Have you experienced cruelty or neglect, and been told by a solemn, well meaning person,
‘What has happened has happened. It’s time to move on.’
‘It’s in the past. Focus on the future.’
‘Don’t fill your life with bitterness.’
‘Don’t let your anger consume you.’
Or even worse,
‘Get over it.’
‘Find it in your heart to forgive.’ (As though you are the problem!)
How galling those comments are. How thoughtless. How insensitive! It’s as though the speaker thinks our mind is a whiteboard, and all we have to do is wipe the memory and pain away.
Even if we could, we might not want to.
Or, they think we can discard unwanted resentment simply by choosing to do so.
Someone else might say, ‘Look for the positives. What can you take from the experience?’
It might be good advice but it’s not the advice we want to hear. When we talk about our suffering we want our feelings validated, not undermined. Perhaps one day, when the pain is a shadow, and when we are ready, we might look for the positives. But not now. Not yet.
Besides, it’s not always good advice. Sometimes the incident is too toxic for any positive to be taken from the experience. Even just expecting us to search for the positive can be asking too much.
I guess people say such things because they feel uncomfortable seeing us suffer.
We don’t want to be told to forgive. To suffer a violation, and then be told to accept that violation without holding a grudge, is like being asked to condone the perpetrator’s behaviour and let them get away with it. That’s not how it is, but that’s how it feels.
For someone to ask us to forgive is to ask us to ignore our pain, anger, indignation, sense of justice, and resentment . . . and replace it with a manufactured zen-like serenity. That’s not fair. If we try to comply with those expectations we might end up feeling a deep sense of self-betrayal. How fair is that?
Is it fair to ask someone to forgive the person who raped them? Or to expect a jew, who grew up without a family, to forgive the nazis for the holocaust? Is it fair to suggest to someone that they forgive the drunk driver who ran over their child?
Perhaps the incident occurred months ago, or decades ago, but if the pain is still there, time is irrelevant.
Simply: we should not feel obliged to forgive. Don’t let someone tell you to forgive. If someone tells you to forgive, respond with something like, ’I’ll decide that, thanks very much.’
I can’t think of any situation when it is okay for one person to advise another to forgive. Nor can I envisage any situation in which we should try to forgive. Yet the happiness gurus suggest that we do forgive. They talk about resentment being a ‘cancer, eating away at the soul’, and throw at us quotes like this Chinese proverb: ‘The fire you burn for your enemy often burns yourself more than him.’
It sounds good, but it’s not necessarily true.
Until she was sixteen, Sandra was tormented daily by her older brother. He would say things like “You are so ugly, you should die.” “I hate you, I want to kill you.” Then he would punch her, spin her around, throw her against the wall, until she screamed. Her Mom cried continuously about it, but neither parent could stop it. Eventually her brother went to university and the abuse ended. It was a like a new life when the torturer disappeared, for both Sandra and her parents. It was like, ‘getting out of jail’. Thirty years later she has not forgiven her brother, and does not want to. But she doesn’t think about him either. She isn’t being ‘eaten away by a cancer’.
The ‘cancer eating away at the soul’ is more likely to appear when we try to forgive someone but fail, because we might conclude that we have let ourselves down by not being the noble, forgiving person we would like ourselves to be.
Or, we might kid ourselves that we have succeeded in forgiving, and end up living with an underlying resentment that skews our behaviour. Wallpapering over resentment with a manufactured ‘forgiveness’ can turn resentment into suppressed bitterness, or worse, into a sense of defeat and powerlessness.
The last thing we need is someone telling us to forgive. It’s just cruel. We can’t simply flick a switch and forgive. We don’t discard emotions at will. If we could, we would be living in a different world.
Further, although the gurus suggest we forgive, they don’t tell us how to actually do it. In the movies it’s easy: someone makes a tearful declaration of their forgiveness and leaves the astonished recipient moved beyond measure. Such scenes can bring the proverbial tear to a glass eye, but in real life it’s not that simple. Yes, sometimes forgiving can be a choice, but it’s rare, and it indicates that the person was ready to forgive. Or more accurately, ready to let go of the pain.
In a sentence: if we try to forgive when we aren’t ready there is a good chance we will end up feeling bitter and short-changed.
The happiness gurus have a lot to answer for.
