Chapter fourteen

Mastering the Art of Forgiveness

BEING PROACTIVE versus REACTIVE

By Dr. Robert Leichtman

Winston Churchill emphasized one of the problem-solving principles when he declared, “If we open a quarrel between the past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” He refers to the common tendency to spend the present arguing about the past and recycling the anger in those old conflicts. This focus of concern merely adds more discontent and irritation to the situation while diverting us from constructive possibilities and current opportunities. 

Forgiveness of major insults and injuries is difficult, but it is nearly impossible when we continue to view them with the same attitudes and demands we had when our wounds were fresh. This perspective cripples our capacity to be effective in resolving old problems.

Churchill reminds us that recalling the past, fighting over whom to blame, and demanding payback serve to feed grievances instead of learning the apparent object lessons from them. Concentrating on the times when the unpleasant events occurred can cause us to ignore positive changes since then. For example, we are probably no longer the naïve and vulnerable people we once were, and the difficult circumstances we endured are diminished or no longer exist for us. 

When it is primarily the memory of old abuse and neglect that keeps alive our current discontent, it is time to shift to better priorities and interests. The alternative is to remain stuck in our past while life moves on without us.

The proactive approach to old conflicts 

There are two primary ways to cope with problems. The first and most common way is to react to what we dislike with abundant complaints and accusations. This approach highlights what distresses us and those we blame for our problems. Our attention focuses mainly on what is wrong with circumstances and people. 

The other method is to respond proactively. This approach consists of developing a practical plan for what we can do to repair, reduce, reform, or replace unsatisfactory conditions and relationships. The focus is on how we can contribute to improving conditions and reducing conflict instead of waiting for others to fix our problems. 

Those who concentrate on their wounded feelings will likely continue complaining, blaming, and resenting. They will carefully define and articulate their grievances, protest the unfairness, demand attention, and claim compensation. Then, they repeat this pattern endlessly until they bore others and themselves into indifference.

Others reject these activities and the deadly consequences of continually nursing grievances and indulging in self-pity. They recognize no one is coming to rescue them and that constant sympathy from friends does little to improve matters. They realize that they must do more than try to escape from the horrors of their past. This fundamental shift of perspective enables them to search for new ways to manage their issues. 

Of course, everyone will claim they always work toward resolving their distress and a better life, but is this true? How often does the chronically aggrieved stop condemning and attacking those they believe have harmed them? Are they still demanding a painful accounting from their enemies? Or have they given up grumbling and begun engaging in healthier, more enjoyable activities? 

The proactive thinking person does not begin with the intent to fix grievances and fight what is wrong. They already understand that beating the proverbial dead horse wastes time. Instead, they plan the steps to improve their situation, relationship, or health from the very beginning. They recognize that the most effective path to recovery is not protesting what they dislike. Instead, they concentrate on how to mitigate conflict, improve communication, and reduce irritation. They also know that, while miracles are welcome, it will be up to them to make any of this happen.

For example, proactive people will see the importance of building courage instead of being more cautious about what makes them anxious. Working to increase our capacity to enjoy the fruits of our life experiences becomes more important than merely avoiding disappointment. Others put a premium on building the general health of their body instead of just fighting illness. 

Imitating the proactive approach 

Unfortunately, some individuals do not see the difference between fighting what is wrong and promoting what is right. If we only restrain bad attitudes and behaviors, we may end up as pleasant zombies—good but good for nothing. We need generous and charitable people, not just those who do not steal. We want people who are kind and helpful, not merely those who suppress their anger and selfish urges.

But doesn’t everyone know this and act appropriately? No! Many assume their hard work at building health and success are complete if they can restrain their worst habits. Thus, angry people believe they have dealt successfully with their hostility if they can control their tendency to argue and criticize. Depressed people often assume they have cured their despair if they no longer cry and wail about their miserable situation. These people have no idea that health is something more than the absence of illness, that happiness is more than the absence of depression, or that justice is more than the absence of injustice. Not even in their imagination can they conceive of these possibilities because they are stuck in the single gear of endless sulking and complaining. 

What are the practical steps of being proactive? 

There are several aspects of being proactive beyond anticipating what we can do to improve ourselves and our situation. These are:

  • the proactive mindset and perspective
  • proactive planning
  • proactive behavior
  • the proactive review and learning

What is the proactive mindset and perspective?

We are proactive when we view our future as more important than our past and recognize our present as the only time to prepare for our future. The past is not where we live, but it is a valuable resource for learning what harms or helps our best interests. 

