How To Forgive Others

forgiveness

Photo: Hamed Saber

The other day I found myself thinking about what would happen if as an adult I encountered some of the children who terrorized me when I was in 7th grade (an experience I wrote about in an earlier post, Breaking Free Of The Past), wondering if I’d be able to forgive them for what they did to me.  I’d like to think I would, but the truth is I’m not sure.  As a result, I found myself thinking about the nature of forgiveness and of the power and value of being able to forgive.

WHY IS FORGIVENESS HARD?

Forgiveness is hard.  But why?  Perhaps for the following reasons:

  1. We’re often reluctant to let go of our anger.  As I argued in a previous post, How To Manage Anger, the second of the four main reasons people get angry is to achieve or regain control.  If we still feel harmed in the now—even years after we actually were—we frequently continue to feel angry.  And it’s inherently difficult, if not impossible, to forgive someone with whom we’re still angry.  This is true even if the predominant reason we’re angry isn’t due to frustration at having lost control but in outrage at the injustice committed against us (anger at injustice representing the fourth of the four main reasons people become angry).  But in the same way soft tissue inflammation is helpful only in the first few days after an injury occurs, often causing even more damage than the original injury if it’s allowed to become chronic, anger—no matter what its cause—if allowed to boil without being harnessed to accomplish anything worthwhile, can cause us far more harm than good.
  2. We want to satisfy our sense of justice.  Even if we’re not angry, if we believe our offender doesn’t deserve our forgiveness, we may find ourselves withholding it to avoid appearing to condone what they did to us.
  3. Forgiveness may feel like letting our offender off the hook without punishment.  Even if we don’t feel that forgiveness implies we condone the injustice committed against us, to release our anger and forgive our offender may feel like letting them get away without being punished, especially if no other punishment is forthcoming.
  4. We wish to harm as we’ve been harmed.  An eye for an eye often feels viscerally satisfying (remember, anger must be discharged in a way that feels satisfying).  If we lack the power to deliver actual harm, harboring anger may feel like a second-best option.  Holding a grudge does in a certain sense feel good.
  5. They haven’t apologized.  The power of an apology to open the path to forgiveness can’t be overestimated.  Nor can the ability of withholding an apology—of the refusal to acknowledge a wrong was committed—to block it.
  6. When someone commits an injustice, we often cease to see or believe they could be capable of any good. We tend to abstract those who harm us, as I wrote about in The True Cause Of Cruelty, diminishing them from full-fledged human beings into merely “our offenders.”  This enables us to refuse to allow into our conception of them any room for the possibility that they have positive characteristics or have the capability to do good (much in the same way they abstracted our full-fledged humanity into some label that enabled them to harm us in the first place).

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO FORGIVE?

To my way of thinking, forgiveness involves recognizing that the person who harmed us is more than just the person who harmed us.  He or she is in fact, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, a full-fledged human being whose full dimension isn’t defined by their foolish decision to harm us in some way (as much as we may wish it were).  At its core I believe forgiveness is an acknowledgment that a person who’s harmed us still has the capacity for good.

Forgiveness requires us to view our offender not as malevolent but as confused—so much so that they would actually believe that by harming us they could somehow become happier (though they would almost certainly be incapable of articulating that as the reason).  Secondly, forgiving requires us to let go—of our anger; of our desire to punish or teach a lesson; of our need to harm our harmer; of the notion that by choosing to forgive an offense we’re in some way condoning an unjust action committed against us or committing an injustice ourselves; of the need for an apology; and of the need for our harmer to change.  For in forgiving another their transgression against us, we’re ultimately seeking to free ourselves.  Forgiving, as the saying also goes, doesn’t mean forgetting.  Nor does it have to mean returning the person we’ve forgiven to their former status in our lives.  It means we move on healed from the hurt that’s been done to us.

HOW DOES FORGIVING OTHERS BENEFIT US?

  1. Forgiving others is the only way to break a cycle of violence (whether physical or otherwise).  As complex as it may be, consider the core reason why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict continues to this day.
  2. In order to forgive, we must manifest a life-condition of compassion.  In Nichiren Buddhism this is called the life-condition of the bodhisattva.  A bodhisattva is someone whose most pressing concern lies with the happiness of others.  Attaining this life-condition benefits no one more than it does us, as it is a life-condition of joy.
  3. In order to forgive we must let go of our anger.  If we continue to hold onto anger, it often leaks out against others who’ve committed no crime against us, as well as colors all our experiences, often ruining our ability to feel joy in many aspects of life.

