The only thing worse than being hurt by someone we love is the terrifying realization that, if we ever want to have peace of mind again, we have to forgive them.
Forgiveness is a tricky thing. On the one hand, it can seem a little bit like a defeat. We want to pretend that the other person has no power over us, that we can just move on our way without them, and when we make the move toward forgiveness we admit a weakness in ourselves, namely that we are somehow not complete without the love or presence of the other. But on the other hand, forgiveness implies that we are ready to move on, to forget what’s past and move ahead, perhaps as if nothing ever happened; of course, it depends on the hurt caused, but in my experience when I’m tempted to move toward forgiveness it isn’t because I’m necessarily ready to move on as if nothing ever happened.
For a long time, I thought I was supposed to forgive because it would somehow benefit the other person. It might reassure them that I didn’t hate them, that I wanted them around, and that it might set the other party free from whatever anguish or guilt I presumed they were experiencing because of what they had said or done to me. Living as if I possessed some hidden knowledge of the other’s inner life and disposition is preposterous, a position totally disconnected from reality.
With the help of a good counselor, I was able to see that forgiveness was not for the other person, but for me. It allowed me to walk the path of healing with a kind of freedom that a grudge-ridden heart cannot know. Forgiveness becomes one of the crucial steps toward freedom, and in this context forgiveness goes from being nice to something quite necessary for our own human flourishing; at least, anyway, if we are interested in free, wholehearted living.
In this light, forgiveness isn’t a matter of “forgetting what happened” or “learning to move on” from something hurtful. It means to begin the path of healing in your own heart and life by simply acknowledging that this thing actually happened. This is reality. Yes, it was hurtful; yes, it was unexpected; yes, it was damaging; but more than anything: yes, it was real.
Yes, he really said that. Yes, we really had that fight. Yes, I really feel this way. But, look: I’m still here. Yes, I’m feeling stronger. Yes, I learned something about myself. Yes, I’m okay.
And because this person didn’t kill me, didn’t destroy me, didn’t take away my ability to be me, I can forgive them. I can acknowledge the reality of the situation and deal with whatever carnage it has created. I’m not doing this so that they can know and see how strong I am, as if it was something I owe them; I’m doing it so that I can learn about me, grow more into me, and be free.
In his book Disarming Beauty, Julian Carrón defines freedom as the “ability to be ourselves according to reality.” It doesn’t mean to have everything totally figured out, to have all of our kinks and downfalls perfectly understood and settled, but to say, “This is me. This is who I am. This is what I’ve got going on. And you know? I’m okay.”
Forgiveness is about me, not about the other person. This might seem selfish, but the freer I become to be myself and to live in reality, the more free I become to receive the other in an open spirit of gratitude and be for them the support they were not able to be for me. The process of healing, which many times must begin with forgiveness, is not a selfish one because it allows us to be more open, more radically available for communion with others, even, amazingly, with the people who have hurt us the most.
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