Forgiving someone, accepting the need to lay down anger and begin to heal from being wronged, is the hardest thing there is. And life has a way of upping the ante so that the harm to be forgiven is more and more difficult as time goes on. Forgiveness isn’t the only option, of course. Some people clutch their anger tight, relying on its power to protect them from the anguish of loss and betrayal that they are afraid to face. The grudge allows them to blame their pain on the person who has wronged them, instead of grieving and caring for their wounds and allowing them to start to heal. Old anger is like a callous on the soul, with a painful, festering blister of bitterness and sorrow underneath that makes peace impossible. It breeds loneliness and misunderstanding, and prevents spiritual growth.
I misunderstood as a child what it meant to forgive someone. I thought it meant clearing the slate, returning the relationship to the way it was before anyone was hurt. I had no idea then of how badly one person could hurt another, or that some actions destroy relationships. I believed that forgiveness was my gift to the person who had hurt me, an olive branch extended to show how loving, how understanding I was. It never occurred to me that true forgiveness is a gift to myself, a liberating of my own spirit from the burdens of anger and resentment, and that it can coexist honorably with the decision to end a relationship or refuse someone access to my life.
My youthful version of forgiveness was essentially self-serving, a way to tell myself that I was a good person without facing the question of why I repeatedly allowed people to hurt me without doing anything to protect myself. I claimed the moral high ground by “forgiving” people, when in reality all I was doing was denying how much I had been hurt. I tolerated being hurt in order to preserve relationships that, in retrospect, would have been much healthier if allowed to end naturally. My way of forgiving people only affirmed the message that it was okay to hurt me, that I didn’t value myself highly enough to deserve better treatment. The sad truth of the matter is that these were not bad people. They didn’t want to hurt me, and I’m convinced now that if I had let them know they had hurt me and changed the boundaries of the relationship accordingly, they would have welcomed the authenticity. In my desperate efforts to smooth over conflict and deny my own feelings, I misrepresented myself to those I claimed I wanted to be close to, something for which I ask to be forgiven, not the other way around.
Forgiving has to happen in the absence of the desire to control, something it’s taken me a long time to learn. Forgiving is the act of accepting a person and his or her actions for what they are, free from exaggeration or interpretation. It is also the act of self-acceptance, of looking squarely at whatever damage has been done and acknowledging it. It is the relinquishing of anger, blame and bitterness regardless of whether they are justified. Forgiveness is grounded in the recognition that other people are free to act as they choose, not bound to do what pleases me. In forgiving someone whose actions have caused me pain, I assume my rightful power to determine what I will and will not tolerate, rather than sloughing that responsibility onto another and then being angry and judgmental when I am disappointed.
Pain happens, it is inevitable; forgiveness is the path to abbreviating it. Anger and resentment breed fear, anxiety and blame; forgiveness is the fresh air that clears our minds of these insidious clouds. We don’t choose to be hurt, but we can choose whether to prolong the suffering by clinging to our bitterness and grudges, or to pick ourselves up, correct our course and allow those who have hurt us to do the same. Forgiveness is a radically selfish choice. It gives us the power to reclaim our peace of mind by asserting our unwillingness to harbor toxic and destructive feelings. It affirms our innate power to control how we choose to think and live, and keeps others from usurping control over our happiness and autonomy. Forgiveness is the most powerful weapon we have against oppression and domination, because it prevents those who hurt us from controlling us.
Forgiveness is difficult work, requiring us to be honest with ourselves and to own responsibility for the role we play in creating our own pain. It’s a gradual process, requiring not only understanding and insight but ongoing discipline of one’s thoughts and feelings. It requires a counterintuitive gentleness towards those we instinctively perceive as our enemies, the intellectual daring and creativity to see them as parallel and essentially kin to ourselves. And it requires laughter, at ourselves and at the self-absorption and delusion that allows us to hang our happiness on other people and how they choose to treat us.
Short of never being close enough to anyone to risk having to forgive, the only option we have to preserve our inner peace is to get good at forgiveness: not just good at the outer veneer, but at the inward revolution of letting go of our grudges and resentment and anger so that we can grieve and ultimately move beyond our losses.
©Mary Braden 2013