What I’ve Learned about Forgiveness

In light of the #metoo movement, I’ve come across some interesting discussions about the role of forgiveness–whether it’s an outdated concept, what its utility even is, who gets to give and receive it.

I’ve been on this long road of forgiveness for a few years myself, and I’ve done some helpful reading on the topic, too. Below are a few things I’ve learned about forgiving others:

  1. Forgiving isn’t just for people who go to church. Or temple, or mosque, or people who sit regularly on their meditation cushions. Certainly these traditions help us witness, contextualize, and understand forgiveness in action, but they’re not prerequisites to meaning or purpose in our lives–much less forgiveness. What is a prerequisite to forgiveness, I think, is the desire to heal. To want to move on, lighten the load. Hurt and betrayal weigh us down, and the kind of fear that (naturally) results from experiencing them often keeps us from trying what we want to try, and accomplishing what we’re aiming to accomplish.
  2. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that anyone gets to forgo the consequences of their actions. You can look to forgive a coworker for harassing you while you pursue the repercussions available to you at your workplace. You can forgive a thief and still file a police report. These aren’t mutually exclusive actions. You can forgive while pursuing justice and, often, we really should do both. An essential part of forgiveness is coming to terms with what happened and what needs to happen going forward. So much of forgiveness has to do with working against our own denial. And yes, it’s uncomfortable to dwell in a place where we’re both hurt and open to the possibility of letting go of that hurt. This is why it’s helpful to consider how…
  3. Forgiveness is a journey. Like almost anything worth doing in this life, forgiveness isn’t a split-second decision resulting in immediate transformation. As Dear Sugar says in this wonderful letter, “You know how alcoholics who go to AA are always using that phrase one day at a time? They say that because to say I will never drink again is just too f***ing much. It’s big and hard and bound to fail.” Committing to a once-and-for-all forgiveness (a “just let it go” moment) is too big and hard, and it’s most often bound to fail. The first step, as Dear Sugar suggests, is acceptance: just recognizing what happened, and maybe how. Being able to say, even silently to yourself, “I was harassed,” or “He humiliated me,” exemplifies this step. Sometimes this process of acceptance, this inquiry into what happened, opens up the reality that there is more than one person to forgive. For example, I know that I’ve reacted in ways I’ve regretted to people who’ve hurt me; so in accepting what all happened, I’ve realized that I needed to forgive myself, too. For me, the act of forgiving is ongoing, a practice. It doesn’t do any good to pretend you’re not angry, or not hurting–there’s acceptance again. So, once you’ve accepted what’s already present, how can you best process it in a way that moves toward forgiveness?
  4. Nobody deserves forgiveness. Nobody is more deserving of forgiveness than anybody else. Someone doesn’t (and can’t!) earn your forgiveness by apologizing to you, “making it up” to you in some way, or by doing something that was no big deal in the first place. (Side note: who else needs to practice responding to “I’m sorry” with “Thank you” instead of “Oh, it’s okay”???) Similarly, you can forgive someone whether or not they apologize to you. You don’t even have to communicate with the perpetrator to forgive them, especially if reaching out to them is going to cause more pain for either of you. Forgiveness doesn’t have to be something you say to the person who hurt you at all, because…
  5. Forgiveness is about showing yourself mercy. Carrying the burden of knowing someone took advantage of you, hurt you, betrayed you–in any way and for any reason–is painful. This kind of pain drains your energy, takes away the joy and color from so many other parts of our lives. And it’s hard enough to be hurt in the first place! One of my favorite yoga teachers Kathryn Budig once said in an Instagram post, “Doubt will try to wiggle its way in, but its only fuel is your permission. Starve it with your faith.” I think this can also be true, to an extent, when it comes to trauma. Of course we have no control over what other people say or do to us, how they decide to treat us. But we do have control over our reactions–what we let steep into our consciousness and why, what we continue to mull over. We can “starve” these painful moments and toxic memories by revoking our permission to let them stick around and continue to hurt us, by forgiving.
  6. You don’t get to forgive someone for harming someone else. I think this is especially important in light of #metoo. You can only forgive someone for the harm they did to you. Yes, it’s terrible and difficult when it’s revealed that yet another public figure, maybe one you admired, has done something awful to a woman or girl–or many women and girls. But what they did to those people is not the same betrayal that you’ve experienced. And notice that I’m not saying your pain in that situation is invalid–it certainly is valid–but it’s a fundamentally different kind of pain. Bill Cosby, for example, violated our trust. But the trust he allegedly violated for so many women was personal, physical, and deliberate–related to our pain too, but very different in scope from our own. We don’t get to claim others’ traumas, others’ pain; and in that same vein, we can only forgive Cosby for the harm he’s done to us, not others.

Do these ring true to you? What have you learned about forgiveness? Please share in the comments, if you wish!

Love to all.

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