For many of us growing up in a Western culture, our only exposure to the idea of forgiveness was during our childhood religious education. As our culture has become more secular, we have unfortunately lost the cultural conversation on forgiveness that went out along with religion.
This is a shame because with the condition the world is in right now, we desperately need a culture that is capable of forgiving more than ever. We need to learn how to integrate forgiveness better into our families, schools, legal system, places of work, and politics.
To move us closer to that goal, we need a secular understanding of what forgiveness is and how to do it. We need to make forgiveness relevant for the 21st Century.
The first step in creating this kind of culture is understanding the psychological nature of forgiveness and then figuring out how to practice it ourselves.
To help further this conversation along, I offer below a few of the lessons I’ve learned from my own life experience.
1. Forgiveness doesn’t always mean forgetting, and that’s okay
The biggest misconception about forgiveness is confusing forgiveness for reconciliation. Forgiving someone does not always mean that a relationship will return to the place where it was before. Forgiving someone simply means you have decided to let the anger you have towards that person go.
Sometimes the appropriate response after you’ve forgiven someone is to redefine the nature of your relationship by creating new boundaries.
Sometimes this means letting a relationship go altogether. Not every relationship will make sense for both parties. Relationships that offer value for only one person are inherently unfair. It’s much healthier to sever ties with people who create toxicity in your life than to strain yourself trying to make an unworkable situation work.
2. Forgiveness is your responsibility
The second biggest misconception about forgiveness is that it’s primarily about mending your relationship to another person. On an emotional level, forgiveness is mostly about healing your relationship to yourself.
It’s easy to think it’s only about the other person because, well, they are after all the party responsible for hurting you. The reason why it’s dangerous to place the burden of responsibility for initiating the healing process on the other person however, is that you can’t control what other people do. You can share how you feel with them, but they may not agree with your take on things.
Perhaps, with time, they may come around and see the error of their ways (if they are in fact in error), but on this too I would advise caution. Some people realize their mistakes after a cooling off period allows them to reflect on their actions with more objectivity. But for others, original misperceptions only become more calcified with the passage of time.
Another problem with making it about the other person’s actions is that sometimes the other person is genuinely sorry, but maybe not sorry enough for our satisfaction. Some wounds cut deeper than others. It’s natural to want the other person to feel just as bad as we do for the suffering they inflicted on us. Again, this is an area we have no control over. Moreover, people will only feel bad about what they’ve done for so long. After a while, they will eventually forgive themselves, move on and forget that you’re angry with them at all.
And in large part, what choice does the offender have? Is it really reasonable to expect a person to hate themselves forever, regardless of whatever wrong they’ve wrought upon you? Carrying intense guilt for long stretches is hardly useful to anyone. Most people realize that at some point and choose to forgive themselves. This fact shouldn’t discourage us about human nature. It is the healthiest thing a person can do.
3. Time does not heal all wounds
‘Time heals all wounds’ is perhaps the most popular maxim on forgiveness. For the most part, this advice holds true. Time has a magical way of resetting our perspective. We usually get distracted by something else and either forget about it altogether or realize that whatever bothered us so much really doesn’t matter all that much.
However, my experience suggests that when it comes to healing from major wounds, the answer is more complex. I’ve met too many old people who remain embittered over wounds inflicted decades prior to believe that the passage of time alone is enough to heal from serious suffering. Letting the big stuff go requires skill and perspective. It’s not easy to do. You have to do it with patience, love and purpose. (This is active healing.)
The other overlooked aspect of healing and time is that forgiveness is often misconceived as a one-time event. This is far too simple because most people can forgive in a moment only to get caught up in a vicious cycle of rumination later on.
The reason why we do this is that our brains are hardwired to associate fear with threatening stimuli. When someone wounds us, their memory becomes a symbol for a future threat to our well-being. When negative feelings are re-lived in our memories, the neural circuits that they are housed in become strengthened.
That’s why the thought loops we feel trapped in when we ruminate are so hard to escape from. We associate people with all sorts of symbols: songs, places traveled together, movies, mutual friends. All these things can trigger the memory of that person, which in turn triggers the memory of what you don’t like about that person. When you’re wounded deeply, forgiveness is a decision that you have to make over and over again.
If forgiveness is the solution to anger, does that mean that anger is bad?
One of the reasons we hold onto to anger longer than we should is that we believe anger protects us. Perhaps we unconsciously fear that if we just let things go, we’ll become pushovers and make ourselves vulnerable to future assaults.
The energy that we create as a result of holding onto anger for long periods damages our mental and physical health. If left unaddressed for too long, the cycle of ruminating on resentment becomes a black hole at the center of our emotional universe, sucking in the light in its orbit as it slowly warps the spacetime of our souls. The more you give into it by indulging negative thoughts and feelings, the more you feed its density, strengthening its gravitational pull.
This is where caution is required. I’ve found it useful to avoid labeling anger as a ‘negative’ emotion because even though too much anger can be unhealthy, anger isn’t an altogether bad thing. Casting a global label on a basic emotion like anger can backfire on us because anger can be a useful signal that an important value or boundary has been violated. It can be a motivator to address problems that need to be confronted.
The trick is to find the right balance. When we resign ourselves to stew in anger for unhealthy lengths of time, it only increases our own suffering. But when we don’t acknowledge that we are angry, we can feel taken advantage of in the long run, which only creates deep seated resentment.
It helps to look at mistakes people make in perspective. In time, I’ve come to see that no matter how negative, the experiences I’ve had with forgiving and being forgiven have served as some of my life’s most important lessons. Life sometimes gives us gifts we didn’t want and didn’t ask for. But they are gifts that can nonetheless serve us well if we learn how to use them.