Forgiveness is a tricky topic.
First, it has two distinct meanings:
- To give up resentment or anger
- To pardon an offense; to stop seeking punishment or recompense
Here, I am going to focus on the first meaning, which is broad enough to include situations where you have not let someone off the hook morally or legally, but you still want to come to peace about whatever happened. Finding forgiveness can walk hand in hand with pursuing justice.
Second, there is sometimes the fear that if you forgive people, that means you approve of their behavior (like giving them a free pass for wrongdoing). Actually, you can both view an action as morally reprehensible and no longer be angry at the person who did it. You could continue to feel sad at the impacts on you and others – and to take action to make sure it never happens again – but you no longer feel aggrieved, reproachful, or vengeful.
Third, forgiveness can seem lofty, like it only applies to big things, like crimes or adultery. But most forgiving is for the small bruises of daily life, when others let you down, thwart or hassle you, or just rub you the wrong way.
Fourth, paradoxically, in my experience, the person who gains the most from forgiveness is usually the one who does the forgiving. One reason is that we often forgive people who never know we’ve forgiven them; much of the time they never knew we felt wronged in the first place! Further, consider two situations: in one, someone has a grudge against you but then forgives you; in the other situation, you have a grudge against someone but then let it go. Which situation takes more of a weight off of your heart? Generally it’s the second one, since you take your own heart wherever you go.
Fundamentally, forgiveness frees you from the tangles of anger and retribution, and from preoccupations with the past or with the running case in your mind about the person you’re mad at. It shifts your sense of self from a passive one in which bad things happen to you, to one in which you are active in changing your own attitudes: you’re a hammer now, no longer a nail. It widens your view to see the truth of the many, many things that make people act as they do, placing whatever happened in context, in a larger whole.
And most profoundly, as you forgive yourself – which can coincide with serious corrections in your own thoughts, words, and deeds – your own deep and natural goodness is increasingly revealed.
- As best you can, take care of yourself and those you care for. Protect yourself against ongoing or potential harms. Do what you can to repair the damage done to you. Keep making your life a good one.
- Ask for support. We are intensely, viscerally social animals. It is much easier to forgive your trespassers after others bear witness to the ways you’ve been mistreated. (This point also speaks to the importance of bearing witness to harms done to others, whether it is the impact of a teenager’s coldness on your mate, or the impacts of religious prejudice on millions of people.)
- Honor the wound. Try not to be overwhelmed, but open to the shock, hurt, sense of injustice, anger, or other aspects of the experience. Allow the thoughts and feelings and related desires to have breathing room, and to ebb and flow over time with their own organic rhythms. Forgiveness is not about shutting down your feelings; opening to the experience in a big space of mindful awareness is an aid to forgiveness.
- Check your story. Watch out for exaggerating how awful, significant, or unforgivable the incident was. Be careful about assuming intent; with modern life, most of us are pretty stressed and scatterbrained much of the time; maybe you unfortunately just bumped into someone else’s bad day. Put the event in perspective: was it really that big a deal, given all the other good things about the person who upset you? Maybe it was, but maybe it wasn’t.
- Appreciate the value of forgiveness. Ask yourself: what does my grievance, my resentment, cost me? Cost others I care about? What would it be like to lay those burdens down?
- See the big picture. Consider the “10,000 causes” upstream from the person who hurt you, like his or her life and childhood, parents, finances, temperament, health, mental state just before whatever happened, etc.
- Try not to take wounds so personally. There’s an old saying: each day wounds, and the last one kills. We all get wounded. This doesn’t mean making yourself a target or letting wrongdoers off the hook, but it does mean recognizing that the price of being alive includes some inevitable pain – and the risk of serious injury in one form or another. It’s not personal. It’s life. We don’t need to feel offended by it.
- Help yourself come to peace. Accept that the past is fixed and will not change; the bad thing will never not have happened. Disengage your mind from your story, narrative, “case” about the events. Steer clear of people who fan the flames of outrage. Focus on the good things in your life, on gratitude. It’s bad enough that people have harmed you; don’t add insult to injury by getting caught up with them inside your own head; for example, they may have gotten away with some of your money, but don’t also give them your mind.
[…] across a wonderful post on forgiveness at wildmind.org. Actually, I’m still reading it as I post this, but wanted to link to it […]
Helpful article. Yet I’m still having trouble forgiving someone who is trying to undermine my relationships with others, someone acting out of possessiveness and jealousy. I still feel very angry whenever I see this person, which is quite often. Any advice?
As a corollary to my previous comment, when people say I should forgive her because she must be that way because of her childhood, etc., that doesn’t help because it’s not ok for her to act out her past abuse patterns with me in the present. Also, I have to admit that I hate people who hurt me, but we’re not supposed to hate people, but the truth is that that’s what I feel. So I have to be honest about the feelings even if I shouldn’t feel them. Confusing. Anyway it’s painful to be preoccupied with this anger, so any insights you have would be appreciated!
I don’t agree that the past is fixed and cannot be changed. Through forgiveness and bringing into the light, history can be changed, pain can transform. The result is freedom.The tarnish removed from that fore given time.
Yes, we can do that, but that’s not changing the past. That’s changing, in the present, how we regard the past.
Thanks for a great article. I was thinking about what it’s like to be in a hard-hearted, judgmental or self-righteous place. It feels pretty awful. In order to forgive someone, our hearts need to soften up. So how do we do that?
At least in my experience, if I can shift my attention from the wrongdoing of the other person long enough to examine my own conduct, my heart often starts softening up. Even if I believe I was nothing more than an innocent victim in that particular situation, I can usually find many examples from my own life that help me to remember how fallible I am as well.
That’s not to say that we dismiss or overlook the injury we received, but more that we keep some awareness of our own shortcomings and mistakes as well. Forgiveness is much easier from such a place, and compassion is much more available to us.
I think it is very powerful to try to think in this way. To unglue yourself from the story which you have in your head about your pain is to permit your heart and mind to shift — to begin to feel and think differently.
It is not easy to let go . . . so often you hear people say oh just let it go. But, the fact remains that pain we have suffered due to others’ ignorance, small-mindedness, or true meanness of spirit can inhabit our hearts for a long time. In my life, letting go has been a gradual process. Accompanied by upsurges of feelings that hurt and seeing the situation more clearly and then some dissolving of the hardened quality in my mind/heart – that hardness is sort of like scar tissue and obstructs a fluid and open approach to life.
Also, seeing one’s own motivation in a given distressing situation is helpful. No judgement necessary; just seeing it. Blindness or ignorance is so often the cause of much pain in childhood.
Well thank you for providing others with this information.
I am not sure its healthy to forgive someone while they remain in the act of hurting you. Yet to forgive something for a hurt in the past is liberating.
[…] we can give to ourselves, especially at this time of the year. Not always an easy task, but the practice of forgiveness year after year gets easier. We’re happier, and we just might live a little longer […]