FINDING THE COMPASSION TO FORGIVE

In order to muster compassion for one who’s harmed us, we must first believe with our lives that all people originally desire to become happy.  From there we must find a way to realize our offender has simply gone completely awry in their pursuit of their own happiness and pity them as we would a misguided child.  For no matter how sophisticated a person may seem, how confident and wise and successful, how could an intent to harm arise from anything other than a delusion?

The question will naturally arise:  are some people’s crimes so heinous that they don’t merit forgiveness?  Parents who’ve abused us?  Children who’ve rebelled against us?  Spouses who’ve abandoned us?  Friends who’ve betrayed us?  Strangers who harmed us or our loved ones?  Or even tyrants who’ve killed our families?  Is Hitler, for example, forgivable?  Can one forgive a person without forgiving their actions?

I would suggest only this:  that if you find yourself holding onto a grudge against someone who’s grievously harmed you, for you to find a way to forgive them—for you to become the kind of person who can—will not only first and foremost benefit you, but ultimately may have the power to transform the life of the person you’re forgiving.  Not always of course.  But sometimes.  And if it does, in forgiving them you’re not only setting yourself free, you’re actually contributing to something of greater importance, something the world is literally crying out for in more places than you could probably name:  peace.

Next WeekWhat Makes A True Friend

25 comments to How To Forgive Others

  • Susan

    Alex, this is a (perhaps the) core issue, and you’ve named many of its facets beautifully. I think we need to forgive in order to free ourselves from the burden of our rage—and because all of us are capable of cruelty, even if we only recognize that fleetingly. We are forgiving ourselves for the many (small or large) cruelties we’ve perpetrated in defense of our egos.

  • Julia

    Hi Alex,

    I recently read an article (can’t remember where) about a study. The conclusion of the study was that forgiving personalities are much happier people than those who harbor grudges. It got me asking the same questions of myself—are there people I should be forgiving that I haven’t? The conclusion I reached for myself is that time is a critical factor. The magnitude of the hurt indicates the length of time before I can feel forgiving. Just my 2 cents. Wonderful post as always. Thanks!

    Julia

  • Kate

    Always something to strive for, but so difficult to genuinely let go of an injury. A good discussion of the problem.

  • Jesse

    The act of forgiveness is not an easy one, especially if you are still hurting. Or is the true act of forgiveness really the only thing that does make the pain or hurt go away eventually?

    In my experience anger tends to manifest only because of the fear of being injured or hurt once again. An apology helps with the process of forgiveness, however does not erase the memory. Time and a genuine rebuilding of trust on both sides eventually does.

  • Lovely, timely post and a great reminder to all of us that forgiveness is really a self-healing action.

  • Mansi

    I sincerely appreciate your thoughts and efforts!! Forgiveness is classified and is certainly dependent on the life state of the person who is hurt. Forgiving ourselves is a must if we want to be happy…and is the most difficult thing to accomplish.. What if my loved ones don’t love and trust me because of something grave I did…? Will I ever be able to forgive myself? Why is it so tough for us to accept the fact that WE ARE HUMAN? That we are bound to make and learn from our mistakes…? First of all forgive yourself then you’ll be able to forgive anybody on earth…Thanks…

  • rdp

    Alex,
    It was interesting to read this post in connection with perspectives offered at the conference on bullying I attended this past Saturday (http://ncpsychoanalysis.org/ps-ncconference.htm). One of the presenters, Stuart Twemlow, MD and Director of the Peaceful Schools and Communities Project at the Menninger Clinic, made a strong case for bullying being a product of the social context. The bully, he argued, is, in effect, the “employee” of the social system. Twemlow has apparently had remarkable success reducing bullying by treating it as something in which the community is complicit as opposed to a dyadic interaction between bully and victim, as it has typically been seen.

