“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Lewis B. Smedes
In order to achieve mind-blowing, heart-fluttering, so-many-weights-lifted-I-feel-like-a-fluffy-cloud happiness, I need to learn how to forgive.
I’ve been working a great deal on the idea of forgiveness. The trouble for me has always been that no one has asked me for it. The people who have hurt me the most in my life – and I’m talking about heart-wrenching-this-shit-is-against-the-law type of hurt – haven’t begged for forgiveness. They haven’t even apologized. And one person is still active in my life, much to my psychological detriment, and I can’t get rid of them. Not currently, at least.
I always thought that to forgive meant to excuse, as if to say, “It’s OK that you hurt me. I don’t mind. I’m not worthy enough to be angry with you for hurting me. Heck, I probably deserved it. Maybe I was even asking for it.” I’ve known cognitively for quite some time that forgiveness isn’t about excusing someone’s behavior, but sometimes it is terribly hard to get your heart to believe what your brain is trying to tell it.
I can be pretty dense sometimes. Flighty. Head in the clouds. You know the type. But it has finally sunk in that in order to set myself fully free of hurt caused by someone else’s actions, I must forgive them. It isn’t a gift I’d be giving them. It will be for me.
Isn’t it interesting how when you’re enraged with someone for slighting you in some way, oftentimes it seems like they don’t even give you the pleasure of noticing or acknowledging your frustration? That’s because the only person you’re hurting with your anger and resentment is yourself. And so it’s time to bless and release. Let it go. Move on. Forgive.
So what does it mean to forgive?
Ever the English nerd, I looked it up on my favorite dictionary website: M-W.com. To forgive is to cease to feel resentment against someone or to give up resentment of or claim to requital for, meaning you’re not looking for retaliation.
Can I do this? It’s such a tall order. But that’s what I’m looking for so that my own heart can feel better. I only seek peace. Of course, I’d like to tell the people I’m angry with why I am angry with them. But I’ve gone through countless scenarios in my head of how that might go, and it never ends well. Even if they’re groveling at my feet, I will still feel horrible because it doesn’t take away the pain they caused me.
Only I can take it away from myself. Only I can free myself of the pain.
Psychologist Peter R. Breggin addressed this in an article in The Huffington Post last week, writing, “Forgiveness, as I understand it after all these decades on Earth, is about an attitude toward both ourselves and others. Forgiveness is an attitude of letting go of enmity and resentment and encouraging ourselves to feel genuinelove and empathy. It begins with kindness and understanding toward ourselves.
Forgiving ourselves allows us to recognize our own faults and then to correct them as much as we can without languishing in unforgiving guilt and shame. Guilt and shame actually make us less able to examine ourselves. We try to relieve these self-punishing attitudes by denying responsibility for any wrong actions. In a state of denial that protects us from guilt and shame, we cannot identify what we need change about ourselves.
Further in regard to ourselves, to forgive others is to make peace within ourselves. We give up anger and resentment and thereby become freer of spiritually-corrupting malice. We no longer give those who have hurt us the power to continue to do so by preoccupying us with their deeds.
In regard to others, forgiveness relieves us of the motivation to gratuitously harm others. We may still feel the necessity of taking self-protective actions that end up harming them, for example, by excluding them from our lives, but we have not done so out of malice. We have acted to protect ourselves or our families and not for the purpose of inflicting harm.
Similarly, people may be harmed in our political lives if we fight against their interests, but we are better off if we are motivated by the pursuit of ideals and principles rather than resentment. If we are trying to improve the world in some way, this difference in attitude enables us to behave more rationally and often results in our having a better impact.
Forgiveness also leaves room to welcome back friends or family when they have changed and are no longer a danger to us or our loved ones. The same is true in our political lives where, whenever possible, we try to let go of old resentments in order to accomplish a greater good.
Forgiveness ultimately empowers us by clarifying our minds. Unclouded by resentment, jealousy, or hate, it is far easier to make rational decisions about who can be trusted and who cannot be trusted, and about how to best improve our lives and the lives of others.
Forgiveness goes hand in hand with empathy. Empathy involves a caring and even loving response to another’s viewpoint and experience. It does not, however, mean that we approve or reward another person’s viewpoint and behavior. In my experience, when we approach other people in an open and receptive manner, if these people have bad intentions, it becomes much more readily apparent to us than when we approach them with suspicion and callousness.
People who are forgiving do not become vulnerable to individuals who have harmed them or have the intent to harm them. Forgiveness involves seeing people for who they are, both the good and the bad, while letting go of spiritually-corrupting negative emotions that make us anxious and keep us up at night, wasting our energy, which can be turned to better uses.
As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, it’s apparent to me that the most forgiving people are the happiest and most effective, and that the least forgiving people are the most miserable and ineffective. A great deal of personal suffering, including what gets called mental illness, is rooted in an angry, unforgiving attitude toward oneself, other people, and the world.”
For years, I have counted myself among the happy and forgiving. But lately I have been struggling in a place of being unforgiving, tormented by anger and anxiety.
I know why. I know the source of all of it. But knowing why doesn’t make it go away. I have empathy toward the person I have anger for. I have compassion for them, too.
Writing this post makes me feel less anxious, as I call upon what it is that I want to do. I want to forgive one of the people who have hurt me the most. But it won’t be an easy journey and writing it down is only the first step.
Have you forgiven someone for something hugely terrible? How did you do it — and really make it stick to your heart for good?