Over the last year, I have struggled with the concept, the execution, and the commitment of what it means to truly forgive.
Looking back at my life, I can only think of a few times when someone did or said something that really hurt me. I am not one to have “enemies” and I am pretty understanding, so it takes a fairly large betrayal for me to feel the need to hold on to pain or anger for longer than a few minutes.
There are many small occurrences in daily life that present the opportunity to decide between forgiveness and holding a grudge. These occurrences can be miscommunications between friends or coworkers, misunderstandings between partners, or even exchanges between strangers who are having a bad day. For me, these offenses are easy to overcome and move past. I have found that it is actually much harder for me to be angry and guarded than it is for me to simply let things go. But what happens when the transgressions are paired with ill-intent? And how does one forgive someone when the abuse is not over?
Before I jump into answering that doozy of a question, let’s talk about holding a grudge. I think of “holding a grudge” as an abstract verb that I would define as, “holding on to a past event by still feeling and thinking negatively about it.” That grudge might make you act differently when you come across the person or people who you are holding a grudge against, but it may also just be a bad feeling you have when you think about the person or event that made you angry or upset.
So, what is a grudge’s purpose? I think that part of it maybe a protective tactic that manifests itself into you not trusting that person or those people again. This can ensure that you won’t be vulnerable to the same treatment happening in the future. In this sense, holding a grudge can be helpful if it results in you changing a behavior or habit. In many other situations, including those miscommunications, misunderstandings, or grumpy run-ins with people who truly aren’t having a good day, holding a grudge is completely useless and quite counter-intuitive.
Let’s work through an example of what holding a grudge would look like for something small. Say that someone cuts you off in traffic, you are stuck behind him, and he has the audacity to let a few cars in front of him. You are fuming. You can see his dumb face in his rearview mirror, so you scowl at him. The light up ahead turns green… then yellow, and you slam on your breaks while the jerk that cut you off makes it through the intersection before the light turns red. He drives off into the distance while you sit at what seems to be the longest light ever. For the next 30 minutes of your commute, you go over the event again and again in your head. “Ugh, why did that guy cut me off?! He was so rude. Does he think his time is more important than mine?” Etc. Etc. Your heart continues to race, and your anger doesn’t dissipate until you get home and settle in.
Later that evening, you are at the grocery store in the produce department, and you see him, the traffic guy. He casually makes eye-contact with you while he picks out some apples, and you shoot him the death stare. He looks confused and timidly puts his head back down and walks away. You spend the next 20 minutes stomping angrily around the store, looking over your shoulder so you can give him the evil eye if you see him again. Of course, you don’t see him again, so you are rage shopping for no reason. You get back to your car and sigh a breath of relief. “That guy was so stupid,” you say to yourself.
GUESS WHAT? That “stupid guy” has no idea he cut you off earlier. He has no idea that he made anyone angry. In fact, he was thinking pretty highly of himself for letting a few cars in front of him during that crazy traffic jam. He had a great day. He went home to his family, hugged hiskids, wrote down a grocery list, and had a pretty relaxing shopping trip;except for when that weird lady gave him a dirty look near the apples. That was strange. But oh well, time to go home, make dinner, and enjoy the rest of his evening.
You, on the other hand, wasted HOURS being angry at someone for something totally trivial. That guy didn’t ruin your day, you ruined your day. Do you feel better that you got back at him with your produce department glare? Um, no. Do you think the anger that you feel for him will teach him a lesson? It won’t. In fact, the only person that is affected in any way by the grudge you are holding, is you. You wasted a perfectly good evening, wasted your emotional currency, and wasted your headspace. If you would have just forgiven that man’s unintentional action, your night would have been totally different, and way better. Forgiveness is for YOU. So that you can be happy; not for the person who you are forgiving.
But what happens when it is not a one-time occurrence, and what happens when it is not unintentional? How do you forgive someone then? Should you forgive someone then? Thisis where I struggle even though the principal about forgiveness from the example above still holds true. When someone is constantly or consistently trying to hurt you, the pain is always fresh, and it is always warranted. That pain is real. I am not asking you to ignore that pain. In fact, what I have learned to do, and would recommend to you too, is to do the opposite of ignoring that pain. Look at the pain head-on, feel it, process it, express it, communicate it to people who you can trust. Get support, get help, get a counselor.
After you are able to process that pain (which, by the way, does not necessarily mean the pain will be gone), you can get to the forgiveness piece. So… to forgive, or not to forgive? You would think it would depend on the situation, right? If the person is going to continue hurting you or has hurt you intentionally, you should never, ever forgive them. If it was an honest mistake and they had good intentions, forgive them. Right? WRONG. The answer, no matter what the circumstance, is to forgive.
Forgiving someone does not mean that you continue to take the abuse. Actually, if you are able, cut all ties with the person who hurt(s) you. If you can’t cut ties, set healthy boundaries and protect yourself. Forgiveness does not mean you have to trust again. Forgiving someone does not mean you need to go up to that person and say, “I forgive you,” and wipe the slate clean. Forgiveness does not mean ignoring or forgetting about what happened… Forgiveness means letting go of the anger that you carry with you every day and every moment. It means letting go of the urge you have to get even. It means letting go of the hope that you can change them. It means letting go of the idea you had about who they are or who they could be. Forgiveness means moving on and finding peace.
Forgiveness is not for them. In fact, it leaves them powerless. It leaves them small and lonely. When you forgive them, they will see that they have no effect. They have no impact. They can’t change you, other than helping you become stronger. They will feel the shift as you start to move on and let go of the hurt. They may try to suck you back in with apologies and promises, or they may up their ante. Suddenly, their attempts of all kinds will fall flat. They will begin to understand that you don’t have time or space for them. They will crumble. And the best part? It won’t matter to you. You won’t be happy that they are suffering because you won’t be thinking about them. There will be times that you think back on their transgressions and be at peace knowing that those events made you who you are today. They helped you grow and evolve. They helped you learn how to forgive, and forgiveness feels good.
With all of that being said, forgiveness is not easy. It takes time, work and practice. It takes positive self-talk, the ability to forgive yourself, and constant mindfulness. It takes being the bigger person, and that can be really hard; especially if you are not able to distance yourself from the person. If this is the case, just remember that how you feel about the person, the pain you carry, and the anger you hold, will not change them. Remember that you can be guarded and have boundaries, without feeling angry. Let them be negative while you live your life free of hate.
Although for me, it is still a work in progress, I know that I can do it, and every day that I practice forgiveness, I get closer and closer to that place of peace. I know that you can do it too.