    This prompts me to wonder if forgiveness doesn’t need to be preceded by an awareness of the larger dynamics that led up to the injury. You hit on part of this when you pointed out in an earlier post that you were complicit in being a victim of bullying. Twemlow would urge us to see the entire community as complicit in allowing this kind of behavior to occur. I can’t prove it, obviously, but my instinct is that one of the reasons people often have a hard time forgiving is because when the cruelty is located strictly between a perpetrator and a victim, each has to bear more responsibility for the injury than is warranted by the circumstances. And we experience that as unfair, even if we don’t exactly know why. The goal of recognizing the complicity of the community, obviously, shouldn’t be to increase blame, but to facilitate the examination of why it happened and to create space for changing social dynamics.

    rdp: Interesting notion. In Nichiren Buddhism there is the concept of dependent origination, meaning all phenomena exist and arise only in relation to one another. Or, in other words, nothing happens in a vacuum.

    Alex

  • I am a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism and am using my practice to be able to forgive people for the hurts (real and imagined) that i have harbored in my heart for years. And where I have been able to achieve this, it has left me with a phenomenal sense of freedom to enjoy and appreciate the GOOD in my life. It took me sometime to come to grips with this concept but Buddhism teaches that we are completely responsible for all that happens to us (karma, the law of cause and effect). We may not and need not have a full understanding and knowledge (karma is also carried forward from different lifetimes) of our role in attracting the hurt but we do have the power to say no to the hurt and that is the first step on the ladder towards forgiveness. Once we take this courageous leap of faith to choose happiness for ourselves and others the path of liberation opens up. An interesting development of not needing an apology from the perpetrator takes place. The strength of your determination to want your happiness is the force behind this process. To finish off…the Buddha said…we are shaped by our thoughts. The mind is everything. What you THINK you BECOME. Good luck…

  • Jeanne

    My 23 year-old daughter always talks about being victimized in grades 7 & 8. (Or her perception of it…) I remember riding a bus to my Catholic school with a busload of public school kids and in my most awkward stage (think Catholic school uniform and a face full of pimples) being harassed terribly and called “pimple puss.” It seems those years are horribly vicious. But I am a different person…so are they.

  • Kevin

    As usual, a well crafted post. Thanks, Alex. I have not seen the blockages to forgiveness so clearly articulated.

    Seen through the lens you provide, I find myself digging deeper and more willing to explore the path to forgiveness.

    Holding onto the memories of the abuse and my reaction to it enervates me—repeatedly. This thoughtful articulation casts a light where I had not looked before.

    Thanks.

    Kevin: Best of luck.

    Alex

  • jackie

    Perhaps those who suffer from the trauma of incest would take exception to the term “foolish mistake.” No argument on value of forgiving, particularly for the injured party. Just hard to pull off when one is expected to interact w/that abuser if one is to spend time with the rest of the family. And not to do so, not only robs one of holidays, etc., but in the family’s eyes, the abuser now becomes the victim, as the abused’s refusal to interact with him, minimizes all family contact because of his presence.

    Jackie: An enormously complex situation. By “foolish mistake” I meant more a mistake based on a deeply held delusional belief that somehow allowing another to come to harm could lead to the harmer’s happiness. I didn’t mean to minimize the seriousness of some of those “mistakes” by using that term.

    Alex

  • Nancy Hill

    Your discussion of forgiveness reminds me of my stepmother. Her first husband walked out on her for another woman. Later she married my dad. By this time her kids were adults. In all of the family gatherings I recall for years, the ex-husband was invited (as was his mother until her death). I never saw any tension, back-biting or negativity. She chose to put aside her betrayal, and let her kids (and him) enjoy being a family together. Whether he deserved to be excluded or not, her gesture made him, her, and her kids much happier.

  • […] a Comment  A blog I’ve been reading lately has this nice little piece on forgiveness.  http://www.happinessinthisworld.com/2009/10/25/how-to-forgive-others/#  And I think that part of my problem of feeling like an asshole is that I don’t know how to […]

  • Jill MacGregor

    Alex,
    Thanks for this kind and gentle insight. I really enjoy your writing.

    When I read the first section “Why is Forgiveness Hard?” I didn’t like how your 6 reasons made me feel. I was in total agreement with them but when they are there in black and white, I realize how cold they are.

