.
Do You See Things in Black and White?
Most of us only see our side of the story. Liberation comes from seeing both sides. Often, when we are angry, we ignore the loving, caring, and good parts of the person we resent. This is the mind’s habit of causing inner division when it is not needed. Remind yourself of the reasons that you love them. It is common for us to dismiss the qualities that we appreciate and admire in someone because we judge them for a small number of things.
You Ain’t Perfect Either.
Admitting your faults can be the hardest part of truly forgiving because we like feeling right or superior. We have all seen people try to take a shortcut to forgive by simply saying, “I forgive him/her!” with what seems to be a sense of moral or spiritual superiority. If we are honest with ourselves, we often see that we have been guilty of the same thing. The important thing to remember is forgiveness takes humility.
There is a lot of freedom in letting go of moral superiority. If the person who has hurt you is close to you, you have most likely done something hurtful to them as well; it is part of being human. You may very well have done the exact type of thing to them but have conveniently forgotten it. For example, if you resent them for losing their temper and calling you a name, have you done the same to them? If not, have you done the same to someone else? We don’t want to overcriticize ourselves, but we do want to own the truth – this helps “take the wind out of your sails” when holding on to anger.
Decide Where the Person Needs to be in Your Life
One way to know that you have truly forgiven is to have more clarity with the relationship. Forgiving will most likely do one of two things. One, you may find yourself being closer to the person, or two, you may find that you need to set boundaries or get the person out of your life altogether. Doing inner work will change you, and as you change, you will learn to treat yourself and others better. Every time you forgive, you not only become happier, but you also open possibilities in your life.
Forgiveness is not a lofty action, and not that difficult to do. It just takes willingness and understanding. – Know that there are payoffs for not forgiving and see if you want to continue indulging in self-pity, excuses, or being a victim.- See the benefits of forgiving and ask if you are willing to do the work to let go of the repetitive negative thoughts. – See that although people cause harm, they are doing the best that they can. – Know that humility will help set you free. See that you are also deeply flawed because you are a human. – When it comes to people, don’t forget to see the forest’s beauty because of some trees’ ugliness.