It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself . . . Forgive everybody. ~Maya Angelou
Valerie Kauer is a civil rights lawyer, author of SEE NO STRANGER: A Memoir & Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, and an award-winning filmmaker. In a very popular TED Talk, Valerie tells a heart-wrenching story about the first post-September 11 hate crime, the murder of a Sikh family friend whom she called Uncle, by a man who called himself Patriot. Years after the crime, Valerie accompanied the brother of the deceased to the prison where Patriot was detained. They spoke with the murderer, who expressed sorrow, saying when he gets to Heaven to be judged by God, he will ask to see the man he killed, hug him, and ask his forgiveness. To this, the brother responds, “We’ve already forgiven you.” Hearing those words melts me. I don’t believe there could be a more loving, generous, empathic statement he could make to the murderer of his brother. Valerie concludes the story with the idea, “Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is freedom from hate.” And, freedom from hate, she continues, grants us the ability to see those that harm us not as monsters, but as wounded, threatened, and insecure, with their own sad stories.
Forgiveness is a practice that doesn’t come easy. It can take incredible effort to let go of hard feelings toward someone who has wronged us, especially if they have taken someone or something away from us. I was intrigued when I first learned that the process of forgiveness benefits me (the forgiver) more than the person that I need to forgive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. ~Francis of Assisi
The Aramaic meaning of the term forgiveness is to let go, to cut loose (as in a tied animal), to release, to leave physically & psychologically. So you see, going through this challenging practice allows you to let go of – to cut loose – the hardness of heart, resentment, and darkness you’ve been harboring, sometimes for years.
Forgiveness results in many benefits that affect us (the forgivers) mentally, physically, & spiritually, within families, communities, and nations, according to The New Science of Forgiveness, from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine. In addition to diminishing negative emotions in general, the act of forgiving has been found to reduce stress, blood pressure & heart rate, improve immune function, and lessen or eliminate feelings of being out of control. In middle-agers, it has also been reported to reduce feelings of nervousness and restlessness.
An article from Mayo Clinic, Forgiveness: Letting Go of Grudges and Bitterness clearly states, “. . . If you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays . . . By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you.” The article goes on to say that the act of forgiving is not the equivalent of excusing or forgetting, nor does it mean reconciliation is required.
Reconciliation does not even need to be considered. In a PDF entitled Forgiveness Counseling Guide, created by Dallas Baptist University’s Counseling Center, it is suggested, “If the person who has hurt you is unsafe (such as an individual who is emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive) or contributes to unhealthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in your life then reconciliation may not be wise . . .” As a matter of fact, the other person doesn’t need to know you’ve forgiven him/her, and frankly might not care. Again, the process is one to benefit you.
Forgiveness is (practiced) for yourself because it frees you. It lets you out of that prison you put yourself in. ~Louise L. Hay
Long ago, I read a quote that went something like this: Not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Recently, when I went online to find the source, I found many variations on the statement from writers, celebrities, activists, and others. After searching a little longer, I found information that the idea may have originated with the great Religious Science leader and writer Emmet Fox during the early part of the last century. This idea resonates strongly with me. I’ve realized in retrospect that some of the hardest times I’ve gone through with an individual were made more difficult for me by feelings of resentment toward that person that I had been holding on to, sometimes for decades. By forgiving and releasing those hurts, they become a part of my past, and therefore don’t find their way into new situations.
I want to gift you with a simple tool that I shared with my workshop participants years ago. We’ve all heard that journaling is a great tool for personal release and mental health in general. That also applies to the process of writing a letter (that you’ll never send) to someone who wounded you. Here’s the format:
- In the first paragraph, BLAST THEM! Curse them, let them know how deeply they hurt you, how angry you are, etc. Don’t hold back! This first paragraph can be as long as you need it to be – even pages.
- After that big purge, close your eyes, breathe deeply for a couple minutes, and imagine exhaling all the residual sludge from the experience.
- In the next paragraph, write about the lessons you have learned as a result of your suffering, as well as your desire to let go and forgive. (This part can be directed to yourself if necessary, remembering that the practice is for your benefit.)
- When the letter is complete, read it from beginning to end. Take some time to appreciate the progress you have made/are making in such a difficult situation.
- Lastly, when you’re ready, either rip the letter into tiny pieces or burn it (carefully!) as you repeat to yourself, I am letting this go: it will no longer have a hold on me. I am grateful.
Before closing, I’d like to mention the idea of forgiving yourself. Personally, I’ve found that forgiving myself along with those that hurt me is often a necessary component for truly letting go. (We often play some part in our trials with others, right? Of course, this doesn’t always apply: abused children and elders, for example, may be helpless and blameless.) If you go through the letter process above and don’t feel any relief, consider forgiving yourself, which may in fact be the most difficult part of the process. (I forgive myself for my role in this situation, and I let go of all hard feelings. Repeat, dozens of times if necessary, until you feel a shift.)
The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world. ~Marianne Williamson
In a world divided by race, class, religion, and other walls, forgiveness and its resulting empathy can be very useful tonics. Applying the practice to our own lives can result in increased love & understanding, better physical & mental health, and improved interactions within families & communities. Applying our forgiveness practice out in the world can serve us all in ways yet unimagined.
Blessings for Forgiveness,