Forgiveness can be the ultimate act of self-care.
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” – Louis B. Smedes
I often hear the old adage that resentment, or holding onto a grudge, is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to drop dead. In the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, it is regularly quoted that these grudges, held onto too long, are our number one offenders. They most often simmer deep within our souls, keep us discontent and overly obsessed with our histories, and eventually lead us to relapse.
Whether you subscribe to AA’s beliefs or not, learning to let go of past wrongs is challenging. For some, even examining the past, let alone accepting it rather than stewing in it, seems like an exhausting order. But forgiveness is an underrated exercise in self-love. Real forgiveness, not the sort of “It’s okay,” you throw out to a roommate when you discover they’ve eaten all your ice cream, can place you into a powerful world of peace.
Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean you love someone you once loved. It doesn’t have to mean you even reach out to those that harmed you. Most importantly, it doesn’t mean you excuse past wrongs or decide to forget them entirely. It means a letting go of the negative feelings and ill will towards those who did you wrong, rather than denying the wrongdoing. Forgiveness is an excavation of all the tightly wound dark stuff, the hatred and anger and raw woundedness, held deep down in your gut.
Forgiveness expert Fred Luskin explains, “The essence of forgiveness is being resilient when things don’t go the way you want—to be at peace with ‘no,’ be at peace with what is, be at peace with the vulnerability inherent in human life. Then you have to move forward and live your life without prejudice.”
The word “forgiveness” comes from Old English, deriving from “for-,” meaning “completely,” and “giefan” meaning “to give.” What was once giving up a desire to punish someone, has become the action of giving, both to you and the person you forgive. Forgiveness can be an offering to yourself, a reminder that you are worthy of healing. You deserve to move on. An entire life ahead of you, forgiveness reminds us, can be lived without the pain of the past breathing down your neck.
When you forgive, you give up the power of holding onto old wrongs, and the ability to lord those misdeeds over others. You hand over that future emotional ammunition, rendering it useless. You give a clean slate, an understanding of someone’s ability to do the best they can, as a flawed human, in the world. You see someone as imperfect, and (if you are willing) let them see you as imperfect and wounded. More than the sort of gift-giving capitalism demands of us on a daily basis, this sort of intimate give and take of emotion is a delicate gift of true knowing, that we each grow with and grow through.
When you forgive, you also give yourself an ability to breathe clear of past stories. The stories we tell ourselves about our history, the wrongs done to us, and our own old wounds don’t always serve us going forward. Shedding past hurts rather than wearing them tightly like cloaks makes room for new experiences and the future.
This sounds nice, undraping the past and opening towards a bright and shiny future, right? It sounds like what we all should be doing. So why aren’t we? It takes guts, time, and guidance, to look at past wrongs. To process the pain you’ve put yourself through, and the pain brought onto you by others. You can’t forgive if you aren’t ready. But you can take the next step forward towards readiness.
Begin to open your heart toward other’s humanity. The “Just Like Me” meditation practice, reminds you that everyone is human, just like you. Loving-kindness meditation asks you to open your heart to those you love first, and then expand it to those you feel neutral about, and then finally, accept those you have hostility towards. Not big into meditation? Try putting the harms done to you, and your feelings about them, down on paper. Acknowledging the hurt is important to moving past it and being able to accept others.
Begin to be kinder to yourself for your mistakes, as the anger you feel towards yourself will also be projected outwards into the world, and vice versa. Love for others begins with self-love. Forget love, let’s just aim for some sort of tolerance and acceptance of bad drivers and obnoxious co-workers. And go from there. The Greater Good at Berkeley has done incredible work on forgiveness, and if you’re eager to know more of the facts, they have them, in Research on the Science of Forgiveness: An Annotated Bibliography.
Forgiveness isn’t in fashion. It doesn’t cause catfights on reality shows, and it isn’t making any news headlines. The stuff we stew over, the stuff that makes us sick inside day in and day out, deserves to be brought out and examined. Is it worth holding on to? Or is it better given up, offered to yourself as a gift of letting go?