The Hard Won Sanity of Forgiveness
Oh man, yes, I'm tackling the F-word, the holy grail of spiritual achievement, coveted by the righteous-seeking the world over, the word that makes us both relieved and cringe at the same time, the big one, yes, forgiveness.
Forgiveness has always been a hard subject for me. Maybe it's because I'm fiery, definitely because I'm sensitive, and positively because I'm Italian. I often think of the movie Moonstruck starring Her Majesty, Cher. There's a scene where Cher is standing in an airport watching her fiancée's plane take off and she's speaking with an Old Italian woman dressed in black. The abridged and highly paraphrased conversation is as follows:
Cher (looking fabulous) to the Old Lady (looking pissed): "You know someone on that plane?"
Old Lady (still looking pissed) to Cher (continuing to look fabulous): "My sister's on that plane, I put a curse on that plane. 30 years ago she took a man from me, then she tells me she never loved him, she did it out of spite. I curse that plane that it falls in the ocean."
This scene always made me chuckle as you often hear this type of story in an Italian family: "20 years ago they didn't come to the wake" or "10 years ago their dog pooed on our lawn" or "30 years ago (it's always a matter of decades in these stories even if it only happened last week) she gave me a funny look" or whatever. And, you never, ever, let it go. Letting go of the grudge means you lost the battle, you surrendered, game over. And, in a nutshell, this is why it can feel so hard to forgive. We can't let that other person win. We need to sink their battleship with the all important, crushing weapon of "being right". There's an odd sense of anticipated safety in that feeling of rightness that interestingly enough never really materializes. We think that being right will make us more secure, but we find that it actually undermines our sense of security. Why? Because in being right now we have to defend how right we are. We have to bring out all the things that happened, recount them, make storyboards to illustrate, dredging up all the hurt and insecurity which we are trying to heal by being right. The need to be right produces the opposite effect of what we think it will.
And this need to be right and blame is amusing in a little scene from a cute movie, or recollections from innocuous family drama. It's more hurtful and serious in every day life and not so innocuous family drama, and horrifyingly destructive when taken into the realm of human warfare and terrorism. That sense of needing to win, getting one up, is one of the most catastrophic neuroses in the human condition.
For my own journey, to truly forgive, I had to realize that it didn't mean I was letting myself or anyone else off the hook for past transgressions. Forgiveness actually meant completely owning my actions, words, and behavior and holding others accountable to their actions, words, and behavior as well. And after taking ownership, and making any amends necessary, I had to decide that for my own health to put the past back in the past exactly as it was. I had to be able to see that no amount of grudge holding, resentment, bitterness, curses, or "30 years ago" stories were going to change what had happened. It was done. That was reality. That was the truth. The necessary and relevant decision became: Do I continue to hurt myself, my life, my body, my mind, my family, my friends, by holding onto useless resentment that cannot change anything?
Forgiveness, for me, doesn't happen easily or naturally. I really, really, really. . .
like to be right.
But in the end, I had to take the journey to forgiveness as a purely selfish act. I wanted desperately to live without the handcuffs of bitterness and resentment. I wanted to be free. When you want to be free more than anything, and you are willing to take a genuine path to get there, then forgiveness must eventually come. The desire to be free can eventually trump the need to be right but we have to make the conscious decision that being free is more important. When we begin to heal, when we love ourselves and care for ourselves, the desire to be free becomes overpowering in its strength. It is the call of our true nature harkening us back to a place of balance.
For me, this is a long and continuing journey, this whole forgiveness thing. I have learned a lot, and continue to learn a lot along the way. Here are ideas I've learned on the journey that really help me:
1. You don't have to be best buddies with people you forgive. I have forgiven many people who are no longer actively in my life. I used to feel a lot of guilt about that, that somehow because I forgave them I should call them up, get us on an OWN Network special, cry for hours as we embraced, and then make a weekly tea date. But forgiveness is a selfish act of freeing our minds from the numerous burdens of holding a grudge. We don't need to announce to everyone we need to forgive that we forgive them, they may not even think that they need to be forgiven. This is an act done purely for the sake of our own karma. It's different if someone specifically asks you for forgiveness, then of course there's a necessary interaction. There are also times when our karma requires more interaction, or, we just really love the person and they come back easily and naturally into our lives. I've had friendships that were split up for many years that came back together with such ease it was clear forgiveness meant us to be in each other's lives. But always check in with yourself: does this particular situation require you to involve another person or is it your karma you need to clear for yourself?
2. Forgiving is not condoning hurtful, mean, or stupid behavior in ourselves or in others. I have done some dumb things in my life. I have ended relationships less than gracefully, I have lied, and I have hurt some people for whom I cared deeply. As I forgive myself for those past hurts, I am not saying, "it was ok to do that". In fact, self-forgiveness is a major step of personal accountability. It says, "I accept and know that I have caused suffering and I own every one of my choices." When we own our choices, we can then take right action on making amends if that is needed. Once we have taken right action, then, regardless of the outcome it is time to put the whole thing down. We learn for the next time, we know now that we have clear vision we can do better the next time. We can accept our own precious and flawed humanity along with our remarkable ability to grow and learn. Forgiveness in accountability clears the fog from the glass so we can see how to make a better choice the next time around.
And on the other side of the coin, there have been people in my past who have hurt me a great deal with actions or words. Forgiving some of them seemed almost impossible until I really asked myself the major question of forgiveness, "How long do I want to go on hurting myself by trying to be right in this situation?" That question seals the deal for me. I let go of the hurts, sometimes begrudgingly I'll admit, because I do not want to hold my life back by uselessly trying to punish someone with my own internal resentment. I have found that after making this selfish decision, past situations lighten up pretty quickly. It opens the space for deeper healing, for the ability to purge some of my own karma, and to see others with much more compassion and love. As we forgive for ourselves, we begin to see others more tenderly and can offer more compassion and less condemnation.
3. Completed forgiveness doesn't mean that you still sometimes don't get angry or sad about the situation. Jen Houghtaling, my good friend who co-directs yoga teacher training with me, made this point during a discussion about forgiveness during our teacher training course this past year. It's such an important idea and one that has helped me relax quite a bit with forgiveness. There are times, when we are sad, lonely, tired, hungry, or just randomly where we feel that old angry resentment sneaking back up on us. Fear not, it doesn't mean we lost at forgiveness. It just means we're human! And I have found that when those feelings creep back in, they are much easier to release. We know who they are, they're not new, they're just coming in for a visit. Relax; know that when you truly forgive in your heart, that sense of intractable resentment will go. Forgiveness is a living process not a college degree. We are always being asked to make the choice to let go, to see ourselves as powerful creators and not helpless victims, to make choices in perception regarding the reality that is before us.
4. Most importantly, don't pretend you have forgiven when you have not. The journey to and through forgiveness can be quite long. We aren't bad people, or poor spiritual aspirants, if we have a situation in which it is hard to forgive. That journey to true forgiveness has a lot to teach us. On that journey we will make self-discoveries and clear vast amounts of karma. That will help us do better with others in the future and reflect healthier situations back into our lives. Be brutally honest with yourself on the journey because you need to go through the full journey to complete forgiveness in order to heal. And as hard as that journey can be, the lessons it will teach us are so necessary and precious we do ourselves a massive disservice in trying to evade them. And if you really can't forgive, no big deal. It's better to be honest about that than to allow spiritual guilt to push you into something that is inauthentic. Authentic unforgiveness is better than inauthentic forgivenss. As long as there is honesty, and authenticty, there remains the possiblity of evolution, health, and growth.