Chapter Four

Mastering the Art of Forgiveness


By Dr. Robert Leichtman

An old saying is that we cannot truly solve a problem until we own that problem. Viewing our difficulty as something apart from ourselves will reduce our role to being bystanders or victims. To effectively manage issues, we need to be active participants in solving them instead of being observers or complainers.

The act of forgiveness is like dining on excellent food. We will need to engage the food by consuming it. This activity means putting it in our mouth, chewing, swallowing, and digesting it. No one else can do this for us. We must be involved with our challenges in the same manner.

The origins of our anger

Several common misconceptions about anger will interfere with our efforts to forgive. One is the belief that our feeling of anger is somehow not ours. Many assume the anger must come from those who want to harm us since its arrival coincides with the injury done to us or when we think about them.

But this is not the real story. Consider if your new puppy relieves itself all over your living room floor. This event will anger or at least annoy most people. Or suppose we stub our toes rushing to clean up the mess, and then we are angry. Does the chair we struck now hate us and send us waves of anger for hitting it? Does the puppy suddenly dislike us because we have embarrassed it? Does it growl and attack us?

Of course, none of this happens. We react and generate our anger. We create this resentment by our automatic response to something unpleasant and disturbing. Likewise, many other situations can annoy us and stimulate a hostile reaction. Life is full of events that can trigger our irritation, but we still create our emotional responses. The same pattern of cause and effect applies to our fears, sadness, guilt, and feeling of being helpless.

The robot in us

Every day is full of events that can provoke our emotions. Usually, we can point to a circumstance, comment, or even a memory that triggers these reactions. Sometimes this response is cheerful and constructive, but many are on the wavelength of annoyance and disappointment.

No one is forcing us to be happy or upset. We make this choice, either as events occur or long before in previous encounters with a similar stimulus. Most will claim that their responses are always appropriate and justified. Of course, we are angry when bad things occur, just as we are disappointed when we make mistakes or experience a setback.

While we are not robots, we certainly can act like one. When we neglect to notice what we are doing, we become the passive puppet of our automatic emotional reactions. We fail to see how our emotional equipment can act as if it has a life of its own—which it often does. We are still making these choices, but our original decisions were usually made in our childhood and may not have been modified much since then. This era was when we decided how to respond to unpleasant circumstances. Somehow, we concluded that insults and offenses always make us angry. Disappointments make us sad. Threats make us anxious. Mistakes will make us feel guilty, and so on.

This scenario describes those who live with their autopilot switched on. They are not actively monitoring their thoughts or emotions. When questioned, these individuals insist that their mature purpose and commitments guide their significant decisions and behavior, but is this assumption usually valid? Aren’t there some annoyances we should manage with understanding and mercy instead of resentment? Could we often cope better using grace and patience instead of despair?

Who is in charge?

We have far more control over our emotional reactions than we might believe. We only need to pay close attention to what we are thinking and doing. Yes, of course, we can be overwhelmed in extreme situations, but we can turn off our emotional autopilot if we sincerely want to.

We also do not have to follow our old programming, nor do we need to “go with the flow” of our usual feelings. We must remember that no law commands us to be angry about every insult or fear every potential threat. We have the power to decide what will be a suitable response.

It can be very tempting to continue our grievances about old injuries. We can continue telling ourselves we are justified in keeping our anger as long as we have our complaints. We hurt and are not going to pretend we don’t. Unfortunately, our anger will also preserve our suffering and inhibit our growth.

The good news is that we can cancel some of our old resentments. For instance, we may decide that some annoyances are too petty to preserve. Other times we can develop new perspectives and understanding that erase old judgments. It is incredible how enjoyable life can be without most of our old grievances.

Who is to pay for our suffering?

One of the great misunderstandings about forgiveness is the assumption that we must receive confessions of guilt and apologies from our enemies before forgiving them. We may be justified in accusing certain nasty people and awful situations of causing our distress. However, if we only stand back and complain, we will contribute nothing to our recovery. Waiting for others to repair our wounds and make us whole is usually not a good choice. These expectations are more likely to lock us into permanent frustration than help us find relief.

