Mastering the Art of Forgiveness
WHAT TO DO WHEN FORGIVENESS SEEMS TOO DIFFICULT
By Dr. Robert Leichtman
The work of forgiveness is often an unpopular activity that many begin but fail to complete. Some lose interest in further effort when our animosity fails to surrender quickly to our attempts to forgive. Unless we are fully committed to the process and benefits of forgiveness, we may give up as soon as it becomes difficult—or worse, never do more than intend to begin someday.
It can be helpful to recognize and confront possible reasons why we might be tempted to abandon the work of forgiveness. Prominent among these reasons are the following possibilities.
- We naively expect to complete the work of forgiveness with minimal effort and in a matter of days or, at most, in a few weeks.
- We secretly enjoy complaining and blaming others or society for most of our distress. Anger makes us feel vindicated and assumes we are better than others.
- Life should not be so arduous. We deserve a life without so many difficulties or the need to forgive them. The hell with forgiveness!
- We tell ourselves that we are too busy taking care of our responsibilities to have time to work on forgiving those who offended us.
- We know how to forgive, but certain people do not deserve it.
- The forgiveness of those terrible people is God’s responsibility, not mine.
- I am not interested in forgiving anything. I only want to get these people and situations out of my life.
- No one is getting forgiveness from me until someone apologizes.
How to manage these “reasons” to abandon forgiveness
It is always easier to abort the work of forgiveness than to proceed with the effort. For many, the lure of returning to blaming others and assuming victim status is overwhelming. Anyone who takes on the work of forgiving those who have harmed us should be aware of these temptations.
We can learn how to respond to these excuses. The following ideas can be helpful to those struggling to resist these simple rationalizations.
1. We expect to complete the work of forgiveness in only one or two steps. Forgiveness of significant injuries does not occur in a few quick steps. It is a process that unfolds at its own pace and cannot be rushed. It often requires months to years to complete. Get ready to spend some serious time in the process of forgiveness. We should not leave this activity to some lazy weekend afternoon when there is nothing essential to do.
2. Our anger may exist in several layers that we will deal with separately. Sometimes we achieve amazing breakthroughs of compassion and new realizations that wipe out much of our anger. This effort may seem to produce total forgiveness, but later, a further layer of anger can erupt from our unconscious. We need to be ready to deal with the fact that our anger may be delivered to us only in small doses we can handle. Once we cope with this part, another chunk will surface, and we will need to manage this deeper layer more than once.
3. We believe that anger helps us by making us strong.But anger only makes us intimidating instead of steadfast. What truly makes us strong in the face of challenges is our commitment to our dignity, our dedication to a meaningful purpose, and our faith in the value of what we do.
4. We secretly enjoy continuing to blame others for our distress. Beware of choosing to continue the habit of complaining and blaming. This practice is often an undercurrent theme in many emotional support groups. These groups exist to offer sympathetic aid to those overwhelmed with various difficulties, not necessarily to heal the underlying problem. Receiving sympathy over and over does nothing to neutralize this irritation. Sympathy is a Band-Aid, not a cure. Our distress is also our responsibility. And beware! The notion that we can merely release our distress to the universe only works when we no longer care about old emotional injuries.
5. We are encouraged to vent our distress, as this activity is considered therapeutic. However, expressing our anger in loud complaining or wailing only energizes our misery and increases our ability to protest in more detail and forcefulness. The complaining does not usually stop until everyone becomes tired and bored hearing about the same old stories. This chronic grumbling is how addictions are created and rewarded by two types of “fixes.” The first is the sympathetic attention we receive, and the second reward is the first-class justification we obtain for our claim of being a helpless victim. The long-term result of more complaining, even when it shifts to the silent variety, is a deterioration of all emotions into depression, bitterness, or apathy. We can do better than this if we take the path of forgiveness and steadily eliminate anger as a viable way to express ourselves.
6. We are confident that since we did not deserve the harm done to us, we also do not need to do any forgiving.Our sense of entitlement can block our urge to forgive. We tell ourselves that we never deserved this abuse from anyone. We should always be treated with respect and kindness. What happened or failed to happen is not our fault. Other people should be begging for our forgiveness.
