We begin by acknowledging — right off the bat — how difficult it can be to forgive someone who has wounded us deeply.
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"We talk about forgiveness as if it were one thing, but we should really talk about different types of forgiveness," says Helen Whitney, a filmmaker whose most recent documentary is Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate. "There are as many ways to forgive as there are people needing to be forgiven."
Still, here are seven simple things to remember when you really do want to let bygones be bygones.
Take your time. Forgiveness does not require a stopwatch. The part of us that requires amends generally refuses to be rushed. Healing has its own timetable, which sometimes can require a lifetime. There are times when forgiveness can be bad for your health, particularly if you force the process, Whitney says. This serves to lay an insincere foundation in relationships, undermining future trust.
Tell the truth. Authenticity is everything when it comes to forgiveness. Nothing but whole truth (so help you God) is potent enough to unlock serious grudges. This usually requires a leap of faith (we so rarely tell the whole truth), and the willingness to lose the relationship if the truth is too much for your unforgiven party to hear. You can't be dishonest and move forward emotionally at the same time.
Own your part. Telling the truth means taking responsibility for your part in the bad way things went down. It's all too tempting for the injured party to play the victim (how else could we manage to be so self righteous?). But the truth cuts both ways and you need to get real about your behavior. Are you guilty of miscommunication? Did you misrepresent your needs or desires? Are you wearing your offense like a crown of thorns, acting high or mighty?
Open your heart. As Daniel Goleman writes in Social Intelligence, "Empathy is the prime inhibitor to human cruelty." Only when we see our enemies as individuals deserving empathy can "the war between Us and Them ever stop." We tend to demonize those who hurt us. But when we work at understanding our foes to be struggling, imperfect people — just like us — capable of making mistakes, we make room for empathy to be stirred in our shut down hearts.
And open your eyes. Trust is a delicate creature, however. We're smart to remain vigilant, savvy and history-smart in re-establishing trust with someone who has hurt us. Remember, forgiveness contains a degree of wisdom (otherwise, it's not forgiveness).
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Turn it over. Wisdom, by definition, means relinquishing control over final outcomes. Would-be forgivers are often blocked by the fine print of their own expectations ("I will forgive only if this happens…"). But that is not how forgiveness works. Surrendering a measure of personal will (in the sense of Thy will be done, whether the Doer is a divine entity or fate itself) allows both parties to regroup and begin anew.
Stay strong. Just as we cannot move forward and be dishonest at the same time, we cannot remain petty and hope to expand beyond the level of personal grievance. Mired down by the letter of the law, we may lose the spirit of forgiveness. This spirit derives from a desire for justice but also from a pull toward personal happiness. Held hostage to rigid ideas about right and wrong, or should and shouldn't, we cannot hope to resolve our conflicts with an open mind. As a survivor of the Holocaust wrote, "You must be strong to forgive. Forgiveness is not about condoning or excusing. Forgiveness has nothing to do with justice. Forgiving is a selfish act to free yourself from being controlled by your past."
And who doesn't want that?
My Tale of Forgiveness
By Mark Matousek
I grew up hating my father. He had disappeared when I was 4 — just abandoned my mother, my sisters and me — and never paid a dime of child support. Since I was the only son, it was up to me to be the man of the house, and my childhood was spent in a confused rage at the father who had deserted us.
It was because of him that we were on welfare for a year. My mother called him the son of a bitch, and when I asked her what my Dad was like, she'd just shake her head and tell me that he wasn't the kind of father I would have wanted. "Just forget him," she said.
I filed the subject of my dad in my mind under "Unsolved Mysteries." Then shortly before my 40th birthday, a chance remark by a trouble-making friend ripped this cold case open. "You mean, you never even looked for him?" this friend asked.
I told him that I had stopped caring a long time ago but this friend of mine didn't buy it. He implied that I was brainwashed and buying a load of family malarkey. This really pissed me off. The following day, I hired a private detective to look for my father once and for all.
It was a hair-raising experience. For a year, I waited for the detective (who had seen too many Humphrey Bogart movies) to turn up something more than "strong leads" and "back alley sources" who promised to sniff my father out. Between cold- calling men with my father's name off of computer lists ("Hello, I was wondering if you might be ..."), I had a lot of time to mull over what I really knew about my father. The detective asked me to press the family for details, which was like pulling teeth with my mother. At first, she refused to answer my questions. Then one day, my mother spilled the beans. "I was in love with someone else," she said. Her voice was filled with anger and shame. "Your father found out. It was terrible."
Why hadn't she told me this before?
"What would it have changed?" asked my well-meaning mother, not realizing that the answer was everything. Suddenly, this man I'd been raise to hate became a jilted lover in my eyes. No longer Guilty (with a capital G), he morphed into an actual person with a motivation for saving himself. An aunt spoke to me about his playfulness. My older sister remembered his generosity. Gradually, in the course of that year, with this new information to fill in the blanks, my father ceased to be a monster.
In the end, the detective never found him — but that was not the important point. What mattered is that I had found him. I'd located a place for him in my heart, a corner of forgiveness. The anger at him was finally gone. So was my mother's guilt. Before she died, two years later, she thanked me for opening (and closing) this door. It brought the family closer together.