They also advise us against taking revenge. It isn’t cool, apparently, and they quote someone like Douglas Horton: ‘While seeking revenge dig two graves – one for yourself.’ That’s fair, because revenge could end in tears for both parties, and there is no guarantee we will feel better anyway. In 1996 in Sydney, Australia, a serial killer was sent to jail for the term of his natural life. After ten years in his cell he was granted a television set and a jaffle iron. People protested, arguing that he should not be given such treats. The authorities rescinded the benefits. Fortunately, the television set and jaffle iron were returned to the prisoner a month later when commonsense, and compassion, prevailed.
The incident indicates that even though the prisoner would never again be free, that was not enough for some people: their need for revenge had not been sated. ‘Therefore,’ a happiness guru might argue, ‘revenge doesn’t work.’
But it’s not true revenge, is it? Our justice system cannot satisfy a personal need for revenge. We evolved to retaliate. Bullied hominids that did not retaliate would continue to be bullied, by all the tribe, and would struggle to find a mate and pass on their genes. Those who stood up for themselves, by adopting a vengeful ‘eye for an eye’ attitude, would deter the bullies and fare better. It’s in our blood to lash out, to seek revenge, and our justice system thwarts that.
Having a justice system is a good thing; who wants anarchy? But when a court administers punishment, the victim’s personal need for vengeance isn’t satisfied. That’s why criminals like that serial killer continue to be hated.
On a personal level, revenge can be sweet and therapeutic. A woman was dumped cruelly by her boyfriend. She went to his ‘love shack’ and left a bucket of prawns there to rot, so that the next time he took a lover there the room would be untenable.
Another woman I know told me: ‘One time a new boyfriend conned me out of $250, which was a lot of money in 1990. He didn’t intent to pay me back and played me for a sucker. After I intentionally spilled a chocolate milkshake all over the exterior of his car I felt so much better and quickly forgot about it. Justice was served. Had I done nothing, and thought I needed to forgive him, I would have been irritated for years.’
With big smiles both women admitted that their acts of revenge gave them enormous satisfaction.
I don’t know the two men’s side to each story, but even if the women’s complaints were justified, revenge is not a good long-term solution. It can lead to further problems, and, as the proverb goes, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth would leave everyone blind and toothless.’ Plus, if our act does not satisfy, it can embitter.
I mention these instances merely to refute the blanketing suggestion that revenge will sour us. On the contrary, it can lead some of us to closure.
Where are we so far in this chapter?
I am suggesting that we should not feel pressured, by ourselves or by anyone else, to forgive someone. To even try to forgive a person when we aren’t yet ready can leave us with a sense of self-betrayal and resentment. As well: nobly declaring our forgiveness can be self-righteous, manipulative, and self-deluding.
I am also suggesting that revenge can sometimes bring closure to our pain, though it can also lead to escalating problems.
So, if we shouldn’t try to forgive, and if revenge is not recommended, what can we do to relieve the pain we feel?
Sometimes we get lucky. If we lose money to a con-artist but win the lottery, we can forgive quickly. If a woman is angry with her boyfriend for cheating on her, she will forgive a lot faster if she finds her dream boyfriend the next day.
Usually we aren’t so lucky. So, again, what can we do?
We can let the pain dissipate.
Over time, the intensity of what we feel subsides, provided we let it. That’s the important bit: provided we let it.
That’s the key.
So, how do we let go of the pain?
Complaining to someone about how we were wronged is a normal, healthy thing to do, and it’s a good way to release some of the pain. But some people think it’s the only way to release it, so they complain long and often. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, if it is a part of a plan aim to heal the pain. Complaining to a wise and trusted friend or therapist can be helpful. But when some people complain, they aim to maintain the rage and the hate, for fear of having their problem ignored or forgotten. That’s when it becomes a cancer. An emotion will not dissipate if we keep fuelling it. If Alice in her paddock had kept Anger, Jealousy, and the other unwanted emotions in the paddock with her, and tied them down and flogged them, and didn’t let them leave her, then after a while she would have become bitter and twisted. But she didn’t do that. When it came time for each emotion to leave her, she let it leave. She didn’t discard or ignore it; but when it was ready to leave, she let it leave.
In the same way, we can become bitter and twisted if we aim to maintain the rage and the pain. We need to let the pain arrive when it wants to arrive, and just as importantly, we need to let the pain leave when it’s ready to leave.
