Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.
A man convicted of several random murders was recently executed. The media coverage around this event was extensive. Among the reports were interviews with survivors of the victims.
One survivor was planning to be present at the execution – his way of seeing that the man who killed his loved one suffered in some measure for his deed. However, another survivor stated that he did not plan to attend and, in fact, was not interested in the details of the execution. He said he had forgiven the murderer and felt no hatred or animosity toward him.
I have heard stories like this before. Each time, I tried to put myself in the place of the survivors. Would I, could I, offer the same level of generosity that the second person showed? Or might I be like the first person, looking for some retribution to satisfy my hurt, anger, and overwhelming loss?
While few of us (thankfully) experience the pain associated with the murder of a loved one, none of us escapes this life without at times feeling hurt or betrayed in our relationships with others. What gives some of us the ability to forget these hurts and go on with our lives? And what keeps some of us in bondage to the injury we have experienced and the grievance we have created?
To forgive is to set a person free and discover that the prisoner was you.
Forgiveness means different things to many people. I have often heard quoted the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” example from The Bible. Others have expressed their feelings about hurt and betrayal as “Don’t get mad; get even.” In a culture that uses weapons to settle the score, forgiveness is often equated with weakness. Dr. Fred Luskin, a well known researcher in the field of forgiveness, notes matter-of-factly that “Forgiveness is a tough sell.”
Indeed, forgiveness can be a tough sell if we see it as a gift we give the person who offended us. Framed in that light, forgiveness may seem like an insult (to ourselves) on top of injury.
But what if we could see forgiveness as a gift we give ourselves? For example, have you ever found yourself reliving and rehashing an injustice you have suffered? As you play the scene again and again in your mind, your anger and resentment continues – and often grows. You feed the memory by giving it “air time” on your own personal station and, in the process, create a grievance story which takes time and attention to keep alive. In other words, we take the memory of our injury – and the person who injured us – and let them live “rent free” in our head and heart.
Everyone gets hurt. It’s one price of living. What is the point of prolonging the hurt? Yet that is what we do when we make the choice to hold on to a grudge. And as we relive and revive the hurt, we also re-inflict the physical and emotional stress that we initially felt.
Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
Researchers studying forgiveness have found that people who are able to let go of resentments and thoughts of revenge (Remember the earlier example of the man who had forgiven the murderer?) benefit in numerous ways. Among the many ways are reduced stress levels, less depression, less anger and hostility, a reduction in chronic pain, more satisfying relationships, and improved emotional and psychological well being.
The fact is: Stress hurts. It takes its toll on our bodies as well as our general enjoyment of life. And there are few things as stressful as continuing to experience and focus on the bad things that have happened to us in our lives.
If you know the process of healing from a physical wound, you can understand the experience of healing from an emotional one. In both cases, the hurt is not forgotten, but it ceases to interfere with our daily life. The power that it once held over our thoughts and feelings recedes and we are free to focus on the present moment.
However, one of the reasons that forgiveness can be a “tough sell” is that some of us may confuse it with forgetting what happened, condoning what happened, or reconciling with the person who hurt us. None of those things is necessary for us to forgive. What is necessary is that we make the choice to release ourselves from the emotional tether that keeps us feeling connected to the past.
When you hold resentment toward another,
you are bound to that person or condition
by an emotional link that is stronger than steel.
Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.
While forgiveness takes time (and a commitment to personal freedom), it also requires that we be able to step outside our own experience to see the ways in which we may be contributing to keeping our own pain alive. For instance, if we are hurt and angry because a situation did not turn out as we had expected/hoped (e.g., our partner decides to end our relationship), we keep the pain alive when we tell ourselves that our life is not turning out the way it should. In other words, we are angry because we cannot control what has happened. We have an “unenforceable” rule about the way we want others to behave or the way we think life must look.
Losing a partner, like many other experiences in life, is usually painful. But blaming that person for our unhappiness also means that we are giving them control of our happiness. If I attribute my unhappiness to another person, then I am simultaneously giving them the key to my own well being.
Equally important as forgiving others is the ability to forgive ourselves. As we grow in acceptance of life’s disappointments, imperfections and losses, we learn that we also make mistakes. We realize that we are not perfect. We understand that sometimes we make bad decisions. Being human means that sometimes we fail and cause other people harm.
As I mentioned before, forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves. When we choose to let go of our anger and resentment toward ourselves or another, we are also choosing the peace that comes with being free of those negative feelings. We are choosing to take back our personal power, assume responsibility for our own feelings, promote self healing and be the hero of our story instead of the victim. We are choosing to construct the story of our grievance in such a way that we can acknowledge the pain without getting stuck in it, recognize that life gives us both positive and negative experiences, and know that we can hope for the good and forgive the bad.
We are choosing to release our past in order to heal our present.
You will know that forgiveness has begun
when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.