    Especially, knowing that I am not perfect, there are people out in the world who have not forgiven me for something. Someone out there may think those things about me–there could be someone in the world who thinks that I am not capable of any good based on how I treated them.

    Even though no offenses come to mind, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    It makes hope that next time I feel anger toward someone, the forgiveness will come more willingly.
    Take Care,
    Jill

    Daring Acts—How To Work Without A Net

  • RG

    I like the idea of bullying being acceptable within a community. What is often invisible when we say “bullying is bad” is that bullying can be a way to enforce the unwritten rules of any community. So we notice when someone bullies about rules that we don’t accept.

    I was also thinking about why I escaped bullying in high school; our bus had a regular bully, and I dimly remember tangling with her once. She was mad because I didn’t say hello; I asked someone what her name was and said hello, X. Basically, I gave her her due in that encounter, and someone else stood up for me the next time, and a third time she told me that people had told her I was really smart—so I forged an identity that was acceptably different from hers—and she left me alone to read on the bus. So in that sense of leading with your torso, you can project that “I’m not disrespecting your values, but my situation is about these other values”.

  • KC

    Hi Alex,

    I’ve been enjoying your postings…thank you for your insights into those issues that many of us hold in our lives.

    Have you ever read Marianne Williamson’s books (especially, A Return to Love)?

    Or, Gary Renard’s book, Disappearance of The Universe?

    Both of these author’s books are based on A Course In Miracles. Although challenging to read, it’s “thinking outside of the box” and well worth the time and effort.

    Good luck and I look forward to reading many more of your postings in the future.

    Cheers

    KC: Haven’t read those books. Thanks for the suggestions, though. I’m always looking for good reads.

    Alex

  • Ed

    This is an important topic. Thank you for posting. I find myself filling with anger, reliving events where I was harmed even 40 years ago. You see someone on Facebook from high school and all that old resentment and competitiveness and insecurity comes flooding back in your face. It’s very unsettling.

    I realize that by harboring negative feelings toward a person, it gives that person control over me. And I also know that I have harmed many people in my life and there are plenty of shameful, disgraceful things I have done to others. I agree with your post that harboring anger will cause one to behave badly toward others who don’t deserve it. I realize that old anger, resentment and competitiveness is most likely what has prompted bad behavior in my life.

    I tell myself that forgiving others is the key to forgiving oneself. But that is easier said than done. Like the Don Henley song says, forgiveness is the heart of the matter.

    I hope you can continue this topic and would appreciate any advice on how to forgive oneself as well as one’s enemies.

    Ed: Forgiveness can be so hard. I think you forgive yourself the same way you forgive others, by consciously focusing on the fact that everyone is a human being (that no one is really an enemy) struggling in the same sea, making mistakes, trying to become better. That last point helps me most. As long as someone is trying to overcome their negativity, I find it easier to forgive them. But even if not, recognize that the blows that your high school friends may have dealt you came out of a place of delusion and foolishness. Whether we consciously recognize it or not, we’re all trying to get to a place of happiness and compassion, and many of us are just clumsy in our attempts. No one who’s harmed you in the past is summed up only by the harm they caused you. They have dreams, fears, hopes, families, and cares just like you. Focus on the humanity of others—as well as your own—and maybe you’ll find your way to forgiveness. I hope that helps.

    Alex

  • RDay

    Thanks for this message. If I may share, here is my unexpected route to forgiveness. After ugly events leading to divorce, when I felt violated by my ex on many levels, I wanted revenge! But not being very adept at revenge by traditional(?) methods, I decided the most effective route might be through my own happiness. I would let my ex’s own decisions and karma take him where they may, but I would pursue my new life goals and happiness as free from anger and regret as I could muster. Life may not be fair, but I could at least work to be the person I wanted to be. (I hoped for the eventual opportunity to gloat.)

    Once I made those initial choices, the rest fell into place. Peace, happier children, healthier me, new job, new friends and relationships. I stepped out of a spiral of negative thinking. I stopped sparring. I took measures to not remain vulnerable to abuse. Years later, the ex and I are friendly, something I never would have expected back then. I no longer think in terms of revenge (or gloating); it’s a relief to be free of that too. Our new friendship was not a necessary part of the process but a surprising gift.