Our resentment, our anger, and our hurt come to us because they have a message for us: something has gone wrong in our life. When we have heard that message we can allow those emotions to leave us. Indeed, that’s what true forgiveness is: allowing the pain we feel to leave us. It has nothing to do with trying to manufacture a warmth towards the perpetrator. It has nothing to do with excusing or condoning the other person’s behaviour, or letting the person get away with it. We don’t have to rely on the other person being remorseful. The person doesn’t have to be present. Or even alive. The other person is simply: irrelevant. That’s because forgiveness is not about forgiving the other person, it’s about allowing the emotion we are actually feeling, to leave us.
Yet the happiness gurus focus on the end result, forgiveness, because that’s the warm and fuzzy bit we love to see happening. That’s the healing bit. That’s when compassion and relief wash over us. The gurus ignore the complicated bit: how to get there.
Instead of trying to forgive we need instead to allow our pain to leave us. When we allow the hate and the fury and the resentment to dissipate, we might then get lucky and see the perpetrator in a different light: as they really are. We might see them as pathetic, sad individuals. Or as lost or troubled souls. Or as dunderheads. Or as someone in the same tiny boat we are in, in this stormy sea.
Or all of those things, together.
That’s when we begin to feel relief and compassion. That’s when forgiveness comes.
‘Letting people go from our thoughts, releasing them from any wish that we could harm them or that they will be harmed, brings us cleansing, sometimes exhilarating, freedom.’ Stephanie Dowrick.
But how do we do it? How do we allow our pain to dissipate?
Shrugging isn’t enough. A shrug is good for dealing with little annoyances, and for building a capacity to become easygoing, but it’s not helpful for dealing with sharp or lingering pain.
We can try three things:
1. We can choose to purposely not maintain the rage. We can feel the fury and the pain, and complain to those we trust, but we can also make the conscious choice to not cling to the incident. When thoughts of the incident arise we can let those thoughts drift away. (Only when we are ready to make that choice.)
The pain will not magically vanish, but because we have given permission to let the pain leave us, one day it will. There might still be sadness and bad memories, but the sting will have gone.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The last stanza of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, reminds us that although none of us know what the future will bring, we can choose our direction. And it can make all the difference.
2. We can let time take it’s course.
For Sandra, who was tormented daily by her older brother, time was the healer. Yes, Sandra still feels rippling effects from her brother’s cruelty, and won’t forgive him, but because she doesn’t think about him, time has taken from her the anger and the hurt. It has taken away the sting.
That might be small consolation for anyone suffering now, who does not want to wait, but it works.
3. We can seek permission from a friend.
Sometimes we would like to let go of the pain and suffering – we would like to forgive – but we are not sure we should. Then we can ask a friend, ‘I would like to forgive him, but if I do, will I be betraying myself? Should I maintain the rage even though I don’t want to? Would I be letting others down if I forgive? ‘
That’s when we can seek a friend’s permission to forgive. That’s the time to hear those (now soothing) words, ‘Yes, let it go.’
In short, don’t feel obliged to forgive another person. Don’t try to manufacture an emotion for someone you don’t like. Instead, focus on what you yourself are feeling. Listen to the fury and the pain, and complain like a banshee, but when stillness comes, let it be. Don’t dredge your soul to bring the pain back. Don’t maintain the rage. Let time do its job.
Protect the person you will come to be.
Then, one day in the future, when you are reminded of the incident, you will cope with the memory. The sting will have gone.
Q. ‘Mark, from what I gather, you do recommend forgiveness, but you call it “letting the pain dissipate”.’
The word ‘forgiveness’ suggests one person forgiving another, but ‘to let the pain dissipate’ means the other person is irrelevant. The end result might be the same, but letting go of an unwanted emotion is an easier and kinder process than trying to actively forgive someone, which can entail all sorts of problems.
It’s hard to forgive someone if they show no remorse. But, by focusing solely on letting go of your unwanted feelings you don’t need the person’s remorse. Letting go of bad feelings is not about the other person, it’s about you.
Q. ‘Let’s say a woman gets bashed by her husband and she keeps forgiving him. That means she’ll stay in that relationship while he keeps bashing her. Forgiveness can be dangerous.’
