How to Truly Forgive

forgive thumbToday I wanna talk about forgiveness, because this is probably one of the most challenging issues we face in life; How to forgive someone. So what does forgiveness really mean, and how can we truly forgive?

I think that most of us can understand how resentment causes us so much internal suffering, and that our resentment toward someone doesn’t necessarily affect that person. They could have done something really horrible and naturally that makes us angry, but oftentimes our anger does nothing at all to affect that person. They might go on with their life as if they’ve done nothing wrong, never taking responsibility for their behavior. And typically, this only causes us to be more and more resentful. Which in turn causes us to be more and more miserable. So we end up being the one who’s miserable, while they seem to go on without a care in the world.

This is whole nature of resentment, that even if we feel that our anger is justified, the question is who are we really hurting? Because, again, it would seem oftentimes that it’s not causing the other person to hurt. It’s only causing us to hurt.

And it’s been said that anger is the punishment we inflict upon ourselves for someone else’s mistake.

And again, I think that most of us can understand that. We can say, ‘Yeah, this is right. When I’m angry at this person it may not be affecting them at all.” It might, in some circumstances. But more often than not, it doesn’t. But one thing we can be certain of is that it affects us. And so the question is, do we wanna live with that, or do we wanna be free of it?

And of course we wanna be free of it. Who doesn’t wanna be free from suffering? But it seems so much easier said than done. So how do we actually do that? How do we let go of that resentment, so that we can move on with our lives, so that we can be happy; so that we don’t have to go on suffering because of something someone else did?

I wanna start by addressing one of the biggest misconceptions about forgiveness, because this may often be what’s preventing us from being able to forgive.

So, suppose someone does something really disrespectful or inconsiderate to us. And it may have been intentional or it may have been totally unintentional. And, in some sense, it really doesn’t matter. Because what’s done is done.

We have this idea that to forgive them means that we condone their behavior. That we, in someway, approve of it. That is, we excuse it. And that we’re willing to tolerate it.

Have you ever noticed that when someone apologizes, we have a tendency to say, “It’s okay.” Well, it may not be okay. Whatever it is that person did may be far from okay. But when we tell them ‘it’s okay,’ it’s as if we’re condoning or excusing whatever it is they did. But at the same time, deep down, we may not really agree that it’s okay. Deep down, we may feel that it was not at all okay, and even if we seem to be accepting their apology, we might not really be forgiving. That is, we might still be holding on to some resentment.

So I think it’s important to acknowledge exactly what the other person did, and to acknowledge whether or not it was truly inconsiderate and disrespectful, as well as whether or not it was intentional.

If it turns out it was merely an unintentional mistake; that is, the other person had no intention whatsoever of causing you any harm or loss, then we need to acknowledge that. And that isn’t to say that we excuse their behavior. But that we simply come to understand that it was indeed an unintentional mistake. And who doesn’t make mistakes in life?

Now, if it turns out that their intention was to cause harm or loss, then again, we need to fully acknowledge that, without offering any excuses, and without the idea that we should in anyway tolerate it.

And in either case, if the person apologizes, we need to be able to gauge how sincere the apology is. Because anyone can say ‘I’m sorry’. But that doesn’t mean that we mean it. How many times, when we were children, did someone make us apologize? Right? And how sincere were those apologies? Maybe sometimes it was sincere. But often we just felt pressured to say it, not that we actually meant anything by it. So those words can be very empty.

And the reality is that a verbal apology really has no value at all unless it’s backed up by action, or at least the sincere intention to change one’s behavior, and not just to say that they will. And so, when someone apologizes to me, having done something inconsiderate or disrespectful, whether intended or unintended, I don’t tell them ‘It’s okay’. I tell them something more along the lines of, “I appreciate you owning up to what you did and taking responsibility.”

And if it seems obvious that their apology is disingenuous, and that they have no real remorse, and no real intention to behave more respectfully, then I might say something like, “I don’t get the sense that you really understand what you did, and I don’t get the sense that your apology is sincere.” And then we might discuss it in more detail, or we might just leave it at that.

But now the question is, do I forgive them? In any of these situations, whether the apology is sincere or insincere, or whether they apologize at all, Do I forgive them? And if so, how?

