Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

When I think about forgiveness, my mind goes to that now iconic phrase in Hamilton: An American Musical. “Forgiveness. Can you imagine?”As we now know, I cried through most of Hamilton when I saw it last December. 

But can you really imagine how strong of a heart it takes to forgive a partner who has cheated on you? 

A few evenings ago, I was speaking with one of my dearest- and married- friends about the shit show that is my romantic relationships. Having just ended a sort of rebounding-from-a-horrible-depression-and-a-horrible-breakup fling, she and I laughed as we recounted in the last decade my incredibly varied and unsuccessful relationships. She sat with me on the kitchen floor when my boyfriend from college broke up with me in between classes. She listened to me coldly, almost clinically, retell the ending of a relationship with the boy I dated when I lived in Prague. She received my tears when an ex of mine came to my studio with another girl. And finally she made me laugh as I told her that my most recent situation-ship with a wonderful woman fizzled. Most of these took quite some time to get over. My ability to hold grudges like no one else is partially to blame: fool me once, you will never fool me again because I will cut you and your bullshit out of my life faster than I can run a mile - and once you’re out, you’re out for good. 

The other part of this, and I will most likely offend some people when I say this, I was raised Catholic, a religious tradition built on shame and guilt and the idea that forgiveness is dependent upon penance. Forgiveness, as I learned it in this tradition, is not about freeing the heart of the wronged person; it is about punishing the offender by making them perform an action so as to make them worthy of forgiveness. I say this as a person who knows I’m about to get a ton of flack from the many religious life in my family. Part of living inside of shame and guilt based systems, like antiquated systems of control, means this inability to truly forgive.

From the psychological perspective, the mindset and the action of forgiveness has much more to do with the healing of the forgiver. Forgiveness is the thing we do to help us move on. It is the thing necessary to release the hurt and pain, the spite, the need for vengeance or to “balance the scales”. The obsessive thinking that surrounds grudges dims our social/emotional experience of the world; it also has incredibly detrimental effects on our physical health. While this season is traditionally about giving thanks, expressing gratitude, offering charity, perhaps the action filled with the most kindness, the one we should focus on now more than ever, is the ability to forgive. 

All of the expressions and tools for forgiveness mentioned below primarily focus on outwardly directed forgiveness. In cultures of shame, perhaps the person we need to forgive the most is our self. Know that these tools can also start to mend the tattered relationship we have with our own self after years of abuse and neglect. From personal experience, forgiveness is the thing that has freed me from the chains of substance abuse, disorder eating, damaging relationships, and deeply rooted feelings of unworthiness. I offer this up with compassion, knowing how hard it is to say these words, think these thoughts, do these actions.

Obstacles to Forgiveness

It is important to note that true forgiveness is hard to achieve if we are holding on to some of these mindsets or beliefs. Below are six common impediments to forgiveness.

  1. In order to forgive I need the other person to do x or ask for forgiveness or say sorry.

  2. I want the other person to hurt as much or in the same way as I am hurting before I forgive so that they understand just how deep my wound is.

  3. If I forgive this person, or group of people or institution, I am weak.

  4. Revenge will eliminate my need to forgive.

  5. The person who hurt me is a garbage human who doesn’t deserve my forgiveness.

  6. I refuse to encounter the difficult feelings of hurt, disappointment, abandonment, anger, etc, and instead try to “forget” what happened and “just move on”.

Particularly focused on outwardly directed forgiveness, all of these are conditional upon the response of the other person or institution. Forgiveness, however, is not meant as a learning tool for the other. It is meant as a healing tool for the self. When we think about forgiveness as a path toward moving on, we must let go of the idea that the other person need repent for the perceived wrongdoing. Instead, forgiveness can be about us releasing the vice-like grip that spite, rumination, and vengeance have on us.

So do we start on the path of forgiveness?

1. Recognize the Suck - When things take a turn for the worst and we end up getting hurt or offended, the first action we must take is stillness. Be still. Stop moving for just a heartbeat. This stillness gives us the opportunity to identify feelings and thoughts connected to the wound. I am a writer so I use writing to unravel many of my thoughts and feelings connected to complicated experiences. Emotional granularity is the idea that we get more specific with our words about the precise feeling we have. It is the difference between happy and ecstatic, sad and despondent, afraid and terrified. The more specific we are about feelings, the easier it is to trace lines of reasoning to them (ie. I’m despondent because my boss told me that I am being fired because the entire company is downsizing due to impending bankruptcy). Emotional granularity is like focusing the image in a camera. When we use these large category words like sad or happy or afraid or angry, the picture is quite blurry. As our language around the feelings gets more specific the image begins to sharpen. Experiences that we can identify clearly are less terrifying to sit in, perhaps less overwhelming as well.

