Saturday, November 17, 2012

Forgive and Forget

What does it really mean to forgive? Can you forgive without forgetting?  How does it feel to forgive or be forgiven?  Is it easier to forgive a physical pain incurred by another's accidental actions than an emotional wound inflicted with intent?  Does "sorry"  from the offender require forgiveness from the offended?   Does the offended require an apology in order to forgive the offender?

I have pondered the concept of forgiveness many times.  I suspect most of us have. We have all been hurt and we have all been the cause of someone else's pain.

While endeavoring to explore what forgiveness means and why it is considered so important to our mental health, I reflected upon some well-known aphorisms.

“To err is human; to forgive divine.” (Alexander Pope)  

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive.  He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.  There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

“I can forgive, but I cannot forget is only another way of saying, I will not forgive.  Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note-torn in two and burned up so that it never can be shown against one.” (Henry Ward Beecher)

"Without forgiveness there's no future." (Desmond Tutu)

Many religions encourage and even require forgiveness as an act of piety.

There is, in fact, no end to famous maxims encouraging us toward forgiveness.  Is it really so easy? No, of course it isn't, but it is possible and it is within our control.

There is a wide range of affronts, accidents, and human atrocities that have left small, large and inconceivable wounds upon individuals, groups and civilizations. There are monstrous acts of inhumanity that are beyond understanding and should never be forgiven or forgotten.  There are simple oversights that are dismissed without hesitation.  It is the "in betweens" that cause so much consternation. Particularly amongst family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. This is the physical and emotional terrain where most of us live.  It is where we react and over-react.  It is where we experience our most raw feelings and where we can cause the most enduring sorrow.  This is where forgiveness and acceptance become an integral part of our humanity and our mental health.

I do not believe that forgiveness requires forgetting.  I do not believe it is always possible to forget.  I do believe that the test of forgiveness lies within our emotional being.  What does this mean?  It means that if you think back on the incidence that initiated the pain and there is still hurt or anger that bubbles from within, you have not forgiven.  We experience true forgiveness when the event ceases to trigger a negative emotional response.

Forgiving is the part of the equation that is within our control.  We can not force someone to forgive us. We can extend the olive branch, ask for forgiveness, even offer compensation if appropriate. But we can not choose for someone else.  We can, however heal, even without being granted forgiveness from whomever we have injured.  It starts with forgiving ourselves.  It may sound like a cliche, but it's true.  With or without forgiveness from another, we still need to let go of our own guilt.  It is easier to do so if the person we have hurt accepts our apology, but either way we can use self forgiveness to heal and let go. We can incorporate the encounter into our being and allow it to influence our future choices of behavior.

When we hold on to anger or resentment, we unwittingly encourage the body's stress response which can trigger a series of unhealthy physical reactions.  Meditation, yoga, visualization, breathing exercises and prayer are all methods of coping with stress and reprogramming our responses to events we can not control or change.

What else can we do to help ourselves forgive or accept non forgiveness when it is wanted but not granted?  First, don't make assumptions about what someone else is thinking or feeling.  Odds are you will be wrong or, at the very least, not completely right.  Wrong assumptions generally lead to the perpetuation of bad feelings and interfere with the ability to heal.  Second, do not reinforce the negative emotions by continuing to re-live the encounter through stories you tell yourself and others. Third, try treating forgiveness like any other behavior you would like to see extended to you and those around.  Even if forgiving doesn't come naturally, it can be a learned behavior.  If you offer and practice forgiveness, others are more likely to accept and extend the same behavior.  Finally, Decide that giving and accepting forgiveness is more important than who you believe is right or how the conflict was initiated.  Even very old wounds can be healed through practicing genuine forgiveness.  Remember, we are talking about the "in-betweens" here not monstrous acts of abuse that might fall into the category of atrocities.  Forgiving and healing from the deep scarring of physical and emotional trauma is a subject and process that goes way beyond the scope of this article.

 "The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world."  (Marianne Williamson)  And what better goal can there be?

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