However, life is rarely that simple. Perhaps we cringed and did nothing to defend our honor when attacked and only sulked in our distress. Or, for a long time, we expressed righteous anger as our “honest response” to blatant abuse. We may have forgotten that we gave as much malice and threats (at least silently) as we received from our enemies in our many silent protests. We may not be the innocent victim we believe we are.
We do not yet live in a world of saints and angels, and we must learn to cope with some disappointments and aggravations. Therefore, we are responsible for learning to be strong and self-reliant, so we are not overwhelmed by everyone who offends us. Just as parents must be tolerant of their minor children’s behavior, we must be tolerant of much of the distress we experience. This does not mean being a doormat to everyone or being permissive about everything that irritates us. But we cannot afford to be disabled by our annoyances all the time. We need to save our energy for the helpful activities we engage instead of concentrating on our reaction to insults.
7. We are too busy to take the time to forgive bad people. Everyone can claim to be too busy to forgive those who offend us. While this thought is exceedingly convenient, it leaves us with all our annoyances intact and continuing to multiply while our confidence and peace of mind shrink. The claim of being too busy is often an obvious excuse that means “I don’t want to.”
We deserve peace of mind, but cultivating this state will require more than avoiding what annoys us. We must acquire the self-discipline and skill set to maintain self-control in chaotic times. This transformation will require considerable effort on our part. This must include basic mental housecleaning practices to rid ourselves of old emotional baggage. Forgiveness is one of our best tools for this cleansing.
8. Some people do not deserve forgiveness. We may be convinced that some people have been so abusive that they do not deserve forgiveness. Maybe God can forgive them, but this is beyond what we should have to do.
Although some refuse to believe it, we all are subject to the universal Law of Consequences. This states that we reap what we sow. Our good deeds bring good favor to us. Our bad behavior brings something unpleasant into our direct experience.
People reward rudeness and dishonesty by shunning those who behave in this manner. Kind people usually are accepted and trusted. Unforgiving and stubborn people are viewed as bitter, rigid, and intolerant. They are unlikely to be good friends with anyone.
Becoming tolerant and compassionate is everyone’s business. We want to evolve into people who choose to be kind and helpful to one another. Just because a few misbehave toward us does not give us a license to be mean to others. We should treat all people with respect and honesty. Only in this manner can we avoid the endless war of retaliation for all evil deeds done to us.
9. No one is getting forgiveness from me until someone apologizes. It is easy to tell ourselves we are ready to forgive others, but we want to hear apologies first. We are convinced that the unrepentant do not deserve anything.
There is a significant flaw in this reasoning. It means we are establishing a contract that insists our adversary must demonstrate repentance before we can end a conflict. This requirement makes our well-being and comforts a hostage to our adversary’s decision to be generous and kind to us. This is not going to be a good deal for us.
In the business world, it is well-accepted to forgive uncollectable debts to clear our records of numbers that now stand for nothing. We must do the same for our uncollectable emotional debts to free ourselves of the continued annoyance.
10. We will miss the benefits of our distress.Many people will secretly miss the attention and sympathy they are receiving because of their emotional injuries. Many also use their distress as a license to avoid some duties and obligations. Returning to robust health would mean the loss of this power and status. We need to consider the possibility that this potential benefit has seduced us.
Common misunderstandings will limit our capacity for forgiveness
Sometimes we are ready to abandon our efforts to forgive because we have misunderstood the nature and purpose of forgiveness. Correcting such false beliefs can return us to the work of effective forgiveness. Here are some explanations that may help clear the gaps in our understanding.
1. Forgiveness often occurs in several phases instead of one giant leap that wipes away all pain and remorse. Sometimes our first step is to declare a temporary truce before we get into the details of forgiveness. Or we must compartmentalize the distress until we have the time and space to work effectively on these issues. Then we may need to work on the edges of our grievances for a while before dealing with the core of our resentments.
Remember that we forgive primarily to relieve ourselves of an unnecessary burden. Forgiveness of major grievances may take many years, even lifetimes. However, any progress we can make now will help diminish the burden we impose on ourselves by maintaining our grievances. Do as much as you can. You will not regret it.
2. Remember that powerful forces of justice exist in the universe. These forces work independently of our desires or demands. They will deal effectively with the evil people who have injured us. Our continued outrage is not essential to move the wheels of justice. The Lords of Karma will manage these situations with great care about the details and nuances.
