Most of us pick fights with others to cover up the wars we have with ourselves.—Anonymous
Our country and the world really are in trouble. These days there are almost daily shootings in the news. School board meetings, public health discussions and state budget debates, and inexplicable road rage incidents occur daily and can be explosive. Family members cannot even be together because of political and social differences and sometimes remain alienated from each other for years. Murder rates continue to rise and leave lasting scars on loved ones. Put any two people together these days to express opinions and the parties involved don’t listen to one another and find common ground, but instead endlessly argue about who is right and who is wrong. It’s like everybody is at war. Too many relationships these days turn into black and white power battles and the sense of devotion to each other is diminished. Relationships, especially marital relationships, do not become safe harbors from the storms of life but they themselves are the battle grounds of some of the worst storms of life. We, as humans, are social creatures and when we cannot get along, our very security as humans is threatened. All of this occurs tragically even though there are many good people in the world.
The worst part of all this is that our children suffer. Mental health problems in school are rampant these days. Suicidal rates among teens are epidemic. Is it any wonder that children, who have to live with the looming prospect of environmental disaster and the isolation imposed by a pandemic, are more anxious these days? Is it any wonder that people in recovery for drug addiction may have a much harder time believing in the promise of sober relationships? Each of us today is living with way more anxiety than is normal and way more uncertainty than what people in the past generations had to deal with. Being exasperated by the conflict in today’s world is absolutely normal.
However, as a therapist that listens to daily woe, I can tell you that there is good news in all this. An old mentor of mine once said, “What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.” He also said, “Before things can change, they need to be seen for what they are.”
Let us look wisely at what we are dealing with and make needed changes. First, let us recall the immortal words of Winnie the Pooh who said, “I have met the enemy and it is us.” Many of us need to forgive ourselves a lot more than we realize. We often don’t see that. I can tell you that the threats of discord and alienation with the world can be lessened and healed if you focus on your own inner turmoil, allow yourself to be forgiven, and surround yourself with supportive people who embrace your personal acceptance of yourself. Peace in the world begins at home with yourself.
Without being too religious let me remind you of the Lord’s Prayer in part which says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The experience of personal forgiveness and acceptance, especially when done with others, can transcend all the troubles this world can offer us. It may not change the world, but it certainly can change how we are in the world.
One of my most painful days of my life was when I applied to the Catholic Church to have my marriage annulled. My marriage of 30 years left me in charge of all our kids and was a source of great suffering. Since I wanted to retain my faith, my ex-husband and I had to apply for an annulment at our church. Basically, that meant writing a long explanation of why our marriage had failed. My long letter basically focused on my failings in the marriage and I found out later that my ex-husband also focused on me as the source of all our problems. When I read his letter, I was absolutely furious with him as I saw our problems as mutual flaws. His words deeply wounded me especially when said in a religious setting. Although I am not one to get mad at others, believe me, I was very mad at my ex for years and could not forgive him. Although we got the annulment my whole psyche as a person was deeply damaged by him blaming me. It wasn’t until so many years later that I realized what he had said in the letter in part was how I blamed myself for the end of our union. His blame was my self-blame. Over time, and with the immense support of friends, I realized I had to look at the source of those words and why I was divorcing him. I realized that hating my ex only gave him power over me forever Indeed, his words made it easier for me to leave him and I know that his perceptions in the letter were partially the reasons why we were getting a divorce in the first place. I knew then, that in the eyes of God, we were both at fault and that not everything about the marriage was flawed. Today we get along well at family gatherings, and I can do so without rancor. Today our children’s happiness with each of us reflects this healing.
Holding onto anger is like taking a poison and expecting the other person to die. —Buddha
What is forgiveness and how does it occur?
Forgiveness is the process in relationships in which animosity towards others, and towards us, gets lessened over time. It is not the same thing as forgetting our grievances but remembering them with less rancor. It is not the same thing as reconciliation which refers to the reconnection with people whom we have been alienated from. It’s perfectly reasonable to live and let live without having to be best friends again. Many of us come to a peaceful resignation and detachment with people whom we have forgiven. We may not be best buds with such people but we accept that our former enemies and ourselves have many good qualities apart from why we hold differences with them. None of this is an easy process and requires quite a lot of honest self-reflection.