If we are genuinely concerned about our future, we will focus on ourselves and our resources, not what others or society can do for us. It is all about what we can influence or control and what we can change and achieve. What others can do for us might be helpful, but proactivity emphasizes what we can contribute to our well-being.  

The proactive mindset is much more than an optimistic frame of mind. It involves actively searching for better opportunities instead of waiting for them to find us. Being proactive requires developing the beliefs and habits that help us embrace these opportunities. Included in this search is a concern for what can be rescued and preserved from current problematic situations. 

Proactive planning 

Our top priority will no longer be remembering our dreadful past and seeking sympathy for the worst of our distress. We are now working to cultivate constructive possibilities in our daily activities. Our focus should be on what we will do to activate them. 

Planning our activities should be more than trying to escape our distress or merely surviving the day. Reviewing the currently available resources can help us plan the next few steps. Being practical is essential. We may have to remind ourselves that the helping hand we need is at the end of our arm.

Once more, these ideas will seem strange to those addicted to nonstop complaining or fantasizing about ideal outcomes. Suggesting that we must promote tolerance and goodwill will puzzle those who only know how to set rules that punish our enemies. Proactive planning can be a big challenge for those who think this way.

Proactive behavior

Our primary intentions and expectations set the stage for proactive activities. They represent the active expression of our will and its power to direct and organize our behavior. They are better guides for us than our fluid desires. 

We must commit ourselves to our constructive intentions as we move through our day. If we drop our guard, old resentments and discouragements are often ready to take over. Our proactive expectations may need to be strengthened by our daily commitment to them. This effort will protect us from complacency, boredom, and being distracted by the urge to return to grumbling and self-pity. 

Proactive reviews and response 

We should never wholly finalize our plans. Our experiences and new knowledge will provide fresh insights that we will want to integrate into how we process our experiences, especially for older events. We may recognize where we need more mental housecleaning for our beliefs and attitudes. 

Foremost among these adjustments can be a massive review of our long list of situations we judged as failures, betrayals, or disasters. Our reactive department may have made an enormous mess of evaluating these experiences. Perhaps we mistakenly overreacted to our disappointment and retreated from situations before we could learn from them and master the challenge. 

The great value of being proactive is anticipating how to cope with challenges more effectively. This view can include looking into past events we have interpreted poorly. We are meant to cope with difficulty as a learning experience to help us acquire and strengthen critical knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, our department of apathy often wants to give up at the first or second discouraging experience, aborting all further learning. We need to appreciate that temporary disappointment may only be a sharp curve on the road to the growth of our knowledge and skills—not the end of the road that requires us to abandon the additional effort. The proactive review of these old memories can still produce a wealth of insights that can be extremely rewarding. 

However, if we give up our struggles before learning from them to be stronger and more skillful, the same experience will likely be repeated. This decision to abandon our efforts may leave us with emotional scars that restrict our creativity and diminish our ability to trust any further exploration in similar areas. 

As we review our old, painful memories, we can apply our creativity, resilience, and curiosity to recognize how often our critical judgment stopped our ability to grow in awareness and skills. Instead, retreating into resentment and a sense of failure plunged us into self-absorption about our distress. These episodes halt our progress. Too many can convert us into someone obsessed with defeat and determined to protect ourselves from further harm. 

We must recognize when our reactive nature rushes to interpret everything in the worst possible way. Then we can reboot our thinking and begin again with more flexibility and a better way to respond to our challenges. Did we need more patience and tolerance? Were we restricted to the tunnel vision that excluded all constructive long-term possibilities? Did we allow our department of disappointment exclusive control of our judgment? Is it time to let in fresh views and opportunities available now?

Most importantly, are we ready to release the old anguish, blame, and self-rejection we heaped on ourselves? Can we see that what we may have labeled a disaster was only a learning experience we did not complete? As we learn more about ourselves and our foolish rush to judgment, we can begin to correct the error in our negative conclusions about these experiences. Are we ready to understand the deeper meaning of these events? Can we at least forgive ourselves for making a wrong decision and burying ourselves in discouragement?

Allowing our compassion, wisdom, and pragmatism to help us discover new perspectives and understanding will open the gates to further learning about ourselves. These changes are part of the larger plan to learn and grow from all experiences, especially the difficult ones!

