“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
(Lewis B. Smedes)
That’s a nice idea, isn’t it? It’s right up there with the quote attributed to St. Augustine, “Harboring resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Both could likely be true, but it is also true that trying to force ourselves to forgive people who have harmed us is not healthy or helpful.
In the wake of a year of COVID Captivity and a new eruption of resistance to centuries of social injustice, we certainly have had plenty of opportunities to consider whether or not to forgive, right in our faces.
We have lived in tan environment full of fear, anger, frustration, confusion, division, suffering and grief. We’ve done so in closer proximity to those in our households than most of us ever imagined or wanted. At the same time, we have had significantly less time with the people outside of our homes who help us keep perspective, find balance, and resist felonies.
As a result, we have a whole lot more >ahem< …opportunities … to forgive others and ourselves for our sometimes less than stellar responses to this extreme challenge.
But wait! There’s still more!
Now that things are slowly opening up again, we are trying to relearn how to “human.” After a year of training ourselves to see everyone as a threat, we now have to learn to interact in public spaces more and more like actual co-community members. As mentioned in previous blogs, many of us are not making the switch very well. Let’s hear it for AFGO!
Why do we even want to forgive? It’s mostly for us who have been harmed. We don’t like these feelings that come up as we think about what someone did to us. We can also resent that the person still seems to have the power to “make” us feel this way.
Unforgiveness is importantly uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because it’s pushing us to keep working toward something healthier. (I swear, wellness is so demanding sometimes!)
Check your assumptions
I want to invite you to do a “gut check/language check” right now. Is there something inside of you that is demanding that you forgive, and/or requiring “full forgiveness” right now? That might not be the case. Worse, holding onto those ideas might be getting in the way of getting to a better place.
Four Myths About Forgiveness
MYTH ONE: We have to forgive.
This blog was born out of a client session I had a couple of days ago. My client was raised in deeply devout Catholicism. Her life journey has involved many years of wrestling with the idea of forgiveness.
She was recently in a conversation where her peers were discussing forgiving “as Christ forgave on the Cross.” This wise client challenged them to read the passages again. The Christian Scriptures report that Jesus Christ, hanging on the Cross said, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
Do you see it?
I’m telling you, 20 or so years Christian theological study and even a four-year Bible College degree and I still read right through it: Jesus did not forgive them. Jesus asked His FATHER to forgive them. In my client’s apt summation, if even the supposed Son of God couldn’t always forgive people, what makes us think that we either should or can?
It is not a stretch to apply similar thinking to other beliefs, whether religious or not, we see as pushing us to forgive as something we “must” do. How much of this is truly required by our religious tenets, and how much of the pressure is something we have assumed?
MYTH TWO: Forgiveness is a one-time event.
Forgiveness is a kissing cousin to grief. Just like grief, we often think we are done with forgiving someone, or done with grief, and then out of nowhere, SMACK. We are right back in the middle of it. >PLACE CHOICE CUSSWORDS HERE<
We are always changing and growing. You may have noticed that a lot of things look different to us as we live more life. Why would this harm be different?
MYTH THREE: We have to forgive in order to heal.
Sometimes NOT forgiving is part of our healing.
Yes. I do mean it. There are points along the way as we wrestle with forgiveness where we need to understand down to our DNA that it absolutely was not ok for anyone to treat us that way. It’s a statement of self-worth. Whether or not we choose to forgive at some future point is not today’s question. Right now, we need that conviction in order to reclaim a sense of self-value that may have gotten damaged when we were harmed.
You should never have been treated that way. Be angry. If you find rage inside, own it. Use the information of both anger and rage to create something healthy. Stop worrying so much about forgiveness; It’s keeping you from hearing the rest of what’s important.
MYTH FOUR: We need the person who harmed us to “get it” in order for us to forgive.
The galling thing is that the other person will never feel what you felt when you were harmed. That person is not you. You most likely cannot hurt that person back in a way that will make that person crumble into awareness, repentance and regret.
The beautiful thing is, you don’t need the other person… for anything. The person that harmed you no longer has any power over you. You are not at the mercy of whether or not the person understands the effect they had on you. Your self-validation and the care of trustworthy others is more than enough.
But if you want to…
You might or might not come to a place where you do feel a sense of forgiveness for your aggressor. It’s not required, but it can be freeing, as mentioned above. There really is something powerful going on when we forgive someone who has harmed us. You don’t have to. You can live a perfectly fine life without it. And, you might choose to.
Remember my blog last week about the power of language? Please bear that in mind and re-read this sentence: “There really is something powerful going on when we forgive —someone — who has harmed us.” We forgive the PERSON. Not the act. The act was not and never will be okay. The behavior is unacceptable. We are not saying that it was ok to harm us in this way.
The raw truth
What we are saying is that we understand that this person who harmed us is human and flawed, just like us. When we forgive, we say that we understand that humanness is hard, that broken people sometimes either try to break others or do it out of their broken distortions.
We are saying that we understand it, even as we protect ourselves and others from any potential repeats of that behavior.
It’s all of us
I believe that it is in every human being to absolutely horrific things. The miracle is that we so often choose not to.
By recognizing the flawed humanness of the other person, we make room for our own flawed humanness too. When we make room for our flawed humanness we make room for the kind of humility that chooses to learn, heal and grow instead of staying broken and breaking others. We stop the cycle.
My mother’s favorite movie of all time was Smoke Signals. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. I won’t give you the whole movie, but as you consider forgiveness and non-forgiveness in your life, I urge you to watch the final scene where the main character wrestles with how or if to forgive his father. (Warning: It intense.)
Unlike with the original infraction, the choice is yours.
Are you wrestling with forgiveness? Contact me here. Let’s talk.