Every so often we post something on social media about forgiveness. They are quotes such as:
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” -Mahatma Ghandi
“Forgiveness is the giving, and so the receiving, of life.” -George MacDonald
“To forgive is the highest, most beautiful form of love. In return, you will receive untold peace and happiness.” -Robert Muller
As we post these thoughts on forgiveness, we’ve noticed a trend. It seems that every single time we post something on forgiveness, a few people take exception to the notion of forgiving others for harm that may have been caused. We receive comments about some people not deserving forgiveness, about the need to hold on to resentment in order to protect ourselves, and how forgiving will allow the person to continue treating us or someone we care about poorly.
The resistance to forgiveness is understandable; people unfortunately cause great harm to others. However, these questions and concerns do have answers, even if they aren’t exactly what we want to hear. Forgiveness is a process and a practice. Just because it doesn’t come immediately in certain situations doesn’t mean it is hopeless. Rather than trying to get our thoughts across in short little comments on social media, we thought it may be worth examining forgiveness and the resistance surrounding it in its own post.
What is Forgiveness?
It may be worth understanding first what forgiveness is and is not. We’ll start with what it is NOT. Forgiveness does not mean we have to allow ourselves to be hurt again. Forgiveness is not a quality of allowing ourselves to be treated poorly. Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness or being a floor mat. Forgiveness IS difficult. It takes strength. When we forgive, we are letting the resentment go, allowing space in our hearts for something other than anger. When we forgive somebody, we are simply releasing the resentment and opening the heart to the person. As Noah Levine often says, you can let somebody into your heart without letting them back into your home. That is, we can forgive somebody without allowing them back into our lives or putting ourselves in any dangerous situations. When we work on forgiving somebody, it is a release. We let down our rigid defense and are able to connect with others with more ease.
Some People Don’t Deserve Forgiveness
This is one of the most common things we hear when we talk about forgiveness. Sometimes, we simply don’t want to forgive somebody. We were hurt by another person, and we just don’t have any desire to hold them with forgiveness. This is an understandable response. Why put forth the effort to forgive somebody that we find repulsive (words taken from an email we received from somebody seeking to investigate forgiveness)? It’s a good question. Forgiveness takes time and effort, and it is worth questioning why we should exert energy on this task.
What we really want to know is what the benefits are of forgiving somebody. Even though it may seem that some person doesn’t deserve our forgiveness or isn’t worth our effort, everyone is worth forgiving. First and foremost, forgiveness is for ourselves. When we don’t forgive, we are only hurting ourselves. It’s that old saying that it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Holding onto resentment takes up mental/emotional energy. We often don’t realize how much resentments are weighing on us until we forgive and let go. The person that you feel doesn’t deserve forgiveness has almost nothing to do with true forgiveness. Forgiveness is about you, your heart, and your experience.
It also can be helpful to understand that we are forgiving the person, not the action. For example, somebody runs up to you on a street and mugs you. Forgiving this person doesn’t mean that we find this action acceptable. It doesn’t mean we are going to allow the behavior or endorse it. Rather, we are forgiving the person for acting this way. We don’t need to make up stories about this person in order to know that they are suffering. Without looking down on somebody, we can have compassion for this person and their suffering, seeing that their behavior is just a result of years of conditioning. Forgiveness for these difficult people takes time, but when we work on forgiving the person rather than the action we can hold this person in our heart with some care and gentleness.
Protecting Ourselves from Future Harm
The second point of contention that is often brought up is that forgiving makes us vulnerable to the harm again in the future. I had a very close friend that ended up causing a lot of harm to me and a few people for whom I cared deeply. This person went from one of my best friends to an enemy very quickly with a few harmful actions. For months, I was in the mindset mentioned above of not even wanting to forgive the person. I then fell into the thinking that if I forgave the person, I would be opening myself up to pain once again. I practiced with this person in formal forgiveness meditation for months (and still do sometimes). I can’t honestly say that I have fully forgiven the person, but I have allowed a substantial amount of space for this person in my heart. A year or so after the harm was caused, the person wanted to come back into my life. I spoke with the person kindly, but kindly said that I was not ready to have them back in my life.
Forgiveness often looks like this. We slowly forgive and allow the anger to move on. However, we don’t have to allow somebody back in our lives just because we have forgiven them. Knowing that this person can cause such great harm, I have chosen to keep my distance. I believe people can change (I know I have!), but it simply is not worth the risk. I can still respond with kindness and love without rekindling the friendship. When we forgive, we don’t need to put ourselves back in the situation. We can open our hearts and move forward while still keeping ourselves safe. This is a process and sometimes an elaborate dance. It takes repeated effort to learn what we need. As we continue to forgive more and more, the mind is free to make clear and caring decisions about what is healthy for us.
Forgiveness as Enabling
Like many people that have expressed so on our social media pages, I have believed that forgiving somebody is not necessarily the best thing for the other person. People that cause harm can benefit from knowing that they have done so. I know that when somebody lets me know that I have caused them some harm, it helps me look at and hopefully change my behavior. When we just forgive someone, are we allowing them to continue behaving that way?
Forgiving somebody doesn’t mean we cannot let them know that they caused harm. Perhaps it is even better to work through something ourselves before we let somebody know. When we work with forgiving somebody, we can sometimes address the harm done with more skill and less anger. If we don’t wish to confront the person or let them know about the harm caused, that’s okay too. Sometimes the best thing is to step away and keep ourselves from being harmed again.
When we forgive, we are forgiving the person, not the action. We can find an action not acceptable, but we still forgive the person. When we let go and free space in the heart, we are not condoning the behavior of another. When we forgive, we can often more appropriately address the situation should it arise again. Rather than leading to the enabling of a behavior, forgiveness practice can actually help us meet it with more mindfulness and care.