“Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering - remembering and not using your right to hit back.” ~Desmond Tutu
The truth of those words was brought crashing home nearly 20 years ago when my ex-husband and I were going through a sometimes brutal divorce. I believed in forgiveness. Intellectually, I knew I had to forgive him, but the thought of actually forgiving what felt like The Unforgivable and living it day by day seemed way out of reach. Back then, I mostly wanted to see him punished and eagerly offered to help god do it. I yearned for him to know what he had done and why it hurt so much. And more than anything, I wanted him to make it right, to acknowledge his wrong-doing, apologize, and beg my forgiveness. I wanted him to go first.
Life becomes easier when you learn to accept the apology you never got.
Most of us have been there at one time or another. The reality is, sometimes it just feels downright impossible to forgive. Despite reading books, working with a therapist, and listening to teachers, I just couldn’t quite get there. Not yet. It was too great a leap from where I was - self-righteously angry, beating myself up for being in this pickle, and helplessly unable forgive myself for not being to forgive him. My shredded ego and heart desperately wanted to believe I was the better person. I was trapped in my own web, stuck in a past I wanted to escape.
So what happens when you are just not ready or able to totally let go? You take baby steps, that’s what.
“Compassion is the pre-show warm-up for forgiveness.” ~ Kris Carr
For me, that first baby step consisted of moving from self-pity to self-compassion. I had to give up judging myself and trying to force an outcome based on the other person doing all the heavy lifting. I had to let go of the expectation that someone else should do what I thought they should. I had to let go of the expectation of what I thought I should do - I “should” forgive. I “should” be over it. I “should” let it go. I “should” be the bigger person. I had to let go of “should” in general.
It felt like free-falling.
The more we dwell on what we think anyone, including ourselves, should do, the more we tighten our own noose. Living in the Land of Should gets us nowhere, unless living with anger, bitterness, and hatred is appealing.
So I had to cut myself a little slack. As a goal-oriented business owner, my norm had been to set a goal, take action, and expect results. That had in no way prepared me for the gap I was facing between where I was and where I wanted to be in this forgiveness situation. I needed to press pause and just gather myself, let my jangly nerve endings settle a bit, and focus on soothing my hurt without nursing my hurt feelings.
“Unforgiveness keeps us in bondage with the person we haven’t forgiven. We have chained ourselves to them and to whatever they did by our own negative thoughts and outlook. The original unforgiveness and all the feelings and habits that have sprung up as a result consume us and there is literally no room for the love we so deeply desire.” ~Anne Wade
I had to start with forgiving myself for not being ready. I had to first get to the point of being able to say, “It’s OK if it isn’t instantaneous. I want to forgive and fully believe it will happen. And that I will heal along the way.” When we become physically ill, we accept that it takes time and care to get well again. When we have been dealt an emotional blow, it’s our process of forgiving that requires that healing time and care.
“Forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment. I call it a miracle medicine. It is free, it works and has no side effects. I believe with every fibre of my being that every human being has the right to live without the pain of the past. For most people there is a big obstacle to forgiveness because society expects revenge. It seems we need to honour our victims but I always wonder if my dead loved ones would want me to live with pain and anger until the end of my life.” ~ Eva Mozes Kor
What if the other person refuses to forgive?
Perhaps the biggest leap for me was realizing forgiveness didn’t depend on the other person’s actions. I could choose to forgive no matter what they did or didn’t do. This was about me and what was best for me. My responsibility was only for my own choices and actions. The moment that clicked was like a huge weight lifted and for the first time I felt like forgiveness was within my reach.
What if you are the person who needs to be forgiven?
As we grow through life, most of us can look back in horror at some act that can be attributed to not knowing what we know now. You can always apologize and ask for forgiveness. The timing is always right. The other person may offer it or not. They may be angry, relieved, or baffled depending on whether they are still hurting or have let it go and moved on. Regardless, forgive yourself and don’t worry about what the other person chooses to do. Respect their freewill right to choose for themselves as part of your own process.
I believe forgiveness has three phases:
1. Cut the cords that ensnare you one by one. Release yourself from your judgment of how you “should” forgive. Release the other person from they did. And release yourself from the feelings you have carried as a result.
2. Allow yourself to feel completely neutral about what happened. Think of it like 7th grade - it happened, it sucked, and it’s over, in the past, and it’s OK for it to stay there. Stop dredging it up. When it bubbles to surface in thought or conversation – and it probably will for a while - acknowledge it and gently but firmly change the subject.
3. Find something, anything, from the experience to be grateful about. In the case of my divorce, it was my awesome and amazing children who were in my life because this relationship had once existed.
For more thoughts on forgiveness and to download our free forgiveness guide, click HERE.
“Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us... Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, they will hold the keys to our happiness, they will be our jailor.” ~ Desmond & Mpho Tutu
In their new book, The Book of Forgiving, Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho share what they are believe are the 4 essential steps of forgiving:
1. Telling the Story
2. Naming the Hurt
3. Granting Forgiveness
4. Renewing or Releasing the Relationship
Take note – telling the story and naming the hurt are not a free pass to corner everyone you meet with your personal tale of woe. Instead, they are permission for you to acknowledge that this happened, that it hurt like hell, and that you choose not to remain a prisoner.
To learn about or join Desmond Tutu’s Forgiveness Challenge, click HERE.
My own personal forgiveness challenge changed my life in ways I am still discovering all these many years later.
I’ve joined the challenge. Won’t you?
“With each act of forgiveness, whether great or small, we move towards wholeness.” ~ Desmond Tutu
More about forgiveness HERE