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“When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future.” Bernard Meltzer
Why is it so hard to forgive? We can carry our hurts and injuries like precious gems in a velvet pouch, admiring their many facets, their high cost, how they refract the light of what once was. We recall their origins, their rarity, how durable they are. How could I ever manage without them? Who would I be?
Over time these gems take on a life of their own. As we protect them, they grow in power and value. We share them with friends–let me tell you about how I got this one… the callous parent, the unfaithful lover, the costly divorce. The stories expand, the fury endures.
Forgive? How can I forgive the unforgivable?
This bag of gems holds within it my identity. If I let go of my story, my rage, my entitlement how can I continue to carry the mantle of victim? What if no one sympathizes with me, then what?
The truth is, forgiving is not condoning or approving or agreeing with bad behavior. It is accepting what is. It is reclaiming my story. It is learning from the past and moving on.
Forgiveness is not letting someone else go free, it is letting me go free. It is the key to the cage I keep myself in–the “if only” cage, the “poor me” cage; the “I had no choice” cage. How long do I want to be locked in these cages?
Forgiving another doesn’t mean I accept the behavior–it means I release myself from its grip. Desmond Tutu describes forgiveness like this, “a room can be dank because you have closed the windows, you’ve closed the curtains. But the sun is shining outside, and the air is fresh outside. In order to get that fresh air, you have to get up and open the window and draw the curtains apart.”
Forgiveness is not easy. It is a process that takes time. I need to attend to my wound and give it time to heal. If I attempt to forgive too quickly my unhealed resentments leak out–I explode with indignation at a slight bruise, I wield my knife of sarcasm to even the score, I slip into my pot of self-pity. Not ready yet!
The process of forgiveness follows a few basic steps. The first thing I have to do is be with my feelings, the ones under the initial anger. It is often hurt I feel but it might be loss or abandonment or neglect or rejection or humiliation or .… I sift through my feelings noticing which increase my heart rate, bring up a sweat, tighten my gut. Then I sit with those feelings to really feel them. I must admit, this is very hard for me to do. I am much better at thinking them, justifying them or denying them–not so much feeling them. This is a necessary step. If I don’t feel them I cannot release them. Sometimes I sit down with my journal and write it all out, describing in detail how this feels–why I am hurt, how badly I was treated, how unfair it was. I write big. I write fast. I write for me. I may even write a letter to the offender that I later destroy. Or I may write a letter of apology to me, from the offender–the one I wish the person would write.
It is tempting to think I cannot forgive unless the other person apologizes. That may never happen. Then what do I do? Why should my freedom be dependent upon their self awareness, acceptance of responsibility, acknowledgement? Sally Kempton, author of Meditation for the Love of It, says forgiveness “is something you do for for yourself, for the sake of your own inner freedom. You forgive so that you can live in the present instead of being stuck in the past. You forgive because your grievances and grudges–even more than hopes and attachments and fears–tie you to old patterns, old identities, and especially to old stories.”
Second, I spend time looking at how this injury is connected with my personal story. Was I vulnerable to this hurt? Does this person fit a pattern for me whereby I am susceptible to this kind of treatment? Has this happened before or after? This is my soul-searching time. If this injury happened to me as an adult, can I be more aware of my triggers, my boundaries, my strengths? If this happened to me as a child, how has this injury been repeated over my lifetime? What coping skills have I used and are they still effective? Am I ready to retire them? This work in no way excuses the behavior but it does help me understand how it fits into my life.
Third, I decide to forgive. I may need to work with a therapist, a spiritual director or a good friend to get here. I decide to forgive because I refuse to carry a burden that belongs to someone else. Finally, I ritualize the letting go. Perhaps I take my writing to a sacred place, read it aloud and then destroy it. Or I might treat myself to something that symbolizes a new beginning–a beautiful journal, a new hair style, a weekend away.
This forgiveness process does not require reconciliation. It may happen sometime in the future–but my forgiving neither requires an amends from the other nor absolves them from making an amends.
How do I know that I have really forgiven? Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, “You tend to feel sorrow over the circumstance instead of rage, you tend to feel sorry for the person rather than angry with him. You tend to have nothing left to say about it all.”
All major religious traditions carry a message of forgiveness. It is essential for a community of people to be able to forgive. Festering wounds too easily erupt into violence. We see evidence in our daily news whether it be neighbor against neighbor or explosions at nations’ borders. Unaddressed hurts, cultural transgressions, dangerous assumptions feed wounds that grow into generational stories of great magnitude. Forgiveness is an act of peace, Our simple acts of forgiveness heal the world and build an awareness of our interconnectedness.
That velvet pouch can be relegated to the dresser drawer that holds artifacts. Years from now, as I rediscover it, what I’ll remember is the sense of freedom I felt when I laid them aside. Who knows, maybe those stones once thought of as gems will have turned into dust, their energy dissipated. Unto dust we all return.
Mary Lou Logsdon provides spiritual direction and leads retreats in the Twin Cities. She also teaches in the Sacred Ground Spiritual Direction Formation Program. Ms. Logsdon can be reached at logsdon. firstname.lastname@example.org