So let’s look at the word ‘forgiveness’. What does it mean? To forgive means to ‘give up’ which essentially means to ‘let go’. But to let go of what? You already know this, because we’ve already discussed it. What we’re letting go of is resentment. And that’s it. We’re not excusing the person’s behavior. We’re not condoning it or approving it or validating it in any way. And we’re not suggesting that we’re going to continue to tolerate it. And it may even be the case that we need to remove ourselves from the situation or from whatever our relationship is to that person, in order that they don’t keep mistreating us.

But forgiveness, itself, really has nothing to do with the other person at all. It only has to do with us, and with whatever resentment we’re holding on to.

So part of the problem is that we think that forgiveness is something we give the other person, that we do it for their benefit. And this is one of the reasons we find it so difficult. Because why would we want to do something for someone who has done nothing but disrespect us? Suppose we’re talking about someone who has never done anything to benefit us. All they’ve done is take or abuse or in some other way cause some disturbance. But they have never given us anything. So why should we give them anything, especially forgiveness? Right? This is what goes on in our minds. They don’t deserve our forgiveness.

Well, maybe they don’t deserve your forgiveness. Let’s suppose that’s true. But the real question here is, do you deserve forgiveness? That is, do you deserve to be free from the suffering that comes with resentment? Because, once again, forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person. It may appear, in some instances, that a person needs your forgiveness in order to feel better about themselves. But that’s really just an illusion. Because they could just as easily forgive themselves without your approval. Or they could just as easily go on beating themselves up long after you’ve forgiven them.

So really, forgiveness is not something to be given. It’s about something which needs to be given up, to be let go of, to be released and relinquished. And that is, once again, resentment.

Now, something a lot of people seem to struggle with is this idea of ‘forgive and forget’. They say, “How can I forget what this person did to me?” Because it would seem that asking someone to forget is like saying it never happened, or at least acting like it never happened. So if someone betrayed your trust, for example, is it possible to just pretend that they didn’t? Because, essentially, this is what we’re being asked to do, when we’re being told to forget about it.

So I would say that this is going about it all wrong. Forgiveness has nothing to do with forgetting. Just as I mentioned earlier, we should acknowledge exactly what the other person did, and whether it was intentional or unintentional, and whether they’re sincere in making an effort to take responsibility and correct their behavior. And we do that in order to decide whether we’re going to maintain our relationship with them, or whether we’re going to walk away from it. And all of that requires being aware, not being forgetful.

So, to keep with the example of someone betraying your trust; when this happens we find it very difficult to trust that person ever again. And we seem to think that forgiving them means trusting them again. But here’s the thing, trust is something earned. And if someone shows you that they aren’t trustworthy, we can’t just pretend to trust them. But we can still forgive, because forgiveness, once again, is about us, not them. And the issue of trust is an entirely separate issue.

So if someone has broken your trust, they’re gonna have to earn it back again. And that might take a lot. Or it may not ever be fully restored. But we don’t have to attach resentment to that. We don’t have to be angry with them because we don’t necessarily trust them. We can simply acknowledge that they may not be trustworthy, without having to be angry about it. Often the anger is there because we’re disappointed. And we’re disappointed because we had some expectation. So, this now becomes a question of whether we can let go of that expectation by simply accepting the fact that they may not be trustworthy.

I meet people in life from time to time who simply cannot be trusted. And as soon as that’s made clear to me, I simply make a note of it. This person can’t be trusted. Therefore, I’m simply not going to rely or depend upon them to do certain things, including what they promise. That is, I don’t expect them to live up to a certain standard of behavior, nor do I expect them to live up to their word. And because of this, when they don’t, I’m neither surprised nor disappointed. And because I’m not disappointed, I really have nothing to be angry about. And if I have no resentment in the first place, then there’s nothing to forgive.

But I can still chose whether or not to associate with that person, or whether or not to rely on them to do something or to behave in a certain way, or whether or not to allow them to take advantage of me, and so on. All of that has to do with trustworthiness, respect, consideration and so on. But all of that is an entirely separate issue from forgiveness.

So once again, it’s very important not to confuse forgiveness with trust, or to confuse it with tolerance or forgetfulness, with condoning or excusing a person’s behavior, and so on.

