“As I walked out the door toward my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind that I would still be in prison.” Nelson Mandela
“We live in a world where cycles of revenge or just plain bitterness and resentment rule in countless encounters from the most private to the most public.” Stephanie Dowrick
In the public arena we know Dowrick’s comment to be true because day after day the media thrusts upon us graphic images and reports of anger, revenge and hatred. Within such a context, forgiveness seems like a dirty word, never to be uttered. However Dowrick also claims, “forgiveness breaks those cycles of revenge, bitterness and resentment.” In a similar vein Desmond Tutu is reported to have said, “without forgiveness there is no future.” Such a statement was in response to the impact of Apartheid in South Africa.
For some people forgiveness is like a dirty word. For others, forgiveness is a pathway of inner healing.
The following images and understandings are ones which have struck a chord with me and have nurtured, sustained and challenged me in the ongoing practice of forgiveness. They have been drawn from a number of sources which are listed at the end of the article. Take what is helpful, leave behind what is not.
A foundational framework of understanding
The following three principles ground a view of forgiveness.
1. We’re human
Jack Kornfield writes:
“we are all human, so at some time all of us will behave badly, inconsistently, thoughtlessly and will let ourselves or another down. So we all know what it is like to hurt another, in some way or another. None of us are immune.”
So when we come to the practice of forgiveness, we recognize our fallible nature as well.
Note: Sometimes it is harder to forgive ourselves than to forgive another person. Therefore, when the term forgiveness is mentioned it includes self-forgiveness as well as forgiveness of others. Interestingly as we learn to forgive ourselves, forgiveness for others emerges more naturally.
2. Life does not act according to our will
Stephanie Dowrick writes:
“very often our reactions and outrage reflect an unconscious belief that life ought to be perfect.”
Most of us would deny the above statement. And yet if we were to notice how often we become angry or frustrated when something relatively minor goes wrong, or when events do not turn out in the way we expected, most of us would see that we operate from such a premise. In our western culture there seems to be an inherent expectation that life will naturally go according to our plans.
3. We cannot change the past
The past has taken place and as much as we would want to, we cannot undo what has taken place. However we can change the way past events define the way we live into the present.
The intention of forgiveness
Within the context of the three principles listed above, the focus of forgiveness is inner healing. In relation to such an understanding Kornfield writes, “traditionally the work of the heart begins with forgiveness.” However, we first require a sensible understanding of the term forgiveness before we engage in the practice.
Dispelling common myths regarding forgiveness
Myth one: forgiveness shows weakness
It takes courage to forgive either ourselves or another. As Kornfield writes, “when we engage in the process of forgiveness, we bravely recognize the sufferings of the past and understand the conditions that brought them about.” Therefore to forgive is not a sign of weakness. Rather to engage in the process of forgiveness requires of us resilience, courage, wisdom and compassion. As such, forgiveness is not for the weak-minded.
Myth two: forgiveness means to condone
Some people fear forgiveness will require them to allow the abuse/hurt/bullying to continue. However, forgiveness does not mean that we overlook the situation. For again as Kornfield writes, when we forgive we can also say “never again will we allow these things to happen.” In this way forgiveness “sees wisely. . . and willingly acknowledges what is junjust, harmful and wrong.” (Kornfield)
Myth three: forgiveness will make the other person change
Some people are willing to forgive only if they can be assured that the person they are forgiving will change; like some kind of cause and effect. However forgiveness is a risk, for we do not always know what the results of our forgiveness will be.
The first person forgiveness changes is the person forgiving. This may seem unfair, for that person could rightly argue, “I am the one who has been hurt! Why should I change?” However, the change that takes place within the person is in the form of inner healing. So it is worth the effort.
Myth four: non-forgiveness makes the person suffer more
Here the confused thinking is, “if I hang onto my anger, they (the one who hurt me) will be locked in an emotional prison.” However the one imprisoned is the person holding onto the anger. The perpetrator may not be giving the situation another thought.
Myth five: If I forgive I will not feel the pain any more
Our intention to forgive does not remove all the pain. Forgiveness is a process which may take a life-time. And as we begin to engage with the process, the pain does not automatically disappear. However the pain does become bearable, especially if we can engage in the practice of conscious grieving
Myth six: to forgive requires us to forget
We cannot change or undo what has been done to us or, what we have done to others. So we may never actually forget the circumstances. Sometimes, it is even in our best interests not to forget. At the same time, we may leave behind the destructive emotional web which has shaped our living into the present.