What to do when our reactive parts don’t want to be proactive 

Our efforts to shift to more constructive beliefs and behavior may offend the parts of us that want to continue with our old convictions and resentments. We should be prepared to experience repeated eruptions from our departments of righteous anger. Remember, these parts of our character live in our deep subconscious. They will act like hostile submarines that attack surface ships from their silence and invisibility. Their chief weapons are disgust and apathy. Their torpedoes will release a fog of hopelessness to discourage us from proceeding by convincing us that our struggle will only lead to exhaustion and more defeat. Thus, we are expected to “listen to reason,” give up and return to sulking in peace.

If we quickly recognize these whisperings of discontent, we can maneuver away from their destructive intent. We can squash these sabotaging thoughts by affirming our good intentions and rededicating ourselves to positive expectations.  

We can freshen our motivation to stay positive in our mindset by reminding ourselves that staring at the darkness of our grievances has only created more self-pity and gloom. We must be firm about aborting this approach to our challenges by telling ourselves Been there! Done that! Enough!

Ultimately, we will need many positive adjustments to our self-concept and basic orientation to life. These underpinnings can sustain a confident and proactive expectation of a better future for us. This effort requires much more than a whiff of positive thought and a touch of imagination. The fundamentals of our self-image and outlook must be reformed and energized to keep us proactive.  

Responding to the criticism of being proactive

Some individuals will continue to be committed to complaining and criticizing. They gain from playing both the victim and the alleged rescuer of victims. They often have an exaggerated notion of how they serve the cause of justice through their obsession with complaints and accusations. While they claim they want positive change, their behavior concentrates on attacking or lamenting what they view as horrible, wrong, and unacceptable. 

Therefore, they view the proactive person between a mystery and a moron. They see them as willing to ignore the deep past and all those horrible crimes because they want to work only with the current situation and resources. The issues of retribution, recrimination, and reparations are ignored, and they find this unacceptable. 

Those who insist we must fix the past before dealing with the future are opposed to those who focus on building a better tomorrow. The proactive person can acknowledge everything that has happened since ancient crimes were committed. However, they also recognize that much real progress has occurred since the old conflicts developed. They focus on rescuing what they can from the past and using it to build a better future. They know we must avoid becoming trapped in endless recriminations about the past.

The point is that the proactive person begins from a base of accomplishments, resources, reforms, and other progress. The reactive person will focus on injury, offenses, and the demand for compensation. The difference is enormous, as are the results of proactive thinking and behavior.

Commentary

Proactivity is both a philosophy and a pragmatic way to think and act about our challenges. It includes a constructive perspective on solving problems, relieving suffering, and building our skills and strengths. It is the ideal platform for our work in mastering forgiveness.

The common reactive way is the exact opposite of being proactive. Reactive people focus on annoyances, irritations, and inconveniences. They also will search for how to escape from but not resolve difficulties. Attacking what is wrong is their basic procedure. 

The great benefit of proactive thinking and living is that it allows us to live in our dreams and hopes instead of our fears, regrets, or resentments. The enduring benefits of being proactive are demonstrable and dramatic. 

Summary 

  • We can become lost in protesting and refighting the problems of our past. Instead of learning from these difficulties so we can build a better future, some people obsess over all the mistakes, losses, embarrassing defeats, and abuse by others. Our life then descends into the bitterness of recriminations and self-pity.
  • Those who live a reactive life surrender to resentments, fears, and grief. Unless we resist them, the lure of old, unresolved conflicts can entice us into endless recycling of these unpleasant memories and a search for sympathy. The objective often seems to be to polish our complaints and fine-tune our rationalizations for remaining upset.
  • The proactive approach is the opposite of the reactive view. Proactive people seek to learn from their past instead of living there permanently. The objective is to fix problems, not just complain about them. Therefore, proactive people focus on what they can do to relieve distress, promote better communications, and work to develop crucial strengths and qualities that support fulfillment and the health of the mind and body. 
  • The purpose of being proactive is to grow our way out of our past. We must be motivated by anticipating a better future instead of the urge to escape our past. We can accomplish this by cultivating constructive intentions and expectations that take us on a path of recovery rather than vengeance or self-pity. It is a process that requires healthy changes in our outlook, planning, and helpful behavior. 

EXERCISE

  1. How much time do we spend on recycling our suffering from old memories of loss, defeat, and mistakes instead oflooking for the constructive lessons in them we can apply today?
  2. Do recriminations and resentments about old neglect or abuse overwhelm our awareness of the present? Do we understand how these attitudes will distract us from our blessings and opportunities now?
  3. Do we understand that we are not meant to live in the past, but our history can help us understand how to build a better future? 

Think on these things

Written by Dr. Robert Leichtman