This is a post from one of the Forgiveness Club’s sister blogs. The topic is relevant to many discussions of forgiveness so I wanted to share a modified version of it here too. To see the original and find other forgiveness related posts, you can go to www.forgivingthechurch.com.
In another post on that blog, “The Migratory Nature of My Forgiveness”, guest blogger Tom McLaughlin, beautifully and courageously shared about his decades-long journey of forgiveness after being molested as a teen by a Catholic priest. One particular comment prompted by the post included the following: “I have a difficult time with this topic because forgiving somehow gets confused with the perpetrator of the wrong getting let “off the hook” so that they can continue to harm others.”
This comment addresses one of the most prevalent misconceptions about forgiveness. The misconception is that in forgiving, you’re also condoning. The question might be restated, “If I forgive ___________(fill in the blank), doesn’t it mean that I’m letting them off the hook for their actions, or making what they did to me okay?” It’s also one of the reasons that people most frequently give as for why they refuse to forgive someone or something in their past.
This question has both a long answer, and a short answer. Let’s start with the short answer. “No, when you forgive, you’re not condoning the actions of the other.” Forgiveness is something that you have to choose to do for yourself. It’s ultimately not about the other person at all. Through choosing to forgive, you’re able to set yourself free from the bondage of resentment, anger and blame and release the mental and emotional burdens of a past experience. Giving yourself the gift of forgiveness, doesn’t really have anything to do with the other party and their actions toward you.
“How can that be?” you might interject. You might think that the hurtful incident had everything to do with the other’s actions toward you. After all, they abused you, cheated you, took advantage of you or hurt you in some other way. So this brings me to the longer version of the answer. Yes of course, it takes ‘two to tango’ so to speak. The hurt that you felt as the result of your experience with that other was real. They were intimately involved in the violation of you. There’s a ‘but’ coming, and it’s a big one too. BUT even though they hurt you or violated you in some way, if you’re still suffering, it’s you who has continued to carry it around. There’s a big distinction between being victimized by someone or something, and playing the role of the victim in your life.
If you’re still feeling hurt, damaged or diminished years after a painful event, you’re the
one who is perpetuating the anguish and limitation. As the old Buddhist proverb states so simply, yet elegantly, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”Choosing to forgive is choosing not to suffer. It’s a choice you need to make selfishly, for your own best interests, and if necessary, without consideration of how it will affect anyone else. Since you have the ability to perpetuate the anguish, then you have the capability to end it as well. Forgiveness is about setting yourself free from the self-constructed pit of suffering and negativity.
Think of it this way, when you’re holding a grudge, resentment or anger toward someone else, that person is always living in your consciousness – they are always with you. Emmet Fox, an influential spiritual thinker and leader of the early 20th century once wrote: “Our resentments bind us to the person with a cord stronger than steel.” You must realize that you’re actually expending your life energy to drag them around with you! They may drop below and exist under the surface of your awareness some or much of the time. But they’re always there. You only need to be reminded of the person or incident in some small way, and all of a sudden they burst right back into your awareness, bringing a flood of negative feelings and painful emotions with them. What may have started out to be a great day for you, can quickly be turned into hours of suffering, with your thoughts driven into a downward spiral of toxic internal dialog laced with anger, judgment, righteous indignation, shame, guilt, regret etc… From personal experience I know that’s a sure recipe for a barren, miserable life bereft of any real love or joy.
For years I carried a large and arduous load of resentments, blames, grudges, moral indignation, anger and the like. I blamed my limitations and inabilities on my family, the church of my youth, grade school teachers, ex-bosses, former co-workers and many others. I could quickly and passionately recite a litany of offenses that I’d been subjected to in my life. I could tell you in detail how each of the others had victimized me, and why they were wrong in their actions. I righteously clung to my beliefs that I’d been hurt – even crippled – by what I considered to be the thoughtlessness, callousness, stupidity, selfishness, arrogance, maliciousness or abusiveness of the others involved. I spitefully placed each of the people and incidents in my internal “victim’s hall of blame and shame.” Then when periodically reminded of someone thus enshrined, I would once again visit them in my mind, reliving the events and incidents, and torturing myself with hateful, self-righteous, resentful and thoroughly disempowering thoughts and feelings.
A big resentment in particular was against my second grade teacher. I’ll call her Miss Thompson, and she was a big, physically imposing, early 50-ish woman. As a young child I had a hard time staying focused in class and I was easily distracted. It was a lot of effort for me to pay attention and give sustained effort to assigned tasks and activities. These days I’d probably be tested and diagnosed as being ADHD or something similar. But in the 1960’s that wasn’t even a consideration in most school systems – certainly not in mine. So I didn’t perform well in class, and that frustrated Miss. Thompson to no end. She knew I was smart because there were some things that I did brilliantly. But overall, I consistently underachieved in my school work.
Now I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I believe that Miss Thompson must have also felt frustrated and unhappy in her life in general, and that I became a focus and convenient outlet for those feelings. Several times during that school year, she got angry with me for not finishing an assignment, or not paying attention in class. On those occasions she came up to me, wrapped her large, strong hands around my thin wrists and then lifted my small arms up off the desktop and slammed them down repeatedly, while verbally berating me. Bang, bang, bang, bang – over and over again until I was stinging and crying from a combination of the shock, the physical pain and the humiliation of being singled out and abused in front of my classmates. Oddly enough, I don’t believe that I ever told my parents about it, I just thought I must have deserved it somehow.
As you might expect, those experiences left a lasting effect on me. In my young mind I didn’t know how to process and deal with it all. I didn’t have the maturity or insight to understand that her actions meant more about her and her issues than they did about me. So I made the interpretation that her physical and verbal treatment of me meant there was something wrong with me. I made it mean that I wasn’t good enough. It was years later that I was able to look back on the experience from a more mature perspective, and recognize the inappropriateness of her actions. At the same time I also became aware of the shame I still carried and how my sense of self-worth had plummeted as a result.
That’s when I got angry about it. I became righteous and judgmental of Miss Thompson and I created a grudge – a big grudge. I blamed her for many of my problems; I blamed her for my limitations and low self-esteem. Of course there were a multitude of other members of that “hall of blame and shame” who I made responsible for the same sorts of things. As I write this, I realize that it doesn’t really make sense to blame multiple parties for the same effects. But anger, resentment, blame and such are not rational, they are emotional, primal and without clear reason.
I have to admit that I dragged that particular bucket load of resentful, angry and shameful feelings around with me for years. Also from time to time, I would dredge up a mental image of Miss Thompson to judge, berate and chastise her in my mind. It was all part of a larger pattern of playing the victim and giving away my power, creativity and joy to people from my past, through my insistence on holding on to the grudges. It was part of a pattern of negativity and toxicity that plagued my thoughts, cannibalized my life force energy and kept me feeling stuck, unworthy and incapable of expressing myself authentically and powerfully in the world. Though Miss Thompson had caused me the pain at age 7, I chose to continue reliving the experience time and again. I chose to repeatedly revisit the stinging feelings of physical pain and personal shame and in doing so I chose to suffer and cage myself for many additional years as a result.
This article got quite lengthy so I’ve split it into two more manageable installments, with the completion of it appearing in the next post.