All major religions, most self-help groups and addiction-related assistance programs tell us of forgiveness is a must. On the surface, this may seem unfair and, in extreme cases where someone has been brutally wronged, insane. Why should I extend the hand of forgiveness when the wrong lies squarely with the other person(s). Shouldn’t the responsible folks come to me for forgiveness? Yes, they should. But the issue here is the damage we do to ourselves by not forgiving.
Unless we forgive those who’ve trespassed against us, we cripple ourselves in reaching our highest possible good and being the best we can be for those around us. Holding feelings of rage, pain and hate keep us tuned inward and stewing. Left unchecked, they will make us bitter, hateful, damaging people. This is true whether or not we’re justified in our grievances and whether or not the offenders have or haven’t apologized to us and made amends.
Forgiveness becomes easier when we understand the psychology behind the need to forgive. Unlike other workings of the psyche, it’s not that complicated to grasp. The time we spend on unrequited grievances takes away from using our intellect and emotions and giving our attention to positive things that we can accomplish, think, create, etc. Think about it. If we use these resources on licking old wounds and holding grudges, we’re allowing those responsible for the hurts to continue to hurt me and hold us back. We remain a victim and make decisions and limit ourselves because the injustice. For example, we clump all people who are similar to the one(s) who hurt us and come to fear/hate/discriminate against them. Thus, we limit our ability to work with them, get to know them, have a relationship with them, etc. We might limit what we think we can or should do because of others’ hurtful opinion of us. I could continue, but I think I’ve made my point. This is self-flagellation and self-stagnation at its worst.
Yet, merely knowing what we lose if we don’t forgive doesn’t make it easy. I struggle with forgiving, and so do millions of others. I’m not talking about turning lose of the little slights in life. We couldn’t live with others or work at our jobs if we took every small offense and held it against people for the rest of our lives. I’m talking about the soul-killing, big hurts that leave us gasping for breath, circling back to the sordid details for years to come and pumping out hate and the desire for vengeance.
Forgiveness of this type will test our mettle to the extreme and can’t be done solely because we will ourselves to let it go. We have to take it in stages. The first stage is learning what forgiveness is and isn’t and what will and won’t work when it comes to dealing with life’s big hurts.
- Contrary to the old adage, time does not heal all wounds because time is a tricky friend. With time, the immediate, blinding pain of being hurt may lessen. However, unless we forgive and move on, the pain will dig deep into our unconscious and fester. Then, like a volcano that can no longer hold the boiling heat, the old hurt will rise with a vengeance. This often happens during middle age and forces us to face our old demons.
- We’ll get the same outcome if we try to force ourselves to dull the pain with alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, binge spending, over exercising, becoming bulimic/anorexic, or burying ourselves in work, study, children, religion or any other form of distraction. The pain will resurface stronger and with a fiercer hold than if we had dealt with it early on by embarking on the path of forgiveness.
- Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. Our memories of hurts will continue, but forgiveness will allow us to live with the memories without the debilitating pain. We’re free to put that pent up energy to good use. Over and again we hear about people who have been egregiously hurt who have rerouted their hate, anger and desire to lash back at someone or some thing into doing good. In May my husband and I traveled to Jerusalem. While there we happened upon the American Colony Hotel, a beautiful inn surrounded by serene gardens. In the late 18th century it was bought and restored by Horatio Spafford ,a once prosperous lawyer in Chicago, and his wife, Elizabeth. Shortly after their only son had died of a fever Horatio’s business and their home were destroyed in the great Chicago fire. They decided to take what little they had left and move to Jerusalem. Elizabeth and their four daughters sailed ahead while Horatio stayed to settle affairs. On the way over, their ship was rammed by an iron barge and all four girls drowned. Rather than succumb to grief and rail against the hideous things that had befallen them, the Spaffords opened the inn to travelers who needed sanctuary. Today it is known as an oasis of peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. Before his death, Spafford penned the well-known, beloved Christian hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.”
The second stage in the process of forgiveness is to give yourself permission to forgive. Forgiving doesn’t mean that you no longer care about those where hurt or that your feelings aren’t justified. It means that you love yourself and others who were wronged enough to break the chains that come with holding onto the negative feelings. Creating the sanctuary didn’t mean that the Spaffords no longer loved their dead children or their way of life in Chicago. It means that they turned what could have been bitter feelings and desires for vengeance against fate, God, Mrs. O’Leary (whose cow kicked the lamp that started the Chicago fire), or the captain of the barge that rammed the ship into positive actions that have blessed travelers in Jerusalem and Christians worldwide for more than a century.
The final stage letting go of the negative emotional impact of the injury. It may be as easy as getting, bringing the injury to mind and affirming to yourself that you forgive the person, circumstance or situation. At the other extreme, egregious hurts may take months or years. You may need the support of a friend, group or trained counselor. As a Christian, I turn to God for the strength to forgive when I can’t do it alone. If you stay with your intent to get past the pain, forgiving every day with your whole heart, you will find peace.
Once we create an attitude of forgiveness, the quality of our lives will improve. We’ll be less inclined to find fault with ourselves others. Our eyes will be more open to opportunities. We’ll be in a better frame-of-mind when trouble arises. Most importantly, we’ll be able to help others who are in pain and in need of forgiving.