How were you taught about forgiveness? I remember the adage “forgive and forget” being used often when I was a child. Although this came with no further instruction, I remember liking the idea. Of course, I mostly liked it when it came time for others to forgive and forget what I had done. For myself, I quickly knew upon trying this that it didn’t work. I chuckle now, thinking about the coerced apology forgiveness drill I was made to participate in on the playground. Sure, sometimes it worked.
Teacher: “You, apologize for what you did!”
Kid: Begrudgingly recites an insincere apology.
Teacher: “Ok now, do you forgive them?”
Other kid: Stumbles through tears to nod “yes.”
Teacher: “See, that wasn’t hard!”
Like I said, sometimes it worked, but not often.
Forgiveness is an internal process. It is what happens when we seek to understand another's actions and release any negative feelings we may have formed toward them for those actions. Without attempting to understand, all we feel is hurt. If, like I often hear, we believe someone has done something to violate us for “no reason,” then forgiveness is not likely to follow. The truth is, there is always a reason. Maybe not a good one - or one we agree with that excuses the behavior - but a reason nonetheless.
Forgive and forgive again? That’s right! Forgiveness, in my experience, is not something I can do only once and expect all negative feelings to go away. I saw a quote once that said true forgiveness is an attitude, not an action after the fact. (check out theartofforgiveness.org) I absolutely love this idea because an attitude is just a consistent pattern of behavior based upon a belief. So, an attitude of forgiveness is based in the belief that people do things for reasons, even when those things hurt us. With this belief, we make a practice of seeking to understand and let go of this hurt. With each transgression we seek to forgive, we may need to apply this practice many times before we fully let it go. Patience and persistence are of great importance here.
For perspective, I often turn ideas like this around to see if they hold up. So, imagine for a moment that you are hungry and tired and maybe something bad just happened to you. A friend walks up at this moment, bubbling with excitement about something in their life. You try to push through your negative state of mind, but find it impossible and wind up meeting their excitement by yelling “NOT NOW! CAN’T YOU SEE THAT I’M BUSY?” Ouch! At sometime or another, all of us have treated someone else unfairly. In our argument to defend ourselves, we share our reasons for acting in this way and implore their understanding. So, the golden rule applies: Do unto others as we wish them to do unto us.
In my experience, forgiveness is much more for the person doing the forgiving than it is for the one being forgiven. Not holding onto resentment and anger frees up our energy to be used for more valuable pursuits. So, if you’re not ready to forgive someone because you don’t want to give them the satisfaction, do it to give yourself the satisfaction! Instead of remaining stuck in a place where someone’s past actions affect you negatively each day, you can move on. This is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
In this process of forgiveness, I would also encourage a consideration of the offending party. Is this person learning from their mistakes and seeking to do better? If not, it might be wise to minimize their opportunity to continue to hurt you. And if it takes a while for you to decide to do this? Forgive yourself. The best practice you can get at forgiveness is toward yourself. Understanding and letting go of your own short sighted or selfish past actions is crucial. An attitude of forgiveness demands that everyone be included, and that means you too!!
As I said earlier, even with an attitude of forgiveness, we may not immediately let go of the hurt we feel. This can take time. I wrote in a past blog post called “Denying Hurt,” about the importance of allowing ourselves to feel this hurt. I would encourage the same during the process of forgiveness. Allow yourself to feel the hurt as you continue to invite understanding. With some patience and persistence, genuine forgiveness will follow.