A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Forgive to Live

By Victor M

A woman tells of an eighteen year search for a birth parent because she was given up for adoption as an infant. She felt the questions which were constantly on her mind could only be answered by either her birth mother or father. “I wanted to know why they didn’t want me. I wanted them to tell my why they gave me away”, she explains. Finally, she succeeded in tracking down her father who agreed to meet in person. “I will never forget that day”, she says, explaining she was simultaneously frightened and excited, hoping “this could be the start of a relationship I had longed for my whole life”. As they met, she carefully looked at her father who spoke first, saying: “You were just a mistake!” Ever since that first and only encounter, she has relived those words, saying “I’ve had the hardest time moving on from that hurtful moment. I don’t know if I can every forgive him for giving me up - or for those hurtful words that broke my heart all over again”.

It is a sad reality that people do hurt each other by their words and deeds, by what is said or not said, by what is done or not 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. For that reason, forgiveness becomes essential. A quick glance at an antonym dictionary reveals that the opposite of forgiveness is taking revenge, inflicting wounds, seeking retribution, exacting punishment, holding grudges, responding spitefully. 

Living with those negative emotions destroys peace of mind, expels joy, and erodes the quality of life. That is why the bible instructs: “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” (Ephesians 4:31, New International  Version). In order to live, we must forgive. Here are some ways of moving toward the place of forgiveness.

Understand the benefits of forgiving

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you”, writes theologian Lewis Smedes, author of Forgive and Forget: Healing The Hurts We Don’t Deserve. Motivate yourself to forgive wounds and hurts by understanding and appreciating that forgiveness is primarily beneficial to yourself. Frederic Luskin, Director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, 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”. Dr. Luskin adds that the benefits of forgiveness apply to all, whether the wounding is small and slight or profound and pervasive. “Forgiveness is for everyone -- hurt college students, angry and disappointed middle-aged adults, stressed-out business people, and people who have had families murdered by political violence”.

Improve your forgiveness ability through practice

To become an exceptional forgiver, start with the small offences. Promptly forgive every minor and slight infraction which 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”.

Ask yourself, “How am I complicit in this situation?”

That suggestion is made by Rabbi Rami Shapiro in his book Guide To Forgiveness. He explains: “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 Rabbi 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”.

Forgive quickly

This, of course, 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. Singer Tony Bennett witnessed just such an act of quick forgiveness. He was ten years old when his father died. Though he has few memories of John Benedetto, one stands out and has influenced Bennett all his life. His father, an Italian immigrant to America, operated a small grocery store in New York City. The family lived above the business. One evening they heard noise downstairs. A man had got drunk and was attempting to break in but having a hard time doing it due to the alcohol. Benedetto crept downstairs and discovered the man unconscious. Evidently he had tripped over some egg crates. 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 asking, “Do you have a job?” The man shook his head no, too embarrassed to speak. Then Benedetto told him: “Well, you have one now. You can work for me if you want to”. The man accepted the offer of employment immediately and harmony returned into the Benedetto home and family life.

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 balanced, 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. 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. I have to find a way to cope with what you put me through, even if forgiving you is the last thing I ever want to do. Even if it takes me some time to get used to the idea”.

Add generosity to forgiveness

General Douglas MacArthur

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 offered by General Douglas MacArthur which impressed citizens of Japan. At the Japanese surrender ceremony on 2 September 1945 and delivered on the USS Missouri which was docked at Tokyo Bay, 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”.

Mahatma Gandhi

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”.   

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