Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Forgiveness: What is it? And How Does it Work?
I don't know the precise moment when it dawned on me what forgiveness actually meant. I'd been raised to repeat the mantra of forgiveness since I was a little one, but that didn't mean I knew how to do it... or what it really amounted to, for that matter. You hear the word all the time, but it seems so shallow beneath the weight of whatever suffering accompanies the need for it.
Forgiveness. Forgive your enemies. Forgive and ye shall be forgived...
But, beyond an overused, religious cliche, what is the emotion behind this word? This act? And how do you know if you're actually forgiving someone or simply uttering the obligatory words? How do we cope with the sting of a wrong committed by the ones we trusted... the ones who should have loved us enough to know better? Even suspecting they might never change their ways? And is it even about them? You know, maybe indirectly, but forgiveness is more of a healing journey for the one who has been hurt. That is what matters most.
For years, the concept of forgiveness sat like a stone in my heart. There were many things I needed to overcome, for my own sake. There were several people I considered purveyors of the pain from my childhood and that of my siblings, but as long as I was compelled by an enigmatic word only, I couldn't fathom the reality, the truth of forgiveness, and the fact that achieving it was not so easy as uttering the words, "I forgive you." It had to be sincere. It had to be understood. It had to be learned. And most of all, it had to develop in its own time.
Some of us have to maintain a lifelong distance from those who repeatedly harmed us. Some of us grow thick enough skin to stick around. In my case, it was nearly thirty years coming--and many miles of safe distance between me and my home state--before I could return to that raw place with different eyes. I think that the greatest factor, the thing that helped me most, was stubbornly loving those who had hurt me, in spite of their faults and alongside the fear, the anger that their associated memories evoked.
Loving the offending party, even while you can't stand them, if that makes sense, helps things along. And don't get me wrong, you'll have to trudge through the nightmare and muck of your heartache for as long as it takes. Let yourself have that time, no matter what anyone tells you. Eventually, though, if you haven't sealed yourself completely against love, you'll begin the process--and yes, I say process-- of forgiveness. Look at the human behind the perceived enemy, acknowledging that something has shaped and scarred them, and if you can empathize with that, even just a little, you're on the path to forgiving them.
The desire to understand those who have wronged us is a great means of converting personal anguish into compassion. Unconditional love has this magical way of subtly transforming bitterness into forgiveness. It happens all on its own, without you even knowing it. One day, you'll wake up and, instead of the hatred you once felt, there's a sad empathy, instead. You can feel for those whose negative actions or words sprang from a repressed fear, from self-hatred or an injustice they, themselves, could not overcome.
Forgiveness, I believe, is not just a word. It's the essential ingredient to our happiness and well being. The peace that follows will do more to enrich our experience than a lifetime of harbored ills.
Till next time,