We all know that we’re supposed to forgive those who wrong us and move on. But how many of us actually do so? Many – if not most – of us have rifts in our families or friendship groups due to unresolved disputes. I think the pain and division this causes is a tremendous shame.
We could all benefit from connecting, communicating, and above all loving each other more. That means learning to overcome our differences – and yes, forgive. But forgiveness is another of those things that’s much easier said than done.
Why should I forgive?
I’ve seen backlash online against the idea that we should always try to forgive. People who have been seriously hurt may think, “Why should I forgive? They don’t deserve my forgiveness.” It’s understandable that people feel this way. But I think this line of thought derives from a misconception about what forgiveness is.
Forgiveness is often seen as something we generously do to someone who has hurt us. But I believe it is something we do for ourselves. When we are carrying around anger, bitterness and resentment towards someone else, we can’t keep these feelings contained in a little box. They spill over, preventing us from being at peace with the world. Sometimes, we may get caught in repetitive thought loops about how that person has hurt us – I’ve been there! We may badmouth them to others in search of validation, which only serves to spread blame and negativity. Hanging on to these emotions can poison our headspace and our interactions with others. So forgiveness is really about letting go of things that don’t serve us. It’s something we do primarily for ourselves, though it may benefit the other person too.
Does forgiving someone mean allowing them back into your life?
Another barrier many people have with regards to forgiveness is that they think forgiving someone means being willing to interact with them. But again, forgiveness is a personal journey. Letting go of your resentment towards someone does not mean condoning what they did. If you know it would not be healthy to have that person in your life, you can still choose to keep your distance. But that decision will be coming from a calm, rational place rather than a place of hurt and anger. Rather than blaming and accusing, you’ll be able to accept what happened and move on.
Acceptance really is the key to forgiveness. Some years back, a story made the headlines about a woman whose daughter had been murdered. She made the radical statement that she had forgiven her daughter’s killer. Did she mean that she was ok with what had happened, or that she was over the loss of her daughter? Of course not. But she realised that no amount of anger would bring her daughter back and chose to let go of it, recognising that this was the only way for her to heal. When religious texts speak about forgiveness, I believe this is what they mean.
This is all well and good, but how can we overcome all those negative feelings towards those who have wronged us? There are a few things we can do.
Think about why the person behaved in that way
People are not born mean, selfish or spiteful. Usually, people are unpleasant because their life experiences have made them that way. Those who are abusive were often abused themselves, for example. The role models people have as children have a huge impact on their development. And of course, these role models may themselves have been mistreated. Additionally, there may be traumatic events in someone’s past that we are not aware of.
None of this makes it ok for someone to hurt us. But it can help us to understand why they may have done so. We’ve all done things that we knew deep down were wrong; we are human, and we’re not perfect. We understand that having done those things doesn’t make us bad people, and the same likely applies to those who hurt us. They may have been hurting themselves at the time. Understanding what drives someone’s actions can be the first step towards forgiveness.
Recognise that the situation may not be clear-cut
Sometimes, as with abuse, it’s clear that one person has wronged the other. But in most cases, it is less clear-cut. Take romantic relationships, for example. They can end because of mismatched needs and desires, a lack of shared goals, different priorities, meeting someone new, other commitments, stress…the list goes on. Many people feel very bitter and resentful if, for example, a partner devotes more time to their career than to the relationship. And the partner in question may think this bitterness is unjustified and that their partner is being unsupportive. So who is right? Probably no-one. It’s just that the people involved want different things from the relationship. But the ensuing breakup will likely leave both people feeling hard done by and badmouthing their partner to anyone who will listen. And this creates division, especially when there is a shared friendship group.
Sometimes, we may need to take a step back and realise that what we’re thinking of as offences may actually just be differences. And if this is the case, we either need to respect that or cease to be involved with the person in question – in an amiable fashion, of course, and without resentment. This applies to all relationships, not just romantic ones.
Feel sorry for the other person
As you ponder what may have made someone behave in a certain way, you may find you can even sympathise with them. Think about all the things they may have been through which have made them closed off, jealous, insecure etc.
In a book on Buddhist meditation, I read that those who are most unpleasant towards us are most deserving of our pity, because they will live a lifetime (or several lifetimes!) of pain, suffering, anger, stress and dissatisfaction. We all know people who seem relentlessly negative and pessimistic, and who take those emotions out on other people. This tends to drive people away, making the person feel even more bitter. I often feel sorry for these people, because it can’t be much fun to be them. What must it be like to never experience joy, or be excited and satisfied with where your life is going, or feel a deep sense of peace and connection to the world and everyone in it? To me, that seems nothing short of a tragedy.
Meditation can soothe a number of ills. When we quiet our noisy minds and release our stress and tension, we feel more connected to others. This mindset can make it easier to think favourably of others, and let go of emotions like resentment which aren’t serving us.
Loving-kindness meditation is particularly well-suited to this. It typically involves first directing our love to someone close to us, then to someone we dislike or who has hurt us, and finally expanding it to envelop the entire world. This exercise requires us to love unconditionally, which is impossible if we are still holding on to a grudge. It is difficult, but profoundly healing.
Recognise that people grow and change
Some of us hold grudges for years or even decades, without stopping to question whether the person we are angry with still exists. People change and evolve all the time. Someone may have matured and feel very ashamed of their past actions. We shouldn’t refuse to accept the possibility that they have changed, unless we have hard evidence to the contrary.
If we’re already angry with someone, we are apt to blow all their mistakes out of proportion, using these mistakes as proof that they are a bad person. We should attempt to recognise when we’re doing this and reason with ourselves!
If you’re still on speaking terms with the person in question, talking things over can help you to forgive each other. But you need to be able to stay calm, or it may only make things worse. Good communication is beyond the scope of this post, but it may be worth looking into NVC (nonviolent communication) to help you out with this.
Forgiving isn’t just for those of us who are religious – it can help us all to feel lighter, and build bridges with those around us if we so choose.
Remember to extend the same treatment to yourself. Many of us are carrying tremendous guilt about something we have done. But we can’t change the past, so we need to learn from it and move on – in other words, to forgive ourselves. For some of us, this can be the biggest challenge.
I just want to acknowledge how difficult all this can be. I’m personally caring some resentment towards other people, and a little guilt too. I recognise that it’s damaging, but it can be hard to set aside time to process it. I’ve let my meditation practice slip a lot in recent months, for example. But hard is not the same as impossible, and I believe I’m capable of working through these emotions. What about you?