The best definition I know for forgiveness is “giving up all hope for a better past”. Our definition from the Stanford Forgiveness Projects is “forgiveness is making peace with the word no”. Both definitions underscore that forgiveness is about our current experience and involves letting go of ways of holding our pasts that cause extra suffering. When one forgives a burden is released, our suffering lifts and we generally become happier and more optimistic. Simply put it is stressful and tiring to argue with how our lives have unfolded. It is bad for our physical and mental health to remain wanting the past to be different as we spoil our chance for happiness in the present. That simple process explains why grievances can cause lasting harm and forgiveness can help us release the past and find peace.
Forgiveness is not about condoning unkindness. Forgiveness is about facing the reality that unkindness has occurred, having the strength to grieve that wound, and then having the wisdom the let that wound go. It is a sign of strength to forgive because it requires that we acknowledge a wrong was done, that we were harmed and that we now do not need to define ourselves by our wounds and can release them. In a nutshell forgiveness means giving up one’s claim to victim status so that one is free to enjoy the beauty and goodness that life offers. Victim status means that someone else is responsible for my happiness or well being now. That I am too weak or burdened to take responsibility for my current life experience. A victim needs someone to blame for why they can’t
Be happy today. They do so because it is difficult to grieve our wounds and thereby emerge from painful experiences wiser and with a stronger belief in one’s power to heal and move on.
Forgiveness also does not mean that we have to reconcile with the offender. Sometimes forgiveness facilitates reconciliation and sometimes forgiveness opens the heart so we can end a relationship in peace. Forgiveness is the mental and emotional release of a grudge while reconciliation is the re-bonding of a relationship. When a marital partner has cheated often the couple reconciles but the heart is not clean so they argue and mistrust. Sometimes after an affair the offended party fully releases the offense but knows in their heart the relationship is over .
Finally forgiveness does not mean that one can’t seek justice. Letting go of bitterness and opening one’s heart back up to life do not preclude criminal charges if necessary, learning to be assertive when needed and saying no when appropriate. I highlight in classes that one can make sure to go to court to force delinquent spouse pays child support without a hard heart or bitterness. One can hold onto the positive motivation of protecting one’s child rather than focus on the errant spouse. Bitterness often warps our judgment and makes us confuse revenge and destruction with justice.
At the Stanford Forgiveness Projects we teach 4 primary practices to help people forgive. No one can be forced to forgive…it is always a choice. We tend to entice folks to do so by telling them of the physical and mental health benefits forgiveness offers and the destructive effects of blame and hostility. The simplest forgiveness intervention is gratitude. It is learning to appreciate the beauty and goodness in one’s life. Our nervous systems prioritize negative inputs and experiences and so we must consciously look for the good. We teach folks to look for kindness and beauty and to offer thanks. Gratitude is the opposite of a grievance. Instead of saying a life experience is awful we say thank for life experiences. It is a disquieting fact that un Forgiveness is often a gratitude problem because we over focus on past negativity while ignoring present blessings. In fact each moment of our lives is our accounting of whether or not we have enough positive life experiences to not take such offense at emerging negative ones.
The second forgiveness strategy is to quiet the nervous system whoever a grudge announces itself in your mind or body. Simple deep abdominal breathing will counter condition the stress response which has been conditioned to the grudge. If one adds as a practice bringing an image to mind of someone one loves to the abdominal breathing we can soon gain some control of our nervous system. As we do this we think better and we reduce the pull of victim hood. If we are willing to intercept the adrenaline’s response soon with practice we get less upset and aroused at the misfortunes of our past this a a powerful way to take responsibility for our physical and emotional wellbeing.
The third simple practice is to remind one self that the world does not have to give me what I want when I want it. A corollary is that people do not owe us specific behaviors just because it is important to us. This is a kind stoic reminder about reality and the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy that our expectations and self talk have a lot to do with how long and how much we suffer. The compassionate reminder is in a world of unimaginable suffering and difficulties I am not exempt nor am I the center of a universe that has to obey my demands.
Finally the heart of forgiveness is to stop telling a story of victimhood and disempowerment and craft a story of healing and release. The story we tell is entirely up to us and we suffer both the consequences and rewards of the stories we choose to tell. It is important to remember that telling a woe is me story is an important part of the grief process. Being angry is an important part of grief as is exploring one’s helplessness and vulnerability. Grieving precedes forgiveness and the central change is altering the victim story to one of healing, resilience and/or growth.
Forgiveness is essentially a change in story. The story provides the meaning one makes of one’s life and forgiveness is giving up a story of victimhood or blame for a healthier story. We suggest that folks experiment with different stories so that we quickly see that there are many stories and we choose the one we highlight. Then with further experimentation we see how differently we feel with different story. Finally we recognize that the key to making peace with our lives centers on a story that is grateful, accepting and oriented towards growth.