The astonishing truth is our participation in the process of forgiveness is essential. Some will obtain help from individuals, a charitable group, or the government, but we will still need to play a role in the final stages of forgiveness. Only we can attend to the wounds in our belief system and ego. Unless we do this, a large part of our resentment will remain.


Anger can be a poor master

Anger can cause us to be obsessed with our wounds and our adversaries. Sometimes we assume only our continued resentment will hold them accountable for their terrible behavior. This belief is false, however. Universal order will impose appropriate consequences without our involvement. However, if we still insist on holding our enemies accountable for our suffering and recovery, our anger will continue, and forgiveness will seem absurd.

The critical question needs to be whether we want to hold our well-being hostage to the unlikely event of our enemies suddenly becoming contrite and apologizing profusely for their crimes. This confession might be ideal, but is it realistic to expect this to happen? Are we insisting on a solution that will probably fail and frustrate us? Or shall we prioritize our recovery and comfort—even if this means letting go of grievances about our adversaries?

Making the right choice

Individuals reluctant to give up their grievances must ask themselves two significant questions. The first is: which is more important to us? Will we choose to keep our resentment and all the distress and irritation it causes, or do we want to pursue our well-being and peace of mind? We cannot pretend to do both because these two options are incompatible. So, what will our priority be? More resentment or giving it up and moving on?

The second question we must ask ourselves is how much belief we have in the presence of universal (divine) order. Can we accept that there are laws that govern our relationships with one another and the rest of the world?

The common term for this impersonal order and justice is karma. It means every action has consequences that reflect the actual quality of our behavior and intent. Thus, people tend not to trust us if we cheat and lie. If we are rude and intimidating, most people will shun us. We will have good friends and be accepted if we are kind and helpful.

These results indicate the work of justice will occur independently of our personal preferences or prohibitions. After resolving emotional conflicts, we can release the parts we cannot fix to this universal order and trust it to manage them with appropriate and lawful consequences. It is a decision we must make.


Mastering forgiveness will require us to perform two crucial skills. The first is to exert better control over our emotional responses. The second is to expand our understanding of how conflicts arise from both external events and our dysfunctional reactions. This means that our faulty responses can sometimes be a primary cause of our distress.

Fortunately, most acquire the abilities to manage conflicts maturely through the lessons we gain from ordinary life experiences. These insights allow us to embrace life more compassionately and find reasons to give up our grievances. Forgiveness automatically follows these developments and leads to greater self-acceptance and fulfillment. We can immensely accelerate these changes in belief, intention, and expectation by understanding more about what we need to stop doing, must do instead, and how to do it.


  • We must own the problem of our excessive anger before effectively managing it. If we blame others and our outer circumstances, we will act only as observers and complainers. Once anger enters the mainstream of our beliefs, habits, and identity, it is part of ourselves and will likely stay there until we consciously remove it. Blaming and complaining preserve this anger and does nothing to relieve it.
  • We create the anger, grief, and anxiety that we feel. Our adversaries may contribute to the total amount, but we usually generate the bulk of this negativity through our judgments and adverse reactions to these irritants. It is up to us to turn off the production of our dark emotions. We can learn how to show our concern in less destructive ways.
  • Our subconscious robot (autopilot) is programmed to respond to all irritations with anger, losses with sadness, and every threat with fear. It is up to us to recognize how these automatic emotional responses sabotage our well-being and dignity. Self-awareness and self-control are the two practical tools we need for this transformation.
  • Waiting to forgive until we receive apologies and compensation from our adversaries is a poor choice. Those who are not interested in our welfare should not control our well-being. Giving up our demands for apologies and moving on without them will be a better choice.
  • We need to learn to trust universal order (karma) to manage the mistakes and malice of others. Justice comes automatically as we all struggle with the consequences of what we do or fail to do. Order and fairness can be restored even without our intervention.

Think on these things

Written by Dr. Robert Leichtman