Myth seven: reconciliation and forgiveness are the same thing
Forgiveness is related to, however quite different from reconciliation. Forgiveness is one step in the process towards reconciliation. Reconciliation requires both parties be ready to resume the relationship and sometimes only one party is ready to make the effort. Also, reconciliation requires a renewal of trust and sometimes such trust is not possible or advisable.
Myth eight: forgiveness is the same as trust
Many people confuse forgiveness with trust. However, forgiveness is free. Trust is not given freely. Trust must be earned. And sometimes trust is not justified. So it may well be that we forgive a person without trusting them again.
Myth nine: forgiveness is a quick fix
Forgiveness is not usually a quick fix. True forgiveness usually takes time to emerge. And for deep hurts, it is imperative to engage in the process of forgiveness in the company of someone you trust to confidentially accompany you. That someone may be a professional counselor or an accredited spiritual director.
Myth ten: self-forgiveness lets us off the hook
Sometimes we feel it is wrong to forgive ourselves, especially if the person/s we hurt are still suffering because of our actions. However it does not help the other person/s, if we continue to live and act in our world from our own guilt and shame. It takes more courage to engage in the process of self-forgiveness than it does to live out of our guilt and shame and/or repress our guilt and shame through various kinds of addictions.
Myth eleven: I need the other person to forgive me
There are varying opinions in response to this myth. However, I believe we have no right to ask another person to forgive us when we have harmed them. To release us from our guilt and shame is too much to ask of them. We need to take responsibility for our own guilt and shame. We need to engage in the practice of self-forgiveness.
If in taking responsibility for our guilt and shame we feel we need to say something to the person we have harmed, we can apologize; apologize sincerely with no qualifications about our actions. As we do so we are not seeking their forgiveness, we are simply accepting responsibility for our hurtful actions.
However, If the person offers forgiveness to us, that is a different matter all together.
We may not yet be ready to engage in the process of forgiveness
It may be that even though we intention to engage in the process of forgiveness, we find we are not ready. We need to feel safe enough in our inner being to even commence the process. And depending on the offence, that may take years. So we do not commence the process of forgiveness, if it feels like it is metaphorically doing a violence against our inner being. We simply acknowledge our intention to forgive and also acknowledge that now is not the time.
If we find we are not ready . . .
If we find we are not ready to forgive as yet, Dowrick offers a simple practice which has been found to be effective. The practice goes like this: we imagine that the person/s who caused the offense get into a boat and we push it with all of our might back out onto the ocean of life. We continue to watch as the boat goes over the horizon, out of our view. Our intention within such a practice is not to wish the person harm; rather we are simply leaving them to their life while we are getting on with our own.
Recognizing the signs that we are ready
How may we recognize when we are ready to engage in the process of forgiveness? If we remain open to the possibility of forgiveness, we will know when the time is right. Even if it seems painful to engage, there will also be a fundamental knowing that now is the time to commence.
However, sometimes the choice to forgive seems almost thrust upon us. Such is the case when the burden of not forgiving becomes greater than the pain of forgiving. For example:
Self-forgiveness: when the burden of guilt or shame cripples our ability to engage with life in the present. Or when there is that sense of shrinking into ourselves, and/or imprisoned by our emotions.
Forgiveness of others: when it seems like we are trapped in a destructive web with the other person, where our thoughts, emotions and actions are consumed with them and their actions.
Indicators that forgiveness is emerging
How will we know when forgiveness is taking place within us? Like any transformative process, forgiveness is not something we can control. Neither can we plot a course of action where we say “in six months we will have accomplished our task of forgiving.” No, remembering that the intention of forgiveness is inner healing, we simply intention to forgive and remain open and receptive to where the process takes us.
Some indicators that forgiveness is emerging within us are:
Self-forgiveness: when we can remember the event without the intensity of the affective experience of guilt or shame. We once again experience some measure of inner freedom that emerges, not from repression, rather from growing through the experience. Then from such an experience of inner peace, we are ready to take responsible action if, and when, it is required.
Forgiveness of others: when the destructive web of connection between us and the other person/s is no longer experienced in our bodies, thoughts and emotions. We now experience some measure of inner freedom. Again, from such an experience of inner freedom we will be ready to take responsible action if and when required.
A final word from Kornfield,
“Forgiveness and compassion are not sentimental or weak. They demand courage and integrity. Yet they alone can bring about the peace we long for.”
Robert D. Enright, PhD, Forgiveness is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and
Stephanie Dowrick, Forgiveness and Other acts of Love
Choosing Happiness: Life and Soul Essentials
Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace
Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Lovingkindness
Sameet M. Kumar, Grieving Mindfully