Note: I posted the first part of my Rosh HaShanah talk yesterday. If you didn’t see that, you might want to scroll down to the bottom of this post and open the link to that one first
A very smart friend of mine once suggested that the first task in forgiving is to ask yourself the question, “am I willing to forgive?” That’s a game ender unless you can answer truthfully that you are.
To forgive you have to be willing to level the playing field. You have to be comfortable with the idea that they’re only a fallible human just as you are. Maybe they behaved as best they could under the circumstances. Or maybe they were ignorant and hopefully have learned their lesson, but at any rate, to truly forgive them, whether they have asked for it or not, requires feeling you can stand beside them compassionately again, in friendship or love, not above them in a righteous glower of indignation. This can be very, very hard because when you have been betrayed you so, so deserve that glower!
And there’s another big issue. How many times do we kick ourself for being a fool, a sucker, with a vehemence far stronger than we feel for the person who actually hurt us? The “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” syndrome gets me every time.
Our emotions are so tangled that forgiving ourselves for the enabling role we played, or the trust we should have known better than to give, might have to be the first step before we can even think about really forgiving another.
Other problems come when we start building our identity around our victimization. There’s a difference between thinking “what happened to me was wrong,” and “I am a person who has been wronged.” The second one says I have let it seep into my view of myself. When I tell my story, this is an indelible part of it, chapters that can’t be skipped. “I am a person who was fleeced, betrayed, cheated on, lied to, robbed. It isn’t my memoir without those stories!”
We start to identify ourselves with what we haven’t forgiven.
Leaving things unforgiven is a continuing statement about what you are against. Against moving on. Against feeling as positively about that person as you otherwise might. Against letting something be relegated to the past. And most important, against figuring out how to have the next chapter be healthier.
What do we get out of not forgiving? You have to answer this your own way, but you are getting something out of it. If you weren’t, you would just do it. Maybe it distracts you from something else you should be paying attention to. Maybe the role of victim is comfortable. Maybe you just like drama. Maybe there’s some ethical line that has been violated and you simply can’t cross it without losing a sense of who you are. But you are getting something out of not forgiving, and figuring that out is probably the best place to start getting out of the emotional hole this situation has put you in.
In my own personal inventory, I think the answer might be that not forgiving gives me the moral high ground, which I like! And this gives me power over the person who wronged me. Which I also like! Am I ready to give that up? I haven’t been yet. I don’t want a level playing field. I want the ball firmly where I can score.
When my mind goes to the negative people in my life, I try to stop thinking about them by asking myself, “why am I inviting that person into my life again? If I am thinking about them while driving, they’re sitting in the passenger seat. If I’m thinking about them at a movie, they’re talking to me while I’m trying to watch. And worst, if I’m thinking about them when I can’t sleep, they just crawled into bed with me. That’s what we do when we don’t forgive. We can never, ever, get rid of that person, or at the very least, our bad narrative about them.
The better way to frame what we need, not just about forgiveness but about anything, is to ask not what we are against, but what we are for.
I am for peace of mind
I am for generosity of spirit
I am for the feelings of optimism that healing brings
I am for letting go of what saps me
I am for using my energy wisely
I am for moving forward
I am for keeping negative things from shaping what I do or how I see the world
I am for anything that makes me bigger as a person
And then my friend’s hard, preliminary question again: “am I willing to forgive in order to have all these good things?” For me, apparently not yet. But I have had a breakthrough already this season. In the past few months I have been able to put photos of my two sons, both now of blessed memory, on my electronic photo frame without it breaking my heart to see them young, happy and unaware of what lay in the future. But I have never put a photo of their father with them because it made the air too heavy for me. I am still far from being able to forgive, but I’m wondering if that is the only meaningful goal. A few days ago, I put some photos of him with them on the frame because just as I remind myself when I see them as children that there were so many good times too, I can now add that it wasn’t all bad with him either. It’s a step towards forgiveness. I hope maybe this has helped you to take steps too.