You seem to think it could make you a doormat. No. Respond appropriately. Express your anger. Change the circumstances. Show gumption. But when only memories remain, aim to let go of the bad feeling. The abused wife can take steps to ensure she isn’t beaten again – perhaps by leaving him – and when her circumstances have improved she will benefit by letting the bad feelings go. If they separate as a couple, neither she nor her aggressor will benefit if she chooses to maintain the rage.
To forgive someone does not mean ignoring what they did, or allowing it to continue. We can make the necessary changes, and not hold onto our suffering.
Archie Bunker: ‘Are you going to hold it against me for the rest of my life?!’
Edith Bunker: ‘No, because if I did, it would be the rest of my life, too.’
(Television program: ‘All in the Family’)
Q. ‘But how could a beaten woman let go of her resentment without feeling self betrayal?’
If the beaten wife succeeds in letting go of her resentment she won’t feel self-betrayal; she will feel peace. But if she is not ready to let go of those feelings, she won’t let go of them.
Q. ‘Can I tell someone I have forgiven them?’
Only if you are sure they want your forgiveness. Otherwise, you might be seen to be playing a game, and that might create problems.
Also, the other person might not respond in the way you might like.
If you do tell the person you forgive them, mean it. Don’t say it to be self righteous, or to show them you haven’t been hurt. If you’re just making a point, forget it.
‘False forgiveness – forgiving because it is the decent thing to do, or is in some way advantageous – does not bring healing. It adds to the original injury and cannot resolve it. Resolution begins and ends with truthfulness, with a genuine expression of feeling, and the change this allows.’
Q. ‘Sometimes people want to forgive (let go). All they need is to hear the word “sorry”.’
If you wait to hear the person say sorry you might wait a long time. That’s why it’s best to focus not on forgiving the other person, but on letting go of unwanted feelings.
But yes, to hear ‘sorry’ is pleasing, and it can make it easier to let go.
Is there someone you could say ‘sorry’ to?
Q. ‘What if the person isn’t sorry? What if they feel no remorse?’
Again, whether or not the person feels sorry is immaterial. You’re letting go of the pain for your sake.
Q. ‘So, the next time I get bullied . . ?’
Respond appropriately. Stick up for yourself. Be angry and express that anger constructively. Do what you think is right. But don’t aim to hold the grudge. When you are ready, aim to let go of the incident. Make the choice to not purposely hold onto it.
Q. ‘Even if I forgive my kids for putting chilli in my milkshake, can I punish them?’
Sure. Forgiveness has nothing to do with condoning or forgetting the crime, or letting the perpetrator of the hook. Nor does it mean that you are okay with the crime. It just means you have successfully let go of the bad feelings.
Many a parent punishes their child after forgiving them. (‘It hurts me more than it hurts you.’)
Q. ‘Can I ask to be forgiven?’
In my opinion, no. It means you are trying to manipulate the person or make yourself feel better. Either way, it’s not fair on the other person and it puts that person in an awkward position. They are not obliged to forgive you, and whether or not they do is none of your business.
I guess we can ask if we have been forgiven., provided we will accept their decision.
Q. ‘Mark, you have suggested that we:
– choose our direction and aim to one day let go of the pain,
– let time take its course,
– seek permission to ‘forgive’ from a friend.
What else can we do?
1. Recall a time when you were forgiven by someone else. How did it feel? Did you feel grateful? Relieved? Cleansed?
If it was a good feeling, imagine how the recipient of your forgiveness might feel. You might then find it easier to let go of your pain. But remember, it’s to help you, not them.
2. Write a letter. (You don’t have to show or send it to anyone.) In it, clarify your thoughts and feelings. That might provide the release you need.
In your letter don’t write anything you don’t believe. Explain in detail:
– what happened,
– how you feel about what happened,
– what you would prefer to have happened,
– what you think the other person might have been thinking and feeling at the time,
– what the person didn’t understand at the time.
Conclude by explaining that you have chosen to let go of the pain and the accompanying resentment. You can even mention that you no longer hold bad feelings towards them.
Keep the letter as a testament to your choice.
I am grateful to writers Robert Enright and Stephanie Dowrick, and to my friend Sandra Kruger, because I plundered much of their wisdom to write the chapters on ‘forgiveness’ and ‘letting go’. They may not agree with my conclusions.