Forgiving those who have wronged us is one of the most difficult things we ever do. It is also one of the most healing.
The choice is ours.
Especially as the High Holidays approach and we begin to account for our past actions and behaviors in an effort to improve ourselves in the coming year, we can choose to hold on to our injuries, or we can begin the work of forgiving – not for the sake of the other, but for our own sake. As the theologian Lewis Smedes writes, “When we forgive, we come as close as any human being can to the essentially divine act of creation. For we create a new beginning out of past pain…”
As I’ve thought about how to reach the place inside that allows us to lay down the burdens that come with being wronged, I’ve gleaned five truths about forgiveness.
1. Forgiveness is a step-by-step process, not a single event.
Forgiveness involves a gradual peeling away, layer by layer, of accumulated hurt, rage, resentment, grief, and regret, as well as a sense of betrayal and a desire for revenge, with the ultimate goal of reopening the heart to compassion, love, wisdom, and harmony. True forgiveness doesn’t paper over what happened to us, nor does it suppress or ignore our pain.
2. Forgiveness requires making a courageous choice.
Forgiveness is not about forgetting, pardoning, condoning, falsely reconciling, or appeasing an aggressor or wrongdoer. Drawing from the Bhagavad Gita, Eknath Easwaran writes, “If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred.”
Mahatma Gandhi teaches, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Viktor Frankl, the renowned Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, writes, “Between a stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lays our growth and our freedom. The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
3. Forgiveness requires a belief in our basic goodness.
Forgiveness needs to be anchored in the belief that each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image, and that we have an innate capacity for wisdom, purity, goodness, and love. Noble birth doesn’t mean, of course, that we always behave morally, only that we can aspire to do better, even after being wronged.
4. Forgiveness frees us.
When we hold on to our anger and resentment, we bind ourselves to the person who hurt us. The only means to dissolve that link is through forgiveness – letting go.
If we say, “I’ll never forgive that person,” we consign ourselves to a prison in which we’re both the jailor and the prisoner.
When asked if he could ever forgive the Chinese for occupying Tibet, the Dalai Lama is said to have replied, “They’ve already taken my country. Why should I let them have my mind, too?”
5. Before we can forgive others, we have to feel fully the injury.
Negative emotions stay inside us, buried, and they’ll rear their heads when we least expect it. That is why we have to feel fully the injury we have sustained and grieve as if we have suffered the death of a loved one. After an appropriate time of mourning, we can reconstitute our lives.
To make forgiveness possible, we need to strive to understand how a hurt fits into the rest of our lives, how it’s changed us and our worldview, and how it has closed our hearts. Our willingness to change and then to see the world through a more positive lens allows us to open our hearts to others and frees us from the debilitating fear of being hurt again.
Forgiveness requires us to be honest with ourselves about what has happened to us and to see past hurt in the larger context of who we have become. As we do this, forgiveness puts us back on track toward restoring our integrity and dignity.
The Jewish attitude toward forgiveness may be best summed up in a traditional prayer said at bedtime each night:
Creator of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me – whether against my body, my property, my honor, or anything of mine; whether done accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration – I forgive every Jew and every person.
May no person be punished because of me. May it be Your will, Adonai, my God and the God of my ancestors, that I may sin no more. Whatever transgressions I have done before You, may You blot out in Your abundant mercies, but not through suffering or bad illness.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.