“Forgiveness is the answer to the child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is made clean again.” ~Dag Hammarskjold
If Humility is one of the most powerful spiritual principles that frees us from the tyranny of selfish egoism, then Forgiveness is an equally powerful tool for freeing ourselves from the painful past.
When we’re suffering we might imagine that vengeance against those who’ve hurt us will somehow set things right and ease our pain. But seeking vengeance means reliving the pain over and over again, each time deepening the wound, scarring our souls just like rivers carve canyons. And even if we get the vengeance we crave, the wounds never heal, but still ache whenever something brings that painful past to mind.
Many of us have been raised to believe that we should forgive others because it “proves” to our wounded egos that we’re better than the ones who wronged us, that it’s noble to let them off the hook, that as compassionate souls we should do it for their sakes, that we have no right to expect forgiveness for our own mistakes if we don’t forgive others for theirs, that we should do it because God says so or just because it’s the “right” thing to do. Alexander Pope’s oft-quoted line, “To err is human, to forgive divine,” both sums up and perpetuates such attitudes.
Whether there’s merit to any of this misses the point. The real reason we must learn to forgive is because it is essential for our own spiritual health and peace of mind. Without forgiveness, the pain and resentment of old indignities will continue to own us, crippling our capacity to love and be loved, and poisoning all our relationships with others . . . and ourselves. The only way to freedom is through forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is choosing to love. It is the first skill of self-giving love.” ~Gandhi
When we forgive others — for wrongs real or imagined — that doesn’t mean we approve of what they did (or what we think they did). What it means is that we have chosen to no longer hold ourselves hostage to the past. We have recognized what happened, accepted it, experienced our feelings about it, and now we are letting go of it. It doesn’t mean that we like it or approve of it or that we will forget it, but only that we’re not willing to be enslaved by it and we’re ready to move on.
As long as we are unwilling to forgive, we condemn ourselves to the condition of a prisoner chained to a stake in the desert. On the horizon there’s a lush, green oasis that promises cool shade, fresh water, and the joyful companionship of fellow travelers. But every time we try to reach the oasis we get jerked back by the chain. And the chain gets stronger and the shackle gets tighter every time we think about the person we blame for putting us in that situation.
Regardless of how we got there, no one keeps us in that situation but ourselves. We have the key to unlock the shackle any time we chose to use it. That key is forgiveness.
Furthermore, we are the only ones who hold the key. No one else can free us. Even if the one we blame for our misery comes to us, acknowledges the wrong, says he is sorry, and asks how he can set it right, we will still be chained to that stake driven into the past unless we use the key of forgiveness to unlock our hearts.
Of course it’s much easier to forgive when that happens. But that doesn’t happen very often — certainly not as often as we would like. And it never happens when the other doesn’t even know he’s wronged us — or when the wrong exists solely in our own self-justifying version of events. And if we refuse to forgive others until they come to us and admit their guilt, then we are giving them the power to decide when or if we will ever get free.
Thus we see that the principle of forgiveness is not some namby-pamby ploy that’s supposed to make us feel good about a wrong, but rather it’s a powerful tool to limit the harm caused by something in the past — sometimes long in the past. Nothing has more power to free us from the pain of old wrongs, both real and imagined. Once we understand that forgiveness is an essential step in healing ourselves from old wounds, then we will understand what Gandhi meant when he said that forgiveness is “the first skill in self-giving love.”
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Links to more information about Forgiveness:
The Mayo Clinic, “Forgiveness: Letting Go of Grudges and Bitterness”
Larry James, “Forgiveness, What’s It For?”
Livestrong.com, “Handling Forgiving and Forgetting”
Maureen Healy, “Forgiveness: Are Your Really Teaching Your Kids How To Forgive?”
Everett Worthington’s site for the Campaign for Forgiveness Research
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Forgiveness”
Belief.net Self Test: “How Forgiving Are You?”
Books about Forgiveness:
Lewis B. Smedes, The Art of Forgiving
A simple, practical, and inspirational book about what we must do to forgive, by a noted professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Ernie Larsen, From Anger to Forgiveness
Recovery specialist Larsen offers a practical guide to releasing our anger and moving forward to forgiveness and reconciliation.
Fred Luskin, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness
Psychologist Luskin, a founder of Stanford University’s Forgiveness Project, draws on current research and clinical practice to illustrate the how and why of forgiving.
Everett L. Worthington, Jr., The Power of Forgiving
A short and simple book by a practicing psychologist about the virtue of forgiveness and methods to help us learn to forgive.
Robert D. Enright, Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-By-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope
A detailed description of psychologist Enright’s step-by-step process for healing through forgiveness.