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Lighten Up and Learn to Forgive

It’s rare that a day goes by when we haven’t been aggravated or hurt by someone. From sunrise to sunset, it seems, someone somewhere is punching our buttons. These daily annoyances provide in-the-moment opportunities to turn down the volume on our anger and our impulse to get even. Instead of going from 0 to 10 in a second, we can regard these occasions as opportunities to cool down and defuse. Instead of thinking how we can give back as good as we just got, we can view these annoyances as a laboratory for practicing forgiveness.

It’s not just the environment that seems to be experiencing global warming. A hot climate of intolerance and impatience seems to characterize many of our interactions today. Joni Mitchell alluded to our tendency toward provocation and hostility in a recent song . . . “You can feel it out in traffic. Everyone hates everyone.”

Last year, like many people, I was shocked to hear of the school shootings in the tiny Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. What was most astonishing was how quickly the Amish forgave the man who committed the murders and reached out to the family left behind after his suicide. These big acts of mercy and reconciliation catch us unawares and make us ashamed of our far pettier grievances. In the aftermath of the shootings, ironically enough, the Amish were criticized by some who felt forgiveness was inappropriate without the expression of remorse. But this is precisely when forgiveness has the most power and meaning . . . most of the time there is no one standing before us with lowered eyes and hat in hand.

The fact is, life gives us plenty of very ordinary opportunities to practice forgiveness—occasions that are rarely momentous or profound . . . the yoga teacher who didn’t say hello to us in class today; the officious security officer at the DMV who wouldn’t answer our questions; the woman on her cell phone who cuts in front of us in line. Every day people hurt or slight or offend us in some way, large or small, sometimes knowingly, usually carelessly. But we have the power to choose whether to make these events mountains or molehills in our lives.

Why Do We Forgive?

Perhaps the reason Jesus spoke so frequently of forgiveness is because it is so hard to do! He knew that much of our suffering in life comes from wallowing about in our own stories of hurt and loss. But he also knew that forgiveness could be our greatest opportunity for joy and growth as humans.

Photo by Lyndi Schrecengost, ©2008It isn’t too difficult to see what “not forgiving” does to us. When we hold on to a resentment or a hurt, we place ourselves in a straightjacket where our movement is limited and our options disappear. The way we obsessively “re-hash” an event sends us into demoralizing spirals. We know firsthand how often depression and sadness follow close on the heels of unresolved anger. And any psychologist will tell you, if you are hard and merciless with others, you are probably hard and merciless with yourself. This is what author Wayne Dyer meant when he said, “It’s not the bite that kills you; it’s the poison.”

We forgive—not just for others, but also for ourselves . . . not solely to make us better people, but to keep us sane. Many of the people who have hurt us don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong, may be unaware of our hurt, or might never know that they’ve even been forgiven . . . and, even if they did, probably wouldn’t care!

That’s ok. Because it’s not about them. We forgive on our own behalf, to make life less of an obstacle course and more of a journey. We forgive to reach beyond the storylines we feel compelled to tell about ourselves in order to feel safe and sanctimonious. Smugness shuts us down. Forgiveness opens us up.

But What if the Molehill is Really a Mountain?

When I first began to explore what forgiveness meant in practical terms, I had a lot of questions:

1. What if the person who hurt me was REALLY WRONG? Don’t some people simply have dubious motives? Don’t I have a right, even an obligation to exact justice on my own behalf?

2. Does forgiving mean I have to be nice to that person if I run into her on the street?

3. How do I practice forgiveness without becoming a doormat? Are “forgiving” and “condoning” the same thing?

4. Aren’t there some “infractions” too horrible to forgive?

5. What if the boundaries aren’t clear? What if I partly share in the responsibility for what happened? Should forgiveness follow a ledger sheet?

Although these questions certainly have relevance, I realized that the underlying “theme” behind them was that I simply didn’t want to give up my resentments. When I reiterated for the 30th time how someone had hurt me, it made me feel self-justified—the victim in my own compelling tale of woe. In his book Forgive for Good, Dr. Fred Luskin describes how we create “a grievance story,” first by taking something far too personally and then by hanging onto it for dear life. Whenever I resist forgiving, it’s usually because I’m getting way too much mileage out of my own personal drama.

We all have at least one whopper of a grievance story in our past. When we think of this person or situation, time seems to collapse, and we are immediately escorted back to the pain and distress we first felt. Sometimes it is so real, it seems as if it is happening to us all over again, in the here and now.

