A few years ago 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.
Forgiveness is hard. But why? Perhaps for the following reasons:
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.
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.
Dr. Lickerman's book, The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today.