I don’t feel terribly qualified to write on this subject but it is one I feel very passionate about. Relative to Terry Waite and some of the other remarkable human beings I have read about, my first hand experience of forgiveness feels almost amateur, and I guess that’s the case for many of us, but the bitterness he speaks about and the harm this can do to those who hold it rings true even for far more minor grievances.
To forgive is to understand why and let go of the hope that that life could have been different. As Oprah Winfrey says, it is not to ‘accept’ what happens, that’s different. ‘Acceptance’ conjures up an image of ‘keeping’ whatever it is that has happened with you like a part of you. Letting go has more of a sense of setting free the hope and expectations you may have had. True forgiveness means permanently letting go. If we find ourself saying “I forgive but I can’t forget”, have we truly forgiven?
For years I have struggled to forgive my own father for falling so far short of my expectations of what a father should be. As I write this I am doubting I have truly forgiven him, and I hope as a result of some naval gazing and self exploration I can make the final shift I know I have resisted. Not entirely for his sake, but for mine, although I don’t doubt it would give him a sense of relief too!
There is perhaps no greater test of our ability to forgive than when someone we love is taken, killed or murdered. In these situations it seems that the only way to find peace is to forgive, perhaps because if you don’t, you are literally eaten up with the hurt and anger. Browsing through youtube clips I was struck by the father of a victim of a serial killer in Canada speaking at the murder trial of his daughters killer. The footage speaks for itself https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIkywrKVWAo. I have to admit, I can easily imagine myself reacting just as many of the other distraught family members, but it’s clear to see that recovery ultimately lies on the other side of forgiveness.
To forgive you don’t need to condone, but you do need to gain a depth of understanding so that you can start to see what has happened through different eyes. There are many brutal, humbling, heart warming tales of forgiveness described on the website of an amazing charitable organisation; The Forgiveness Project (http://theforgivenessproject), and most involve a journey of self exploration, deep understanding and a recognition that within each of us lies both the victim and the potential perpetrator.
Hopefully most of us will never be tested in the way the contributors to The Forgiveness Project have been tested, but I think there is value in exploring these extreme examples of forgiveness and then bringing what we learn into our lives. Being able to forgive the small day to day stuff is just as important, because holding on to any kind of disappointment for too long doesn’t serve anyone, least of all the person clinging on to it! I guess it’s easier to live with the small nuggets of bitterness and anger than the huge ones but that doesn’t make it healthy!
It’s human nature to feel disappointed and angry but that is clearly only part of the process. The path to feeling ok again seems to clearly lie in forgiveness. I hope, if like me you have a few forgiveness challenges lurking about, that reading this might help you to reflect on what you might be holding on to and how good it might feel to let go!