3. We may decide that specific individuals are too rotten to deserve forgiveness. Let them twist in our wrath forever. This is a common thought that some people apply to their worst enemies. But beware! There will come a time when we will no longer think this way, and then we will regret that we stubbornly resisted reducing our grievances. The bond of anger that binds us to our enemies can reach into our future lives. Some individuals need to consider if they want to be married once more to this awful individual or have them as their parents in their next lifetime. (Yes, reincarnation is a fact that is uninfluenced by our wishes or denial.)
4. We have convinced ourselves that we have completed the forgiveness process with various people and situations. We must be aware that it can be enticing to use self-serving criteria for deciding when we are finished with our work of forgiveness. The absence of outrage is only the first level of forgiveness, not a sign we have completed the process. We are not done if we still have contempt for them or indifference about their welfare. Reducing our resentment to apathy can be an authentic achievement, but more work must be done. Strange as it might seem now, forgiveness is incomplete until we can wish our old enemies well in their future activities. This is what we would hope everyone will do for us.
5. We may confuse forgiveness with permissiveness. Forgiveness is not just forgetting about old abuse or neglect. Instead, it is about recognizing what our response could have been without all the rage or remorse. It is about knowing that we can learn to resist the malice and deep recriminations we felt at the time.
Forgiveness is also about appreciating we are more than a lump of painful feelings and memories of humiliation. We have an inner life that reaches far beyond the physical and emotional. We can mitigate our great distress by learning to align ourselves with this higher power and draw on its strength to endure difficult outer circumstances.
6. We may decide that forgiveness is too much for us, so we will let God do all the forgiving. However, we are not designed to become pious parasites, always dependent on higher powers. In so far as possible, we are meant to collaborate with our divine design and resources. God will always provide help, but the divine seeks to work through us by inspiring our thinking, adding peace and confidence to our emotions, and strengthening what we already can do. God will help us as one who works with us to complete our duties instead of working for us while we leisurely read a magazine.
We must be very wary of our anger when so much resides in our storehouse of grievances. These dark memories tend to make us pessimistic and distrustful. As such, they have affected our core beliefs and now influence our worldview and motives for behaving the way we do. At this point, our anger and grievances readily pull us into our past and begin to suck the life out of us.
We want to stop being pushed back into a general mindset and mood incompatible with health and healing. Instead, we want to embrace all the good opportunities and assets available now. For these reasons, we must stop revisiting and reliving these injuries and humiliation and substitute taking the role (we have choices here) of being an optimistic survivor. Then we can become a person who knows how to be proactive, live in the present, and work to build a better future.
- It is not easy to give up our resentment about old abuses and neglect we have experienced. Our hurts demand our attention and often encourage us to heap continual anger on the perpetrators who harmed us. Our minds and imagination often generate many reasons to continue our outrage and grievances.
- A hostile response to these memories will put us on the path to permanent distress and discomfort. Our present and future will be diminished until we can use our energies and attention to generate a fulfilling life not compromised by our baggage of multiple grievances.
- The practical antidote for our old grievances will be authentic forgiveness, not just a tepid forgetting. This means forgiveness which is born of better understanding, expectations, attitudes, and hope. These practices can also liberate our joy and confidence in living.
- While intelligent people can find many reasons to continue the outrage they feel about old abuses and neglect, we owe it to ourselves to recognize there will be better reasons to give up our resentments that anchor us in the past. Our desire for the freedom to be fulfilled in the present and future can be a powerful incentive to find ways to practice forgiveness.
- Are we often drawn back to unpleasant memories to remember the distress we experienced? Has this been useful in helping us understand the lessons we are meant to learn from them? Or do we miss being miserable? Is it time to manage our past in a better way?
- Do we understand we must use a healthy mindset to view our past? If we consider everything from the standpoint of being a victim, we may increase our suffering. But if we look at our past as optimistic survivors, we may recognize how our experiences have made us stronger and more innovative, not just wounded. These insights can stimulate healing changes in how we view these old events.
- Remember, healing our past is up to us. Like food offered to us, we must eat it to benefit from it. So also, we must internalize the encouragement that others provide by applying them to our memories, attitudes, and understanding. Can we do this?