Barriers to Forgiveness
Last week, I was on an airplane to New York City. At one point, I started to flip through the airline magazine and this is what I found: page after page was filled with self-indulgences of every kind imaginable. There were waterfalls and fancy restaurants and fine chocolates and the newest fashions. Not once was there a message of self-sacrifice or service to others. I guess such self-sacrifice is not profitable.
The message of self-indulgence stayed with me. If we are bombarded with constant messages of pleasure, will we become a society that exalts this to a norm, in which pleasure-seeking becomes an accepted way of life? If so, we may stop examining the assumption that a pleasure-seeking life is one that is not worth living, if our goal is genuine happiness. When we stop such an examination and give in to pleasure all the time, we may find life to be rather meaningless. After all, what does one do when all the chocolates are gone or the trip to the hidden chalet is over and the new fashion is, well, not so fashionable any more?
Forgiveness as self-sacrificial service to others is a message diametrically opposed to the messages in that airline magazine. OK, so I am fuming at her injustice…..pass the bon-bons. OK, so I am enraged with his firing me……let’s go on a trip. Pleasure-as-diversion can hide the pain in need of cleansing. Pleasure-as-self-help may weaken the will to fight for mercy and forgiveness. One’s energy to be in service to others may weaken.
Hard work and pleasure-seeking surely can be in balance in a full life. The magazine did not give such a balanced message. That made me worry……for forgiveness…..for strong wills to give of ourselves even when it is not pleasurable to do so. May we never over-indulge in pleasure to the point of losing our way with forgiveness, which, in the long run, may produce much more happiness than one more chocolate with an orange center.
Never giving up. Perseverance. The strong will. Forgiveness is hard work and the more severely you are hurt by another person’s injustice, the harder will be you work. It is too easy to enter forgiveness with a kind of euphoria, full of hope that all will be well soon. As you then start to sprint, you realize that you are in a marathon……not a sprint. It is then that your strong will has to come into the picture to aid you in continuing to practice forgiveness until you make significant progress.
Learning to forgive those who hurt you deeply is analogous to starting a physical fitness program. You may start with a light heart and much enthusiasm, and these wane as the exercises get routine, as the muscles get sore, as the enthusiasm melts. It is then that sheer determination must help you through. It is similar with forgiveness. After a while, the practice of forgiveness may become a chore rather than an enthusiastic exercise of hope. Please note that the perseverance is well worth the pain of continuing the marathon. After a while you will notice an emotional strength building in you. After a while you will see that you are now stronger than the hurts against you. After a while you will see that through the exercise of your strong will, you are now forgivingly fit. Let the strong will help you to complete the journey of forgiveness.
“Ahhh…..I’m glad that’s over!!” How many times have I heard that….and even said it to myself. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that if we go through a forgiveness process, such as the one outlined in the book, The Forgiving Life, then all is well and we are healed.
Yet, because forgiveness is a process that takes time, we cannot presume that if we go through that process once with a particular person in mind, then the journey is over. Forgiveness is not that simple for the deep injustices of life.
I was talking with a psychiatrist friend recently and he said this: “Sometimes I tell my patients that they will have to be working on the process of forgiveness for the rest of their lives.” He was not implying that they will never reach the goal of forgiveness. Instead, he was suggesting two things: a) Even when we have forgiven, the anger can creep back into our hearts and that is the time to open the door once again to forgiveness and b) As we forgive, we go deeper into its meaning and in new discoveries about the process; thus, as we continue to develop we have not finished forgiveness or perhaps forgiveness has not yet finished with us.
So, do not grow discouraged if you have been slammed by injustice. The road to forgiving will get easier and more familiar…..but at the same time you may be on that road for the rest of your life. Take heart because this is not a burdensome road. What happened to you may be burdensome, but the process of discovery about whom the other person is, about who you are as a person, and about humanity itself is filled with fresh and healing insights. After all, when you walk the path of forgiveness, you are walking in love. This is not such a bad path to be on, right?
Enjoy the journey of forgiveness.
“But, I just don’t know how to forgive. How do I go about it?”
I have heard this so often…..and it breaks my heart because it should not happen. How have people’s teachers somehow failed to show a growing child the path to forgiveness? Don’t we work hard—very hard—to show a child how to find his or her way home so that, when lost, there is a map in the memory? Why do we fail to work even harder to place the map of forgiveness in a child’s mind? To have to grope in the dark for the forgiveness path when one’s heart is bleeding is not fair. When we neglect to show children the path out of darkness and into the light of forgiveness, we are neglecting a key point of being human….a key point in surviving tragedy and others’ mayhem.
Children need forgiveness education to know that, when forgiving, a first step is the freedom to admit injury. Another has withdrawn love from me and I am hurting.
Facing such a reality helps people to see the injustice for what it is. It can give a person courage to look injustice in the eye and call it by its name. Such courage can propel a person to commit to forgiving, committing to reducing resentment and offering goodness in spite of the hurt.
The courage helps the forgiver to let compassion grow in the heart as a response of mercy to those who have not had mercy on the forgiver. Eventually, the forgiver begins to find meaning in the suffering and to reach out to the offender, at least within reason so that the forgiver protects the self from further serious injury.
This path is vital to a restored emotional health. We need to see this and to have the courage to teach children how to forgive so that they do not ask, in confusion, as adults: “How do I forgive? I do not know the path.”
So many people think that it is improper and perhaps even morally inappropriate to forgive when the other refuses to apologize. “My waiting for the other to apologize shows that I have self-respect. I will not put up with the injustice,” I have heard people say.
Yet, why is your self-respect tied to another’s behavior toward you? Can’t you respect yourself for who you are as a person rather than waiting for another to affirm your importance as a person?
“But, if I wait for the apology, this is a protection for me and for the relationship. The apology is a greater assurance that the other will not do this again.”
Yet, cannot you forgive from the heart and also ask fairness from the other before—before—he or she apologizes? One does not achieve justice through only one path, in this case the other’s apology.
If you insist on the other’s apology before you forgive then you are saying this to yourself: I will not allow myself the freedom to exercise mercy toward this person until he/she acts in a certain way (an apology in this case). Do you see how you have curtailed your freedom, including your freedom to heal emotionally from the injustice? Forgiveness has been shown scientifically to reduce anger, anxiety, and depression. Your insistence on an apology may delay or even thwart your healing.
When you insist on the other’s apology before you forgive, you—you, not the other person—trap yourself in the prison of unforgiveness…..with its resentment and unhappiness. This does not seem like the ethical thing to do.
Forgiving freely whether the other apologizes or not is the path to freedom, healing, and a clear-headed call to justice.