2. Sit in the Suck - Once we recognize the suck, we have to make a choice to experience it. As with the instance of my Prague boyfriend, who we will now refer to as Praha, I refused to sit in the suck. It did suck that I lost this person who walked across the starlit bridges of Prague with me and danced under the moonlight alleys of a foreign country we both decided to call home for a time. It hurt that this magical connection that we shared in the deepest parts of winter, eating sushi and drinking tea, playing music, strolling through European streets untouched by World War II, going to sleep too drunk to feel the cold biting our ears on the walk home, waking up to the birds chirping as spring peaked through the windows and covers and kisses, dissolved as summer melted into fall and I moved back to Boston. I did what any woman on a mission might do. I sealed up my heart, my feelings, my thoughts, and left them in Prague. I didn’t sit in the suck. I ran away from the feelings and it took me far longer to get over the memory of what once was than I liked. I tried to fill my time and my heart up with other people, other experiences. I kept myself busy. I trained for half marathons endlessly. I forgot, but I did not forgive. If you run away from the suck, if you don’t acknowledge the hurt, you will never move passed it.

2a. Grieve - A corollary to sitting in the suck is giving yourself the time and space to grieve. This is different than feeling sorry for yourself. It’s not a pity party. Particularly when the forgiveness must come after two sides have parted ways - whether it’s romantic, platonic, professional - the loss of something does hurt. If you feel hurt or offended by something another person has done or said and they are no longer in your life, let yourself feel the sense of loss and sorrow attached with losing something special. I have found that it is only when I don’t allow myself to grieve that those feelings turn into resentments and prohibit me from being able to free myself from the weight of loss.

3. Boundaries - there is a difference between running away and setting clear boundaries. Boundaries are meant to protect you from recurring injury that would happen otherwise. Often times, they will include things like blocking people on social media, more for your own sake than as a vindictive action against another person. There was a span of months where I refused to bike down a specific street in New York, even though it was the fastest and safest way to get to where I was going, because I knew a particular person lived at a cross street along my route. It was a boundary I set for myself. I knew that any interaction would hurt my heart and lead me to the entrance of a downward spiral of upset and angry and vindictive. I didn’t want that. I wanted to move on and forgive myself for my shortcomings and the way I allowed things to devolve. Biking down that street would be akin to picking a scab that had only just begun to form. The one time I did bike down Bleecker at 6am when I was running late to an early morning class, I actually did bike past that particular person and it set me back. It reminded me why I set that boundary in the first place: to protect myself from the obsessive grip of self-defeating thoughts. We set boundaries for ourselves and we can set them for the other person. Boundaries can also look like “please refrain from coming to my place of work. Please don’t text me. Please don’t call me.”

4. See the whole picture - Especially in the height of feeling the emotions and sitting in the suck, it can be hard to take a step back and recognize the other side of the story. Most people, when they hurt us, are not purposefully trying to destroy our lives. Those people do exist, yes. I’m sure they wreak havoc on many people’s hearts. However, if the person or organization you seek to forgive is one that was once close to you, they probably did not realize how deeply their actions or words affected you. They most likely thought they were making the best choice in the given circumstances. Here is where our work on compassion and empathy come into play. Can we recognize that all humans, including ourselves, make mistake. Our decisions don’t always map out the way we thought they would. It is part of human nature to err. Perhaps it can be part of our nature as well to be kinder to ourselves and to others for being imperfect.

I love the holidays. When I lived in New York, my favorite part of the end of the year was the amount of unconditional love, understanding, and joy that seemed to radiate through a callus city. What I recognize now, 3000 miles away from the places that grew me, is the magic of forgiveness also lived inside this season for me. Forgiveness as an action and part of a lifestyle is not easy. A life, however, in which spite and anger and resentment tether us to the past doesn’t quite feel like a life at all. People are not perfect and that’s what makes them beautiful. Perhaps instead of holding ourselves and each other to achievable standards of perfection, we can forgive one another. Start over. Clean slate.