Now, because forgiveness is really all about what we’re doing for ourselves, the final thing I wanna talk about is forgiving ourselves. And this is something that takes a bit of self-awareness even to recognize. Because often, the resentment we feel toward another person is really directed at ourselves. It only appears to be directed at the other person.

And I can think of plenty of examples from my own life where this turned out to be the case. Something I began to observe in my life, many years ago, is that I would often find myself in situations where I was being manipulated and taken advantage of by other people. And some of those relationships were all about manipulation, and nothing more. I would find, after stepping back and taking in the bigger picture, that I was often going out of my way to do things for the other person, but when I really looked closely at the situation, the other was never offering anything to that relationship. That is, they never went out of their way to do anything for me. They never contributed anything.

So I began to recognize this imbalance, where I was giving so much to that relationship, often in terms of favors and actions and so on, but the other person was only in the business of taking. What could they get from me? And even, on occasion, when it may have seemed as though they might have been doing something for me, when I really looked more closely, I could see that they were only doing it to get something in return. And more often than not, what they were getting in return far outweighed whatever they had given. So essentially they were just using me, and oftentimes, manipulating me through a false pretense of love or friendship, just to get whatever they wanted. And so it was really all about them. They didn’t really care about me. And this really was made clear to me, when I simply stopped giving in to the manipulation, when I stopped doing them favors and so on. Because as soon as that stopped, we no longer had a relationship. There was no longer any purpose to it. Because after all, it was essentially a business relationship. And if they weren’t profiting from my exploitation, then there was no reason for the relationship to continue.

So, of course, when I came to this realization that the other person was just using me, and manipulating me, and taking advantage of my vulnerability and kindness, I felt a lot of resentment toward them. And that, of course, created so much suffering for me. And typically, the other person would seem to have no remorse, no sense of guilt or a willingness to own up to their manipulative behavior. And of course, that only seemed to cause me to resent the all the more.

But I also came to realize that my resentment wasn’t having any affect on them at all. But in reality, it was causing me a great deal of misery. And so I knew that in order move on with my life and be happy again, I needed to release it, to let go of it. But in order to do that, I first needed to understand it.

So I sat with my resentment and observed it, studied it, I looked very deeply into it. And what I discovered really surprised me. What I found was that I really wasn’t angry with the other person. When I really examined my anger, what I found was that I was really angry at myself.

Now, I wanna be clear that I still acknowledge that the other person’s behavior was disrespectful and inconsiderate, and that I deserve to be treated with respect. And I was able to recognize and acknowledge that the other person had been using manipulative language and behavior to persuade me to do all kinds of things for them. But what I also realized is that they never forced me to do anything. In order words, I had allowed myself to be manipulated. Everything I had done for them was a free choice, and had chosen to do those things. Albeit, I was under the false impression that we had a mutual consideration for one another, but regardless of how well they maintained that illusion, I had agreed to believe it. I had allowed myself to be fooled.

And so I was deeply disappointed with myself for having been such a fool, and having been so easily manipulated. And I was angry at myself for being so foolish. And so all of this resentment that I was carrying was really in regard to myself, my own behavior, my own susceptibility. But as I came to recognize that more and more, to become more and more aware of how I had allowed myself to be manipulated and deceived, I was now cultivating within me an awareness that would prevent that sort of thing from happening again in the future. So if I was overcoming whatever issues I had, that had previously allowed me to be manipulated, this meant that I was no longer in the position of being so easily manipulated. And if that were now the case, then there was really nothing to be angry about. Because I had taken that lesson and begun to apply it, and I was now more empowered because of it. I had taken this situation which initially caused me to feel weak and I had transformed it into a strength. And this really allowed me to let go of that resentment. I simply didn’t need it anymore. It no longer had any foundation.

So, whatever anyone has done to us, or whatever we have allowed someone to do to us, we can stay trapped in a victim-mentality; a mentality of weakness and helplessness. Or, we can find some lesson in all of it that can be applied in our lives – some strength, some wisdom, some empowerment – so that we don’t have to go on being victims. So that we don’t go on being fooled and betrayed and manipulated.

So, all of this is important to consider. Not to focus on merely trying to forgive the other person, but on trying to understand our resentment, so we can let go of it. And not for anyone else’s sake, but for our own peace of mind.

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