One of my own particularly tenacious grievance stories stems from a friendship that came to an abrupt end a few years ago. Although I knew “May” for a very short time, we seemed to connect on many levels, and we became close friends quickly and intensely. I had come to think of her as the sister I’d never had. When the friendship ended, I felt blindsided—betrayed, disappointed, remorseful, neglected, even ashamed. I was wounded and openly bleeding for a while. All of that was perfectly natural. If it had only ended there, things would have been fine. But I took it several steps further by doing the very thing I dislike most in others . . . I sat in a corner licking my wounds and nursing my grievance over and over, until it had grown from an unfortunate circumstance of life to an enormous self-defining script that literally stopped me in my tracks.

I made May an excuse for everything that wasn’t working in my life. I started to isolate myself because after May, “I couldn’t trust anyone.” I could no longer take social risks because “May had destroyed my self-confidence.” I couldn’t share intimate feelings with anyone because “May had made me feel unsafe.” In the end, these beliefs only made my situation worse, and I was the only one who hurt from them. The sad truth is May had long since moved on. I was allowing someone who had gracelessly exited my life to exert tremendous influence on me in the here and now. As Dr. Luskin put it, I was “renting out the best part of my mind” to a grievance story.

Fortunately, I came to learn that I had failed to distinguish between hoping something would happen in my friendship with May and expecting it to happen. I had created a set of unenforceable rules that May simply wouldn’t follow. She was expected to respect my boundaries; to be truthful and loyal; to honor my privacy, etc. When she didn’t follow my rules, I felt personally—and it seemed permanently—wounded.

How Do We Forgive?

One of the ways forgiveness becomes easier is by “impersonalizing” our own hurt. This doesn’t mean that we dismiss our feelings or make excuses for the person who did the hurting. It simply means we recognize that a hurt like ours is fairly commonplace. Everyone, at one time or another has experienced a hurt similar to the one we’re feeling. Our pain doesn’t isolate us . . . it puts us in the same boat with millions of other people.

Another forgiveness technique is to not make another person’s bad behavior a commentary on our own self-worth. We are no more the sum total of our hurts than we are the sum total of our mistakes. We did not invite, solicit, or deserve what was done to us. It simply happened. Welcome to the life on planet earth.

By feeling gratitude for the good things of our lives and continuing to hope that “the next time will be better,” we transform our disappointment into an intention that is active and positive.

It also helps to remember that forgiveness isn’t an emotion. We don’t wake up one morning feeling magnanimous and healed and ready to forgive. Our emotions are rarely in sync with our intentions. Forgiveness isn’t about “feeling it.” It usually doesn’t leave us in a state of rapture afterwards. It is an action, and it is often very raw and real.

Ah, I’ve Finally Arrived.

The biggest discovery I’ve made about forgiveness is that it is never a one-shot deal. It is never finished. We don’t declare one day, “I forgive you,” and then we’re done. Forgiveness is something we will need to return to again and again throughout our lives. When we least suspect it, resentments and jealousies will rear their ugly heads, and we will need to once again remind ourselves to just let go.

On the final day of a recent meditation workshop I attended, a student raised her hand and asked the instructor, “When you say we should meditate every day, do you mean EVERY DAY?” We all laughed, but a bit sheepishly. We’ve all felt our positive intention as an overwhelming challenge at times. Forgiveness is like that, too. “Do you mean we have to forgive ALL THE TIME?” we ask. Yes, but we can be gentle with ourselves about it. We don’t have to beat ourselves into submission. We’re only human after all, and sometimes we falter. Occasionally the hurt is too deep and fresh to forgive right away. Some kinds of hurt, like childhood trauma, require special processing, perhaps with professional help. And forgiving someone doesn’t mean we have to invite her back into our lives again. We need to use good judgment, to distinguish between a traffic violation and an eight-car pileup. But if we can recognize that forgiveness is simply a better way to live our lives, then it starts to feel like the most obvious, intelligent choice.

Who wouldn’t want to feel less imprisoned by the past? Why wouldn’t we want to live with less blame and more joy in our lives? Who doesn’t want to be the hero rather than the victim in their own story?

“Railroad Tracks in North Carolina” and “Florida Beach Sky” photos by Lyndi Schrecengost, ©2008.
10 Secrets for Success and Inner Peace, by Dr. Wayne Dyer, 2001, Hay House, Inc.
Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness, by Dr. Fred Luskin, 2002, HarperCollins, NY, NY.
The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, by Pema Chodron, 2001, Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA.