“Forgiveness is the final form of love.”
“You better put it all behind you, because life goes on
If you keep carrying that anger, it’ll eat you up inside.”
Don Henley, “The Heart of the Matter”
Forgiveness is the third and final element in the Transformational Cycle, following vulnerability and responsibility. The decision to forgive others, and yourself, is a critical choice you must make in order to reach your ultimate potential. In this entry we will explore what forgiveness is, what it is not, why it is important, and how to begin the process forgiving others.
Forgiveness is the internal process of letting go of a real or perceived injustice toward you. In her book “The How of Happiness,” Sonja Lyubomirsky refers to forgiveness as a “shift in thinking” that occurs when you let go of a desire for revenge, retribution or harm to another party. Oftentimes this shift will result in replacing negative feelings with some sense of empathy, understanding or even goodwill toward the other party.
In order to appropriately define forgiveness, it is important to discuss what it is not. Forgiveness is not reconciliation; that requires both parties to agree on a future next step and some degree of an ongoing connection. Forgiveness is not condoning or excusing; you do not justify or accept the negative behavior toward you when you forgive it. And forgiveness is not forgetting; you do not deny or repress what happened. In fact, one could argue that forgiveness occurs when you can recall what happened without feeling resentment, anger or a desire for revenge.
Okay, so we’ve defined forgiveness, but why is it so important for our growth and development? First there are a number of health benefits clinically proven to be associated with forgiveness. These benefits include strengthened immunity systems, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and improved quality of sleep. In addition to these benefits, psychological benefits such as reduced depression and anger, as well as increased optimism and empathy, are by-products of forgiveness that lead to greater joy and happiness.
From a transformational and self-actualization perspective, forgiveness is crucial because it allows us to face, make peace with, and release the past. Said another way, you can’t reach your potential until you let go of your past.
French priest Henri Lacordaire perhaps said it best: Do you want to be happy for a moment? Seek revenge. Do you want to be happy forever? Grant forgiveness.
Forgiveness occurs on multiple levels. Depending on your religious beliefs, you may feel compelled to ask for forgiveness, and trust that it has been granted, from God. Irrespective of your personal beliefs, you must be willing to forgive others at an interpersonal level. This can often be difficult, even when the other party has apologized profusely and sincerely, because we don’t want to appear weak. Or, it can be challenging because it conflicts with our ego’s desire to seek retribution and revenge in the name of justice.
To make matters even more troublesome and complicated, consider this: how can you forgive someone who has not, and may never, apologize? In fact, what if they do not even feel remorse for what they’ve done to you?
Forgive them anyway.
Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself because in the act of forgiving others you set yourself free.
Finally, you have to forgive yourself. It has been my personal experience that this can be the most difficult. You have to make peace with yourself, and then believe you are better, and deserve better, than your past. Many theologians and philosophers have long speculated that if you cannot forgive yourself then you won’t be able to truly forgive anyone else.
This week’s blog started with an opening quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, asserting that forgiveness is the final or highest “form of love.” You may not recognize his name but you will likely know his most popular contribution, “The Serenity Prayer”:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Oprah Winfrey perhaps best captured the essence of this insight in the following definition: Forgiveness is letting go of the idea that your past could have been any different.
When we consider these two passages together we are faced with an unshakeable truth: we cannot change our past, only ourselves. You must start by accepting that which we cannot change, the past, and then have the courage to forgive yourself and others. In doing so, you effectively discard your past and reclaim your present and your future.
I felt compelled to include Don Henley’s lyric from “The Heart of the Matter” at the beginning of this blog. Although this song is written in a romantic context of a failed relationship, he captures a critical insight. In the song he sings about trying to get down to the heart of the matter, concluding that it’s about “forgiveness.” He reminds us that whether we forgive or not, life goes on. When you forgive and let go, you free yourself to move forward and seize your future. If you choose not to forgive, life will still go on. And you will have a front row seat to watch it unfold as it passes you by.