I have to admit, I’d never heard of Global Forgiveness Day until recently. It got me thinking a lot about forgiveness, though, which I suppose is the point. Whenever I delve deeper into a topic, I almost always look up quotes about it. The one that struck me most was this quote from Nelson Mandela that likened not forgiving to remaining in prison:
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
― Nelson Mandela
Forgiveness is hard, there is no doubt about that, but it turns out that not forgiving is harder. Not only does it keep you locked in a prison of your own pain, it also gravely affects your health. In fact, the toxic twins of not forgiving, chronic anger and resentment, have been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and lowered immune function.
As Anne Lamott so aptly puts it,
“Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
It hurts no one but us, which begs the following question: If not forgiving is so bad for us, why is it so gosh darn hard to forgive?
I don’t know about you, but forgiving sometimes makes me feel like I’m giving the person who hurt me a free pass; as if I’m saying that what they did was ok. It can feel like denying my pain, pretending the wounds I carry don’t exist or, even worse, were never there to begin with. It can feel like wiping the slate clean when in fact I’ll never be the same again. Forgiving can even feel like I’m dishonoring myself and my experience.
But the emotional baggage of resentment and anger, of bitterness and hatred, is a lonely and heavy burden to bear. I remember watching a video of a woman describe how she came to forgive the man who murdered her daughter. She said that once she had forgiven him, she felt “so much lighter, so much more peaceful.” I think we all want that. People like her offer us hope when they can forgive something that awful and unimaginable.
The thing about not forgiving is that it binds you to your anger, resentment, and pain instead of allowing them to pass through you. This doesn’t mean it is easy to let them go, just that it’s important to. Otherwise, you’re stuck feeling the same pain and anger over and over again without any hope of relief, and where’s the justice in that?
There are so many misconceptions about forgiveness swirling around out there that make us resistant to the idea. Here is one of my favorite quotes about what forgiveness is not:
“Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.” ― Lewis B. Smedes
True forgiveness does not ask us to deny our experience or our pain. It does not make what has been done to us ok. It does not mean that we have to forget, as the common phrase, “Forgive and forget” commands us to. Nor does it mean that we need to absolve our offenders of their wrongdoings:
“Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim – letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.” ― C.R. Strahan
Forgiveness is a process and a decision. Everyone must come to it on their own terms and in their own time. Barbara Mangi, the woman who forgave her daughter’s murderer, made the decision to forgive him. She felt her daughter would have wanted her to. It helped that he expressed his deep remorse and regret to her. It’s harder to forgive when your offender won’t even acknowledge his/her wrongs, but it can be done. At the end of the day, forgiveness is an internal process. It has everything to do with you and nothing to do with the person you are forgiving.
Barbara Mangi’s definition of forgiveness is a startling one: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.” At first, this definition depressed me. Giving up hope doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. But then I thought of how freeing it would be to just let the past be what it was, to stop wishing and hoping that somehow it could be different. We can’t change the past. We can only heal the wounds of the present.
The other half of letting go of your past is that it allows you to fully meet the present. If we carry our pain with us always, it becomes the lens through which we see the world. It strangles the present and, in turn, our future – dooming it to be continually hurt by what happened to us in the past. There is a lot of beauty in the world and I don’t want to miss it because somebody hurt me. They shouldn’t get to take that away from me too.
There are, of course, levels of forgiveness. We’ve all been guilty of holding on to a grudge that, in the grand scheme of things, is rather petty and inconsequential. Let go of those as quickly as possible, life is way too short. At the other end of the spectrum, for victims of violent crimes, it can sometimes be just too hard to forgive. This is completely understandable, and no one should be forced to do anything they don’t want to, especially the victim of a heinous crime. In these instances, it’s best to focus on healing yourself and releasing your past. It is highly recommended to have a trained professional, such as a therapist, help you through this difficult process.
Then there are the more serious hurts that most of us will encounter in our lifetime in one way or another. Maybe your mother or father was verbally / emotionally abusive, maybe your spouse left you for someone else, maybe a friend betrayed you, maybe your business partner stole money from you. These types of hurts are hard to forgive, but it is important we try. Compassion is often the key to helping us forgive in times like these.
Compassion compels us to remember that we are all human, we are all wounded, we all make mistakes, we all have hurt someone we love, and we all want to be forgiven. This does not mean you don’t speak your truth. It does not mean that person should not be held accountable for his/her actions. It does not mean that you have to keep that person in your life. Sometimes the only way you can forgive someone is to keep them at a distance, so they can’t continue to hurt you. Every situation is different, and every person has to decide for him or herself what is best.
Finally, there is someone we all will need to forgive at one point or another – ourselves. It’s just as important to forgive yourself as it is to forgive someone else. It is also much harder because it’s difficult to show yourself compassion. It’s not easy to let go of the pain from mistakes you’ve made in your own life, especially when they carry serious repercussions like broken dreams, broken relationships, and the pain you caused someone you love dearly. Forgiving yourself is different from forgiving others in that it is inexorably linked to how deeply you atone for your wrongs and how far you go to right them. You will never truly be able to forgive yourself until you’ve done all you can to fix what you have broken. Sometimes, however, it can’t be fixed and that’s something you also have to learn to let go of and forgive yourself for.
I have a feeling that the person you most need to forgive popped into your head as soon as you read the first few sentences of this article. I also have a feeling that the things you have yet to forgive yourself for also came to mind as you were reading that last paragraph. Global Forgiveness Day is a reminder to us all of the importance of forgiveness, in our own individual lives as well as our collective lives. People and nations are called to forgive just as individuals are.
“Without forgiveness life is governed by an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation.” ― Roberto Assagioli
Forgiveness and love are forever linked, and love heals all. But so are love and remorse forever linked, and all three are joined by compassion. The practice of atonement, of expressing remorse and trying to right the wrongs you’ve committed, is equally as important as forgiveness and, perhaps, deserves a global day of its own, but that’s for another article!
Today, on Global Forgiveness Day, let us all strike forth on our paths of forgiveness. Let’s decide, today, that we will forgive if we can, that we will not stay locked in a prison of pain.
We deserve better than that.