What does it mean to forgive? It seems to have a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people. In some circles, it means that one person forgives another person. I personally was not very comfortable with this definition because it didn’t feel right to me. Who was I to determine that I was in the right and they were in the wrong? Who writes these rules? Is there an appeal process?
Another popular meaning is that you absolve the person of any blame. It is a sort of a pardon or a way to free the accused from the need for punishment. Does this mean that it is OK if someone has hurt you? Sometimes people insist on the other person apologizing before they will forgive them. Is the other person taking the blame necessary for you to forgive? This doesn’t ring true for me either because it gives someone else too much control over how I feel. Another view on this is that forgiveness has nothing to do with anyone else.
We can spend a lot of time discussing whether or not someone “deserves” to be forgiven or whether or not enough punishment has been doled out, or enough time has passed, but failure to forgive someone is only harmful to you. The lack of forgiveness is not hurting the person that has not been forgiven. The individual that is the focus of your hate is often totally unaware of the fact that you hate them and that you are refusing to forgive them.
If you consider the possibility that forgiveness has nothing to do with anyone else and see it as a way to free yourself from the pain that holding onto this blame is causing you, then you enter a different space. Oprah likes to say that forgiveness is giving up the hope that things could have been different in the past. This has nothing to do with what happened to you. It does not mean that what happened is OK. It does not mean that it did not happen. It means that it did happen and there is nothing that you can do about it.
Forgiveness becomes the act of accepting that something bad did happen and that is just a fact. There is nothing that you can do to change that. Spending today wishing that it had not happened or dreaming about how your life would be different if it hadn’t happened, is not going to make you feel any better.
Lets not forget that anger is often holding down other emotions. Below anger there is often pain or fear. For those of you that tried to express your anger to help release it after reading “Big Boys Don’t Cry” you may have found that there was another emotion underneath. This is common. As a society we are more comfortable feeling angry and disgruntled than we are feeling vulnerable. When you peel back the anger, you find the core of the problem and it is painful. This is now what you need to experience in order to release it.
Hanging onto the anger allows you to feel like you are protecting yourself from the pain or from feeling uncomfortable. It does not protect you it just forces you to spend your life feeling angry.
Holding onto blame and refusing to forgive can be used to avoid another situation that causes you pain. You can hold onto the anger in a way that keeps you from trying again. For instance, you are up for a promotion at work. A co-worker gets the promotion instead of you. You are hurt and embarrassed and instead of feeling this pain, you become angry.
The anger can be used to protect yourself from further pain. “I didn’t want that stupid job anyway.” “I will never forgive them for hiring that person instead of me!” “I don’t want to have to work nights and weekends anyhow.” “I am not as much of a ‘suck-up’ as the person that got the job and I’m glad about that!” All of these statements point to the fact that it is easier to keep the anger, to use these negative thoughts and accusations to keep the pain below the surface. Also, by convincing yourself through anger that you did not want the job, you can avoid trying again and the potential for being hurt again.
A better use of the anger, in the situation above, would be to recognize that your emotions are showing you how important the promotion was to you. You might use that as a trigger to start looking for jobs that could provide advancement. Acting on the anger is much more productive if the action you take is, in fact, productive.
But we began this whole discussion with forgiveness, so I will come back to anger that is in place because of something that has happened to you. You may feel that someone is responsible, that someone hurt you or failed to provide what you felt that they should provide. On the other hand, things may have just happened and you are angry that they turned out the way that they did. This would apply to events that occurred without anyone doing anything, like death of a loved one, loss of your home in a hurricane, your job being replaced by a machine — that sort of thing.
In any case the past is the past. This sounds ridiculous to even state because it is so obvious, but we do spend a lot of time wishing our pasts were different. “If I had only been loved as a child, I would not have to shoot heroine everyday.” “If I had been able to afford university, I wouldn’t have to sell pencils for a living.” “If my dog hadn’t been hit by a car, I wouldn’t be afraid to love again.” The core of each of these statements is that the past is interfering with your ability to live the way that you would like to be living in the present. The past is robbing you of your life.
This is when forgiveness is crucial. It has nothing to do with what happened or who did what to whom, simply a recognition that there is no way to change what has happened so it is best to make peace with it so that you can enter your life. There is nothing to stop you from getting a new puppy, kicking your drug habit and increasing your inventory to include erasers as well.