A woman who was given up for adoption as an infant tells the story of her 18-year search for her birth parents. “I wanted to know why they didn’t want me,” she says. “I wanted them to tell me why they gave me away.”
She finally succeeded in tracking down her father, who agreed to meet in person. “I will never forget that day,” she says, explaining that she was simultaneously frightened and excited, hoping that “this could be the start of a relationship I had longed for my whole life”.
When they met, her father spoke first. He said, “You were just a mistake.”
Ever since that first and only encounter, she has relived those words. “I’ve had the hardest time moving on from that hurtful moment,” she says. “I don’t know if I can ever forgive him for giving me up—or for those hurtful words that broke my heart all over again.”
It’s a sad reality that people do hurt each other by their words and deeds, by what’s said or isn’t said; by what’s done or isn’t done. Whether the act is intentional or unintentional, large or small, the wounding can linger long and cast a dark shadow over a person’s life in a powerfully painful way.
That’s why forgiveness is essential. The opposite of forgiveness is taking revenge, inflicting wounds, seeking retribution, exacting punishment, holding grudges, responding spitefully. But living with those negative emotions destroys peace of mind, expels joy and erodes the quality of life. That’s why the Bible instructs us to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31).
In order to live, we must forgive. Here are six ways to move toward forgiveness:
1. Understand the benefits of forgiving
In his book Forgive to Live: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, author and theologian Lewis Smedes says, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Motivate yourself to forgive wounds and hurts by understanding and appreciating that forgiveness is primarily beneficial to yourself.
Frederic Luskin, the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, says that “forgiveness can reduce the physical manifestations of stress, reduce blood pressure in hypertensives, improve physical vitality and improve one’s compassion and optimism”.
2. Improve your ability to forgive through practice
To become an exceptional forgiver, start with the small offences. Promptly forgive every minor and slight infraction that comes your way. When a family member speaks harshly to you, forgive it and let it go. When a colleague is rude to you, forgive it and let it go. When someone cuts you off in traffic, forgive it and let it go!
Iyanla Vanzant, author of Forgiveness: 21 Days to Forgive Everyone for Everything, explains, “You may be asking yourself, ‘Why would I want to practice forgiveness?’ The answer is simple. Practice develops skill. Skill leads to mastery.
“When you master the practice of forgiveness, it becomes as natural as breathing. . . . The only true way to create a more loving, productive and fulfilling life is by forgiving the past. Releasing the past restores us to the full energy of the present moment.”
3. Am I partly responsible?
Rabbi Rami Shapiro offers this suggestion in his Rabbi Rami Guide to Forgiveness: “When you are in a hurtful situation, ask yourself, How am I complicit in this drama? What role am I playing that allows this drama to arise and continue? Don’t take responsibility for the whole show, just your part in it. This is not a ‘shifting the blame’ exercise from the other to you, but a realisation that, as trite as it sounds, it takes two to tango.”
Simply raising this question opens up space to view the larger picture and find an exit point. “The more you notice your own complicity, the more you realise that you and the other person are both trapped in the same drama,” notes Shapiro. “The more you realise the trap, the easier it is to focus on what you need to escape the trap, end the drama and move on with your life.”
4. Forgive quickly
Our natural instinct is to nurture the hurt. That’s why forgiving quickly is difficult for most people. Yet, moments arise when we are offended by someone, and immediately an inner voice tells us to “let it go”. Act on that! Avoid delaying because delay often transforms into a denial of forgiveness.
Legendary crooner Tony Bennett witnessed just such an act of quick forgiveness. His father, John Benedetto, an Italian immigrant, operated a small grocery store in New York City. The family lived above the business. One evening they heard noise downstairs. A man had gotten drunk and was attempting to break in, but was having a hard time doing it due to the alcohol. Benedetto crept downstairs and discovered the man passed out.
The police were called and they explained that if Benedetto pressed charges, the man would be arrested and jailed. Letting out a sigh, Benedetto walked over to the man and asked, “Do you have a job?”
The man shook his head no, too embarrassed to speak.
Then Benedetto said, “Well, you have one now. You can work for me if you want to.”
5. Forgive slowly and incrementally
Most forgiving is done gradually, allowing time and thought to create the space necessary to forgive. Initially, there is often anger or even rage. That usually softens into resentment and frustration. Finally, any lingering bitterness is replaced by a more mature, objective perspective.
In an essay titled “I Am Slowly Learning How to Forgive You”, author Holly Riordan outlines her forgiveness process: “I am slowly learning to take baby steps toward forgiveness. . . . I am slowly learning to hate you less and pity you more. . . . I am slowly learning that remaining mad at you is another kind of punishment. . . . I am slowly learning forgiveness is not something that can happen overnight. . . . I am slowly learning how to forgive you.”
As she worked at forgiveness, Riordan began to see more and more clearly that harbouring a grudge merely became “another kind of punishment”. She goes on to say, “Staying angry convinces me to keep my heart guarded. It makes me seem like a bitter, cold, unforgiving person. If I want to live my life to its fullest, then I cannot hold a grudge against you.”
6. Add generosity to forgiveness
Moments may come your way when you not only forgive, but can find ways to do so with a magnanimous heart and benevolent spirit. It was just this kind of generous, forgiving attitude demonstrated by General Douglas MacArthur at the Japanese surrender ceremony on September 2, 1945.
General MacArthur said, “We are gathered here, representatives of the major warring powers, to conclude a solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored. The issues involving divergent ideals and ideologies have been determined on the battlefields of the world, and hence are not for our discussion or debate. Nor is it for us here to meet—representing as we do a majority of the peoples of the earth—in a spirit of distrust, malice or hatred. But rather it is for us, both victors and vanquished, to rise to that higher dignity which alone befits the sacred purposes we are about to serve, committing all of our peoples unreservedly to faithful compliance with the undertakings they are here formally to assume. It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past—a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice.”
Remind yourself that each time you forgive you are strengthening your power to release pain, gain healing, experience joy and increase happiness. Forgiveness requires both strength and maturity, which is why Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Victor Parachin is an ordained minister, bereavement educator and author of several books about grief. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA.