Forgiveness – Part I
This is the first of a two-part column about Forgiveness. This column will discuss forgiveness in a general way – what it is, what it isn’t, differences between forgiving self vs. others, the barriers to forgiveness, reasons to forgive and to not forgive, and consequences of not forgiving.
Next month’s column will provide specific tools for cultivating forgiveness, and will also present suggested inventory for helping with forgiveness.
Meaning of Forgiveness
There are fewer words about which greater confusion exists than the words “forgive” or “forgiveness,” and few words that are more emotionally charged. To forgive, means to stop feeling resentful or angry toward someone or something that has done wrong; it is to grant pardon to.
Well, I’m not sure that definition results in clarity, in part because our opinion might change depending on which side of the “wrong” we’re standing. Most of us have a sense – or so we think – of what forgiveness means, to whom we might grant it, and for what infractions it is properly offered or withheld. But do we really?
If a drunk-driver injures or kills someone in a crosswalk – though it was never his intention and he is truly sorry – should he be forgiven? Your answer would probably be different if you were that driver than it would be if you were the person hit. Your opinion might also vary depending on whether you view alcoholism as a disease or a moral weakness, whether there were prior drunk-driving violations by the driver, and perhaps even by how far “over the limit” the driver was.
Not the Meaning of Forgiveness
In looking at forgiveness, it is equally important to consider what it does not mean. To forgive does not mean to approve of, to forget, to condone, to pretend “it” never happened, to trust, and/or to welcome the person forgiven back into your life.
As an incest survivor, I have forgiven my perpetrators, but I would not trust them, nor would I ever welcome them back into my life.-Jay WestbrookI believe that the elements listed in the last sentence generate the bulk of the confusion about forgiveness, as so often people believe they must do each of the things listed in that sentence, if they are to forgive.
Forgiveness does not require us to approve of or condone an offensive behavior; actually, if we did, the behavior would not need forgiveness. And there are certainly few of us who can forget hurtful events, at least enough to consider forgiving – forgiveness does not demand that we forget.
For me, the two biggest elements in that list are about trust and welcoming back. As an incest survivor, I have forgiven my perpetrators, but I would not trust them, nor would I ever welcome them back into my life. I forgave them so I could be free of anger, bitterness, resentment, victimhood, and living in the past.
Whom to Forgive – Others and/or Self
Most recovering alcoholic/addicts wrestle with the concept of forgiveness. On this issue, of whom to forgive, I have seen both ends of the spectrum.
On the one hand, there are those in recovery who feel entitled to forgiveness (“because I have a disease” or “because I’m an alcoholic/addict”) but are very unwilling to forgive others. And, on the other hand, there are those in recovery who are very willing to forgive others, but absolutely unwilling to forgive themselves at all. Somehow, the hypocrisy of that stand never occurs to them.
Forgiving is kind of like pregnancy or compassion: You are either pregnant or you are not.
You are either compassionate or you are not; being compassionate with others, but not with yourself, is not a compassionate stance. And forgiving only self or others, but not both, is not a forgiving stance.
It is not uncommon for the issue of forgiveness, or the lack of forgiveness, to raise its head in romantic relationships, and often in that “either/or” manner. If both parties have cheated at some point – the details don’t much matter for this conversation – one may expect forgiveness for themselves but be unwilling to forgive their partner, or may forgive their partner, but be unwilling to forgive themselves. Either way, one-sided forgiveness seldom allows the relationship to continue, let alone to be harmonious and joyful.
Reasons to Forgive…and not Forgive
There are two common reasons for being unwilling to forgive. The first is a fear of it making one look weak. The truth is that it takes both strength and courage to forgive, certainly more strength and courage than to hold on to anger and resentment. The other reason people are unwilling to forgive is because of their confusion about what forgiveness means – remember, to “forgive does not mean to approve of, to forget, to condone, to pretend “it” never happened, to trust, and/or to welcome the person forgiven back into your life” (from above).
There are many reasons to forgive, some more noble than others:
- The first reason to forgive is to be free of anger, bitterness, and resentment.
- The second is to be able to live in the present moment, rather than constantly focusing on the past.
- Finally, one might forgive to avoid distraction.
- Less noble reasons might include to look and sound good, or to feel superior to those that one is forgiving.
There is a wonderful book, One Light Still Shines It details the story of the Amish schoolhouse shooting of a number of years ago. As tragic as the shooting was, the media story focused more on why the Amish people, whose children had been murdered by a man who lived among them, would choose to forgive and to forgive so quickly.
Part of the reason was that their grief was so immense, so enormous, so deep, and so profound, that they could not process it if they were in any way distracted by feelings of anger, resentment, rage, retribution, or vengeance. They chose to forgive immediately, ensuring they could grieve their loss fully and completely.
Consequences of Not Forgiving
When we choose not to forgive – ourselves or others – we live in constant bottled-up anger and resentment. We are not able to be fully present, in the moment, for we are focused on the past, when the “wrong” occurred.
When we are not in the moment, we miss opportunities – for service, for love, for work – that are right before us; we cannot see them when we are focused on the past.-Jay WestbrookWhen we are not in the moment, we miss opportunities – for service, for love, for work – that are right before us; we cannot see them when we are focused on the past. Our lives become limited. We are separated from self, from others, and from our Higher Power. And, if it is ourselves we are unwilling to forgive, it is highly likely that we will self-sabotage any and all opportunities for happiness and success.
I have a friend, a dog lover, who, in the midst of their cocaine addiction, allowed their dog to die. They have been unwilling to forgive themselves, so they have never gotten another dog. They are clean and sober over 21 years, but still have not found the willingness to forgive.
The consequence is that they are without the joy a dog brings their lives, and at a time when so many dogs need good homes, the door to what would now be a very good home is closed – so sad.
I will close with a brief story that illustrates the essence of this article so well:
Two World War II soldiers were captured during the war, held as prisoners, and tortured. Fifty-five years later, they meet as old men at a WW II reunion. They are misty-eyed over seeing one another.
The first says, “It’s so good to see you – let me ask, have you forgiven our captors?” The second screams, “NEVER!!” to which the first replies, “Then I guess they still hold you captive.”
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