I was staring into the dark from my narrow bed in my tiny college dorm-style apartment – insomnia feeding a long-held hatred, whispering sweet revenges softly in my ear. Suddenly, an unfamiliar thought displaced this well-worn late night path.
“Your anger is not affecting him in any way. You are the only one being eaten away by your bitterness. It’s been thirteen years; it’s time to forgive.”
NOT POSSIBLE. My sister is gone because of him. He pushed her out of a moving truck. That is unforgivable. I can never go on as if that didn’t matter.
“Of course it matters. It will always matter. You will always feel the pain of it, but that pain doesn’t have to keep causing you to suffer. You can let it go and find peace.”
I don’t know. How would my family react? They might never understand how I could even consider it.
“Do you really think they would prefer you to suffer?”
On and on, these two sides of myself wound their way through a hedge maze of whys and why nots, until I finally ran out of excuses. Until I realized there was no way out, except to let go. And when I loosened my grip on it, there was an immediate, almost physical sensation of relief. I wrote for hours, crying with relief and exhaustion, until there was nothing left but a strange peace…
In my research for this blog post, I read from a range of sources (the field of psychology, various religions, spiritual leaders, and laypersons). Not one of the many definitions of forgiveness I read included the ideas of condoning, forgetting, reconciliation, pretending it didn’t happen, or having anything to do with the offender (ever again).
And yet, we have this emotionally debilitating notion that these things are hooked, like insidious thorns, into letting go of our own pain, anger, and resentment. And so we cling to our suffering, because we have the idea that releasing it is the same as saying “It’s okay. Come give me a hug and let’s cry it out.”
There is a saying (attributed to many people): “Holding on to anger is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.” The person who wronged you may, or may not know, or care at all, that you carry this pain around with you. So who is really affected by it? You. And possibly those you are closest to.
Give Yourself Time
You may not be ready yet. The hurt may still be too fresh (even years later).
I thought that forgiving the guy who killed my sister meant I was in the clear – that I had mastered forgiving. Then fifteen years later, I realized I still held a deep hatred for my father’s ex-wife.
When they were married, she would lie to each of us. On weekends when we were planning to be together, she would often call me and say that my father had plans. And then she would tell him that I had called to say that I had something else to do. I was only twelve when he died. When I discovered what she had been doing while they were married, I wished her a thousand hells for robbing us of that time together.
When it finally hit me, just last year, that I still felt anger grip my heart with every passing thought of her, I realized I had visited that thousand hells onto myself, and begin the process of letting go.
It took me 30 years to release that anger. I hope it doesn’t take you that long, but if it does, then I hope you honor that process, and check in from time to time to see if there’s been a shift.
Jack Kornfield says “…Forgiveness is not sentimental or quick. You can’t paper things over and smile and say ‘I forgive’. It is a deep process of the heart. And in the process, you need to honor the betrayal of yourself or others…It can take a long time. Sometimes when you do a forgiveness practice, you realize that you are never going to forgive that person. And never takes a while.”
A Way Into Forgiveness
I found this method of forgiveness some time ago. I think it was something I learned from a book by Pema Chodren, and I may be altering it a bit, but the idea is the same. (I will search for the orginal source and add it to the notes.)
Start with some small slight, maybe the person who cut you off in traffic this morning. Feel the anger of it, feel your resentment. Then consider what this person may have been experiencing in that moment. Maybe he had just lost his job. Maybe she had an argument with a loved one. Begin to see if you experience a shift in your thinking. If so, began to send a wish for that person’s well-being. Say to yourself “This person was hurting. I can let it go.”
Then move on to something a little more hurtful and repeat the process. Then another, and another, until you reach the big ones.
And maybe, at this point, you think “But, this was intentional”. Or, “But this was done over and over. This wasn’t because of pain.” But the reality is, this sort of behavior comes from pain so deep it shapes a person’s character. You may never know what that pain is or where it came from, but you can be sure that it’s there. This does not mean that the action is not their fault, nor is it an excuse, but it is the reason. And that knowledge can give you a foothold into forgiveness.
There are some offenses that are so injurious to one’s body, mind, or spirit that it is vital to completely remove the offender from one’s life (mental or physical abuse, for example). This is in no way a barrier to our ability to forgive. Reconciliation is an option, not a requirement, for letting go. We can walk away from this person forever, while releasing the need to clutch our resentment close to our chest. If the pain is deep enough, a severance of the relationship may even be a requirement for our ability to forgive, because we cannot forgive while we live in fear of further injury.
We are told, as children, to forgive and forget. And for small things, that is good and necessary. But for the devastating, life altering injuries, those two things are not, and cannot be, synonymous.
Only you can decide to marry the two, or take your peace of mind and walk away.
I would love to hear about your experience with forgiveness. What have you been able to let go of? What are you not ready to forgive? Please share in the comments below to continue the discussion.