Seriously, you’re gonna write about forgiveness? You’re gonna make me feel bad for how I angry and upset I am. I already feel bad enough! How dare you!
Yeah, I get that. Living in a state of enormous hurt and pain after someone has hurt you, often with anger and resentment, that’s bad enough. But to read on a therapist’s blog about forgiveness–because, let’s face it, things can look so simple in black and white on a computer–is likely to create more feelings of covered by a layer of shame feeling like you should be able to get past this.
Like you need that, right?
Please don’t read this feeling like I think you “should” forgive someone. That somehow its a character flaw if you hadn’t forgiven and choose not to, or that you are a failure if you’ve tried and the feelings of resentment and betrayal and wounding persist.
This is merely an invitation to consider how forgiveness can create internal shifts that give life to the forgiver. It’s not easy. Not at all.
What does forgiveness look like?
I was in first year university the year Candace Derksen went missing. She was a student at the school I had just graduated from a few months before. I would wear my school jacket on the bus and folks on the bus would ask me if I knew her.
She was found, murdered, in the dead of winter in a cold shed. And the whole city grieved.
The evening she was found was recounted in the book, David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell.
Her parents were closing the door after a full evening of visitors, when a stranger came to door, announcing he also was the parent of a murdered child. He came with the mission, “I’m going to tell you this so let you know what lies ahead.” He proceeded to go through his notebook, explaining the process of the trials, the bills, the sense of injustice, and his anger. The father of this murdered child couldn’t work, his health was poor, and he had a shell of a marriage. Wilma Derksen, Candace’s mother, said, “The whole process had destroyed him…He didn’t talk about his daughter. It as just this huge absorption with getting justice.”
The Derksen’s decided that evening to use his words as a warning shot across the bow…”This is what could lie ahead.” They chose to process their daughter’s death differently.
The next day, when they faced the press after the funeral:
“We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.” Cliff said.
Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She continued, “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but the stress was on the phrase, “at this point.” “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”
(Page 253, David And Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell)
Wilma Derksen’s words remind me of a story in the Christian Bible (in the book of Matthew, in the 18th chapter for those of you who would want to look it up) where a metaphorical story is told of a fellow who owes a large amount of cash to the king…a boatload of money. He can’t repay it, panics at the thought of he and his family being sold into slavery to pay the debt, begs for the king’s mercy and receives grace. His debt is pardoned. He leaves the king’s palace and happens upon a man who owes him a fraction of what he was just forgiven. The man pleads for time to pay it back. The fellow throws him in prison because he can’t pay it back on the spot. The king finds out…and let’s just say it doesn’t go well.
In my mind, I conceptualize forgiveness as “cancelling the debt”.
It’s a way of simply saying, “I have been wronged, but I’m not gonna hold out hope of payment. I’m gonna consider the debt gone.” It’s acknowledging that you aren’t gonna be able to collect on the debt, and are choosing to not still have it on your books.
So forgiveness isn’t about “forgiving and forgetting”?
Forgiveness is not saying, “It doesn’t matter.”
Because being wronged matters. It does.
Forgiveness is not saying, “I’m fine.”
Because being wronged hurts…and the hurt doesn’t magically disappear with forgiveness. If you forgive someone who has hurt you–the wound doesn’t disappear.
Forgiveness is not saying, “You can keep hurting me.”
Because forgiveness is not about giving permission for the same behaviour to continue that is so hurtful. In fact, I would suggest that part of forgiveness is ensuring that you won’t be further hurt. If you cancel a person’s debt to you…to loan money the next day to that person isn’t part of forgiveness. I think that’s foolishness.
Forgiveness happens best from a place of safety. If you are in an abusive relationship, forgiveness best occurs after the relationship is over. If you are in a healthy relationship where someone messed up (because messing up is a part of every single relationship on earth), the wrong is acknowledged, healed with plans in place to move forward to reduce the likelihood that this wrong will occur again. (but it will, because that’s how us humans are.)
Forgiveness is not easy.
When you choose to cancel a debt, that costs a person. When you cancel a financial debt, you are out that money…and that may bring anger back when you realize that you have to make tough choices or go without because that money won’t be coming back. Of course that is going to require re-processing. It’s gonna be hard. Forgiveness is a cognitive choice first–it’s a thought–that can take a long time to sink into a person’s soul so that they feel the forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation
Forgiveness may be a part of reconciliation, but they are not the same. Sometimes, forgiveness occurs long after the person who wronged you has left your life. Sometimes, forgiveness occurs but distance is still required to maintain boundaries for healthy living.
What’s in it for me to forgive?
Huge, huge benefits. Forgiveness has huge benefits for the forgiver. Mayo Clinic says the benefits for forgiving are:
- Healthier relationships
- Greater spiritual and psychological well-being
- Less anxiety, stress and hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- Stronger immune system
- Improved heart health
- Higher self-esteem
But I tried to forgive. I’ve put in the effort, and I want to put it behind me, but I can’t. I’m still feeling the feelings of unforgiveness. What do I do?
Yeah, oh that it were as simple as saying, “I forgive you” and then it’s done. For most of us, it’s a lot more complicated than that. And harder.
Forgiveness comes in layers…and sometimes takes years. And then when you think you’re done, and you’ve arrived at a place of forgiveness, life throws you a curve ball and you need to re-enter it all over again. Painfully.
The choice to not be vindictive or revengeful was a conscious choice for Wilma Derksen. 20 years later, when her killer was charged…the theoretical forgiveness came very real and tested hard. She had to work through anger and vengeful thoughts at a whole different level. To look at the man who ended her daughter’s life to satisfy his sexual perversion filled her with rage. She is free to admit that she is not always forgiving: “It’s the last thing you want to do.” …but she made choices. She challenged herself in painful ways about her anger, her injustice and encouraged herself to look forward. She debated not forgiving as she heard more details about the murder and thought of the advantages of holding the hatred and resentment, and then thought:
But then it would have gotten harder. I think I would have lost Cliff, I think I would have lost my children. In some ways I would be doing to others what he did to Candace.
(P. 261, David and Goliath)
I admire Wilma’s courage to think “big picture” in ways that shape her well being.
I’ve been wronged, big time, in my life. I’ve struggled with the rage and resentment as I deal with the impact of being screwed over in ways that cost me huge over a long period. I have personally decided, for myself, that an important value for me is to live in positive spaces, not negative ones. So..in my mind, what I do is this: I ask myself, “What direction am I facing? Am I facing the one who owes me, or am I facing the direction of having been forgiven?” It helps me refocus and redirect my spirit to life-giving directions…to ways in which I have been forgiven. To be reminded that I wish to have forgiveness extended to me on an ongoing basis for decades to come by people who I will hurt–because I am human. I choose a life of forgiveness and forgiving–and remind myself of this often when I am pulled to the ugliness of unforgiveness. In my brain, I shift my posture and decide who I face…I turn around.
For the record, there are days I suck at it.
What does forgiveness do in relationships?
So much. So much.
Forgiveness is an act of grace. It is kindness and gentleness in action. It restores relationships.
We are wired for connection. But we are connected with human beings…and we are humans. And that means, despite our best intentions (and face it, we aren’t always giving our best, either), we mess up. Forgiveness is the means of relationship repair.
To receive mercy from a loved one says to the forgiven restores relationships.
Forgiveness…it’s hard. But it’s worth it. If you have a struggle with it, talk to someone about it? Talking about it–connecting about forgiveness–can help move the process forward.