    Now I find it easier to forgive others in new situations. But new obstacles spring from friends and family. When they do not understand forgiveness, they complicate things with “you have to take sides: you’re with me or against me.” It takes a different kind of fortitude to deal with loved ones who still cling to vengeful-type approaches.

    RDay: What an encouraging story! Thanks for sharing it.

    Alex

  • Robin

    Thank you, Alex.

    I often wonder about the nature of forgiveness. There is an ex-boyfriend ten years in my past who I still withhold forgiveness from, even though I know it harms me much more than him. I have an intellectual understanding that I need to forgive him, if only so I can let go and move on, but I keep holding on to that grudge, feeding it like a secret child.

    The reasons you give for the difficulty of forgiveness help me understand why it’s been so hard to let go of my resentment and anger and pain. It’s extremely hard for me to consider him as a whole person and not just the memories that hurt.

    Now that I understand better, I have new tools to work on this.

    Robin: I’m so glad you found the post helpful.

    Alex

  • Lorna

    I find a lot of wisdom in your posts—thank you.

    I find it is easier to forgive others because I can remember my own various transgressions. The most difficult task for me is forgiving myself. How does one do that?

    Lorna: I think it’s often even harder to forgive ourselves, knowing first hand just how flawed we are better than anyone else does. However, I’d suggest you try to forgive yourself using the same suggestion I gave in the post for forgiving others. Focus not on your flaws but on your humanity, on the inherent dignity of your life that exists untouched by any of your flaws. All humans make mistakes. If you regret them, try to learn from them, and try not to make them twice, what more could anyone ask of you? You should always try to improve but always recognize the end-point of that process isn’t perfection.

    Alex

  • Mary Carlisle

    Seeing them as human as we all are with good and bad qualities really helped me let go. I also was able to remember a time when I myself may have done something as hurtful or similar to someone else. It does’t give the party a invitation back into the circle of trust but does make you realize we all have the same potential for good and bad.

  • Letitia

    As Ed and Lorna, I also value self-forgiveness. However, I believe that in order to forgive someone else, you first need to forgive yourself. Which is not easy to achieve, as we see ourselves as the innocent victim of an act of injustice. The trick is to find the strength to forgive ourselves even for some things that are not mistakes per se.

    And the process is about the same. Part of the anger is directed toward ourselves, often by questions like, “How could I be that stupid or that blind? How could I allow this to happen to me?”

    Forgiving yourself for following your values or for doing/feeling what it seemed to be the best course of action in that particular moment—that is the key to first step. Then, being able to feel forgiveness for our own being, it is far easier to feel it for others.

  • CD George

    I really like this and feel like it can get me a few more faltering steps in the right direction. Is forgiveness simply a state of mind? I agree with all of the logic and principles you describe. I can feel warmth knowing that people have hopes and dreams. I can feel empathy for their wounds and despair.

    Is there something particular one can do to forgive someone? Someone that you don’t trust or want to interact with in the future and someone who is very unlikely to apologize?

    I feel like I meet all of the criteria for forgiving this individual, but I still get flashes of anger when something comes up that relates to the infraction. The anger makes me feel bad, hence not a successful forgive (?). I do know the good of this person. I don’t want revenge, I don’t even want an apology; the crime has been it’s own punishment and that poor soul suffers…

    Is “time” the only thing left or is there an exercise for me to work on?

    CD George: I think being able to forgive comes from divesting ourselves of the beliefs that block our way to forgiveness, i.e., justice=vengeance, our anger=someone else’s punishment. Divesting ourselves of these beliefs requires, I think, replacing them with compassion for those who’ve offended. That, in turn, comes from establishing an emotional understanding that everyone really wants to be happy and in committing offenses are simply and significantly misguided in the ways they think they can achieve it. As to how we can activate that compassion—I think by engaging in a practice that has the power to shatter delusional beliefs, whether that’s therapy, meditation, chanting, etc. As none of these have been definitively and objectively proven to work, we each must make an experiment out of the one path that impresses us as most likely to work. Hence, I chant (while others meditate, etc.).

    Alex

  • CD George

    Thanks 🙂

  • gracy

    @jessse I agree with you: it takes time to forgive because we may be hurt by same reason. I am experiencing same situation. I wanna forgive but when I think I am not able to. I think once trust again builds it goes.

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