To forgive we need to take full responsibility for our part on how things have gone wrong and accept how we are not responsible for everything. The mental clarity often derives from doing a reality check with trusted friends who are honest with us. It is necessary that we have empathy both with others and ourselves to see the full context of our grievances. Looking at conflicts from our point of view alone is insufficient for true forgiveness. Too many of us can get stuck in perpetual self-righteous victimhood if we don’t see the bigger picture of how we and others have contributed to problems in a relationship. We have to be humble enough to see how we are part of the problem and to have enough esteem to not be blamed for what is not our part. Often this kind of sober reflection occurs later after we have the initial emotional arousal of how we have been wronged.
Some of us take years to calm down enough to have a clear head. Forgiveness occurs when we can make eye contact with an opponent without crossing to the other side of the street, unless doing so puts our life in danger. In this case, crossing to the other side is a good idea.
What gets in the way of forgiveness?
Some of us see no value in forgiveness. Instead, we see it as a sign of weakness or passivity. We fool ourselves into believing that our grudge towards another will protect us from harm, not realizing that our grudge itself is part of the problem and what scares us is truly not outside but inside of ourself. We cannot heal our miseries by blaming others, looking for scapegoats or chasing windmills. Others of us may be unwilling to atone for our wrongs but instead try to forget how we have harmed others, hoping that our victims will forget too. The example below speaks to this pattern:
I remember running into an old schoolmate at our high school reunion. I avoided this classmate like the plague. I became very tense seeing him and wondered if he would remember me. I often tormented him in school and had several clever names I called him, emphasizing the fact that he was overweight and slow at many school subjects. I teased him to look good in other people’s eyes as they held the same opinion of him. I’m sure I owed him an apology. I couldn’t look into his eyes. But I told myself that it happened a long time ago and he had probably forgotten the whole thing. But I never forgot what I had done to him.
Some of us may hold grudges towards people whom we feel have hurt us. We may even react violently to those who have harmed us, even when there is no evidence for such beliefs. We may hold these beliefs because we are too scared to look at our part in our difficulties. We may be too proud to admit our own failures.
Every time I see Nancy walking by, I feel like whacking her. Afterall, she is the one who stole my boyfriend. Once I tripped her on purpose and she knew why I had done that. It never satisfied my hatred of her or made anything better. Today she still thinks my boyfriend wanted to break up with me anyway. Maybe she was right, and I just don’t want to look at things that way.
Finally, there are some of us who blame ourselves for everything. We may erroneously believe that we deserve to be abused to atone for our failings. We mistakenly believe that punishing ourselves will make the sting of our being abused so much less hurtful. In fact, self-abuse only worsens our hurt.
Excessive pride, projecting our failures onto others, denying our harm to others, a lack of empathy, pretending to be strong by being a bully, insecurity in fitting in with others, oblivion in how we affect others, and grudge holding, all get in the way of forgiving ourselves and others. Rather than admitting our failures we may make things worse for ourselves by denying or exaggerating our dysfunction.
Taking first steps to healing rancor
Most of us with excessive hostility towards others often don’t know ourselves very well. We don’t understand how we think and why we feel the way we do. We likely lack introspection, are out of touch with our body and take an oversimplified approach to our distress. Let us learn to not be strangers to ourselves. Some ways to do this include:
- Make a list of situations that trigger your anger and why you think you are angry.
- For each situation, list body sensations that can help you realize when you are upset.
- Describe in each situation the feelings you are having besides anger. For example, you may get angry when you are feeling ashamed of yourself or scared.
- Return to #1 above and identify what role you play in your own rancor and how you have caused yourself to be so upset.
- Identify ways in which you blame others unfairly for your own anger and make corrections to your self-talk.
- Return to triggering situations and devise ways to assertively express how you really feel and what you really want, including apologies for previous errors.
- Share your findings with trusted others and give yourself credit where credit is due. You may need a professional helper or mentor to help you with your self-reflections.
See the good in those you hate to see the good in yourself in your darkest hour. —Anonymous
Also let us not be strangers to people who we are alienated from. The animosity we feel towards others is likely because we overlook the humanity and strengths of people who we hate. I can’t tell you the number of times in my life that I’ve learned to respect the good qualities in people who I dislike. Such admiration can build bridges to people who we are alienated from. Love and hate are such close allies. Let us not be blinded by hate. A good in-depth, personal book on forgiveness and anger management is Amish Grace by Steven M. Nolt et alia (Wiley Press, 2010). It is the story of how the Amish learned to forgive the mass murder of their children in a one room school house in Pennsylvania.
Your increasing serenity will be a safe harbor from the storms of life and a much-needed sanctuary for your social activism or personal retreat. When you have a peaceful circle of friends that includes yourself, your ship through life will travel safely and securely no matter the storms.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
Last Updated on May 12, 2022