How it happened in the first place.
"To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you."For weeks I’ve been stewing over the idea of forgiveness, staring out my window at the ever-present mountains and clouds and crows the size of chickens as though at any moment one of them might spell it all out for me. I try the dictionary as a last resort, which says that to forgive is “to cease to feel resentment against” but unfortunately it doesn’t offer a how-to.
-- Lewis B. Smedes
A quick Google search yields a little more substance from the Mayo Clinic:
“Forgiveness is a commitment to a process of change. A way to begin is by recognizing the value of forgiveness and its importance in your life at a given time. Then reflect on the facts of the situation, how you've reacted, and how this combination has affected your life, health and well-being. When you're ready, actively choose to forgive the person who's offended you. Move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in your life. As you let go of grudges, you'll no longer define your life by how you've been hurt. You may even find compassion and understanding.”
Forgiveness can be a gift that we give to ourselves. Here are some easy steps towards forgiveness:
- Acknowledge your own inner pain.
- Try to understand the point of view and motivations of the person to be forgiven; replace anger with compassion.
- Forgive yourself for your role in the relationship.
- Decide whether to remain in the relationship.
- Perform the overt act of forgiveness verbally or in writing.
- Forgiveness is not forgetting or pretending it didn’t happen. It did happen, and we need to retain the lesson learned without holding onto the pain.
- Forgiveness is not excusing. We excuse a person who is not to blame. We forgive because a wrong was committed.
- Forgiveness is not giving permission to continue hurtful behaviors; nor is it condoning the behavior in the past or in the future.
- Forgiveness is not reconciliation. We have to make a separate decision about whether to reconcile with the person we are forgiving or whether to maintain our distance.
I’m not sure about the claim that these are easy steps, but the key, it seems, is this: Try to understand the point of view and motivations of the person to be forgiven; replace anger with compassion.
If you could somehow track down the Buddha and ask him to define forgiveness, he would probably say that the true objective is to attain a state of mind that allows you to not take offense in the first place.
That is a worthy aspiration, but what about after the fact? After you’ve been hurt by the actions of someone you love, and you truly want to move on, to let go of the hurt, to take your connection with that person to the next level?
I ask the dog these questions as we make our daily trek uphill to the mail box. A pair of crows seem to laugh at us from their perch on the power lines, their patent leather wings gleaming as they squabble and shift for balance.
The only answer I get is that you can only learn by doing. By taking steps together. The pain must be offset by something: by laughter, closeness, memories, joy, even sadness; new experiences of any kind. It cannot be analyzed or otherwise beaten into something else.
Forgiveness happens naturally in this process. It is the compassion you develop for your former self, and for the person who hurt you. Forgiveness is understanding how it all happened in the first place.
Later, in typing an email on this very subject, I am overwhelmed for a moment and the keyboard goes blurry when I realize the tremendous amount of compassion I have for my former self, how this compassion is the only thing that makes each day possible. Because of where I am today, with my newfound ability to be completely present, to fully feel love (and joy and sadness and grief and anger), knowing how painful it must have been for the one I love to live each day with only a fraction of me, of my love, of my true self, is only bearable because I can forgive myself. But to some extent I have to do it each and every day because, as the Mayo Clinic said up front, forgiveness is a commitment to a process of change.
The thing about forgiveness is that it happens on its own timetable.
One day you might find yourself looking into the anguished eyes of the one you love, the one who hurt you, and in his eyes you see the face of the beast that torments him. You see how sometimes that beast looks like you, and other times it is completely unknown, an other. And that’s when it happens. Like when the light changes on the ground as the sun makes its way across the sky, illuminating and shading the different hills and gullies and fields outside my window.
One second things look like this; the next, completely different.
Quite suddenly you understand how you both arrived at that painful intersection where your lives collided and then fell apart. You see the trajectory that got you there, feel its inevitability. Compassion comes in a wave of light, revealing the hidden valleys and overgrown trails between you. And without speaking of it, you both can breathe deeply for at least a full minute before the next awkward moment closes around you.
So that’s how it happened in the first place, and this is what happens afterward. We can breathe. We can walk the dog in the cold spring sunlight. We can let the awkward moments pass. We can hold on tight for a second, and then fall away. We can commit to a process of change, and we can ask ourselves tough questions.
Can I find compassion for myself? Can I forgive you? Can I look the beast in the eye when the beast looks just like me?