Forgiveness: A Case of Mistaken Identity
by Eileen L. Epperson, Guest Author
Have you ever heard any of the following:
“I can forgive her for my part, but how can I forgive her for what she did to my loved ones?”
“Forgive him? After what he did? You have to be kidding!”
“I cannot forgive them. It just hurts too much to think about it.”
“Sure, I forgave her but she keeps doing it. I mean, you run out of good will after a while.”
“I would like to forgive and forget, except every time I think about him, I want to punch his lights out!”
“I know I should forgive – it’s the right thing to do – but I just don’t know how and I feel terrible about that.”
Or perhaps you have heard some of these expressions:
“I forgave them a long time ago. But I sure haven’t forgotten.”
“I don’t think about him at all. I put the whole thing behind me and I just don’t think about it.”
“Forgiveness is great, but do you deal with the anger?”
“Forgiveness is for wimps who can’t stand on their own convictions.”
All of these expressions reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about what forgiveness and what it is not. This misunderstanding, not the nature of forgiving itself, is what makes it seem so “hard.”
This article makes three assertions that may seem counter-intuitive initially:
1) In our culture, we have misunderstood what forgiveness is; we assume immediately, without any thought, that we are doing or saying something about the other when we either forgive or don’t forgive. In fact, forgiveness has nothing to do with another person or group and benefits the forgiver entirely;
2) When we suffer over the past, it is not from what happened or didn’t happen, but from the story we keep telling ourselves over and over - our “grievance story.” (Footnote 1)
3) Only after we have released our hold on resenting another can we say something we might still want to say or make a request or call someone to account for their behaviour. Forgiving is the key to being effective and no longer a victim.
1. We have misidentified “forgiveness”
Forgiveness does not:
Excuse any behavior
Mean you are apologizing for being angry and hurt
Mean you have to be in contact with the person or group, much less be friends with them
Make you vulnerable for more hurt
Mean you are now unprotected
Mean it is ok; it didn’t hurt that much
Say they won and you lost
If your unexamined interpretation of forgiveness is any one or more of the above, then you have equated forgiving with giving in and losing out. In that case, forgiving can feel like a diminishment of your experience or a condoning of behaviour or like saying, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad; I forgive you.” If that is not the truth for you, and you have interpreted forgiving someone to mean this, to forgive would feel as though you are compromising your integrity. Why would you want to do that?
So, if the above are not what forgiveness is, what is it? To identify forgiveness effectively, we go to the dictionary definitions: "to give up claim to a debt; to give up resentment; to cease harbouring resentment against…." Harbouring resentment is active; you are holding something close, holding on to something. You are throwing the angry, resentful, hurting logs on the fire. Now, tell the truth: when you are upset, do you think about it once? Twice? Ten times? Noooo. You go around and around, like a hamster on a wheel, rehashing and rehearsing the event over and over. You play out the scene in different ways: you give yourself the words you should have said: you are the hero, the conqueror, the defender in your replay. And it is all fantasy.
Releasing your hold on the boring but familiar replay of past offenses benefits you, the forgiver, entirely. Forgiving does not let the other "off the hook;" it does not mean you need to renew a relationship and it does not imply that what happened was not serious or painful. Forgiving has nothing to do with anyone but you. It is all about your freedom.
Releasing resentments and regrets is accessible and available to everyone, no matter how serious the offense to you. Letting go of grudges frees up energy immediately, benefits your health, renews your sense of humour, opens the door to new possibilities for your life, and augments your self-esteem. Immediately.
2. When we suffer over the past, it is not from what happened or didn’t happen, but from the story we keep telling ourselves
The costs of replaying your pain like this are usually unnoticed but they are staggering: fatigue, high blood pressure, depression, distrust, bad sleep, little or no spontaneity, stifled creativity, ill health and ineffectiveness. Rehearsing resentments is like nailing one foot to the floor and turning in circles; it accomplishes nothing and makes you dizzy. We may think that our pain is from the incident, but how can it be? The incident is done. It is over. What happened happened. That part is over. The following is reprinted from a newsletter issued by the World Forgiveness Initiative in April 2005 (www.worldforgivenessinitiative.org):
“Blaming others gives them control over us, not only when the awful deed was done, but also in all our future interactions—with anyone. Blaming others for the way we feel means we have to wait for them to change before we can heal. When we blame others, we effectively chain ourselves to them and give them all our power.
The incredible absurdity of all this is that the people we blame usually don’t even know we are still angry and hurt; they wouldn't care if they did know; and they are also being controlled by whoever they have chained themselves to, and so on. So when we start blaming (I include complaining), how can we get out of it and stop the rage? Simply forgive. Forgiveness breaks the chains and lets us see the utter folly of the blame game. Forgiveness gives us the power to be honest and to say what needs to be said, straight and clear. Forgiveness fills us with incredible joy and happiness.
"Let me be very clear. I am NOT talking about stuffing your feelings, repressing your rage, and telling someone, “It’s okay.” Forgiving is something you do for yourself, an act of self-love, not something to do to be a nice person. When we forgive, we are really saying, “I am reclaiming from you the power to control who I am, how I think and feel, and how I behave from now on.”
We are simply in the habit of blaming and rehashing and regurgitating the offenses against us, or the offenses we have committed. Every time you think about the painful event, where do you feel it? In your head or back or stomach. The person you are upset with is out there living his/her life and totally unaffected by your painful repeated playback. Useless suffering. Ready to stop? Ready to take another way?
Our language is symbolic and referential; when I say “chair,” a chair does not fall out of my mouth. You understand that I am talking about the physical object. We need this kind of speaking and there is nothing wrong about it. However, representational language represents; it does not create. It does not invent. There is a kind of speaking that does create and invent and we have access to it; there is speaking that acts. A "performative utterance" is a philosophical phrase for a common mode of expression you and I employ often when we make promises, requests or vows of any kind. “I promise you I will....” “I request that you....” “Will you have this man to be your lawfully wedded.... I will.” These examples of speaking do not refer to something that exists: they create a future. It could be a short-term future, as in promising to meet someone for lunch the next day. It is nonetheless a future that does not have a reality outside of your words. You gave your word. You promised. A promise is a declaration that causes a new future to come into existence the moment the words are spoken. The power of a promise or declaration is not in the feelings or thoughts that accompany the words; the power is in the context you are creating when you speak.
So, how to create a future free of the burden of resentment and regret? You can declare that you are willing to cease harbouring resentment against someone without having the “right” feelings or the “right” thoughts and without knowing “how.” You can even make such a declaration when you are upset and angry. Forgiving as a declaration liberates you from repetitively replaying upsetting scenes in your mind. You release the hold of the past by declaration, as in saying "I do" in a wedding. This is a matter of the will, not feelings or thoughts. Feelings and thoughts do not act; declaration does.
When we declare we are willing to forgive simply because we say so and not because our emotions and thoughts have lined up in advance, we then create a new future into which we can live. After we forgive, we do not have to walk away and forget it all unless we choose. We are now able to act effectively if action is needed.
3) Only after we have released our resentments can we act effectively
So, let us say that you have forgiven by declaration, not by feelings, without knowing how this is all going to come about. You have created a new future in which you are willing to stop throwing the logs on the fire of your upsetting memories. You don’t know how you are going to do that, but you are willing to get off the hamster wheel, and you have declared it to be so. You begin to feel some relief, even some peace of mind. You are feeling freer, more at ease. You notice, though, that, surprisingly, you would like to contact the person. There is something you would like to say or something you want the person to know, not to blame, but to communicate. Perhaps you loaned something and would like to ask for it back, but this time without accusations and venom.
Forgiving is your key to being effective and not a victim. People who have done this and then gone to another person to talk have had remarkable results or what we might call miracles. They are not miracles. You can express yourself much more clearly when you are not wanting to kill the person you are talking to! Even if you cannot get an audience or you do not get back what you loaned, you are able to speak. You know that you are free to walk tall.
To summarize: releasing resentments does not condone anything and in fact, has nothing to do with another person. Forgiving frees you as the forgiver, and gives you your life back, as you put your hands on the wheel again. Suffering caused by replaying a “grievance story” over and over end when you declare you are willing to cease harbouring resentment. You can simply release the whole thing. The possibility of having contact with the one who “offended” opens up as well. Choice is possible. Risk begins. You learn that there are no blueprints for communication. When you have gotten off the hamster wheel, as safe and boring as it was, you can start experimenting with your expression, finding ways to say when you do not like something or disagree with someone. What becomes available after you have forgiven is your self-expression, authenticity and intimacy. Also adventure, joy and personal power.
(1) Forgive for Good, Luskin, Fred
Eileen Epperson has a private practice in spiritual coaching with a specialty in forgiveness issues. She originated The Forgiveness Process(R) and has worked with hundreds of people to enable them to release resentments and regrets.
Eileen is a trained spiritual director, retreat leader and bereavement group facilitator. She has led dozens of programs for people in life transitions in hospital, hospice, college and church settings. She is committed to finding pathways to turn losses and disappointments to our advantage.
Eileen is an ordained Presbyterian minister and is in demand as a guest minister. She lives in northwest Connecticut where she maintains her practice of Spiritual Center Coaching, offers Reiki energy treatments, and until recently was the Hospice Chaplain for Visiting Nurse Services, Inc.