Forgiveness is not a simple reflexive process. True forgiveness means letting go of all hurts. To release ourselves from the past and live fully in the present. It is an emotional process that can take time and certainly awareness and inner strength.
We all make mistakes and we all would like to be forgiven, and to live within the heart of other people, especially those we care for deeply. What if we all truly learn to forgive? What kind of dent would that make in the anger, rage, frustration, and fear that hold so many people captive?
How Many People Learn Forgiveness
Learning how to forgive, like so many of our behaviours, starts at home. What we learn depends on the principles of forgiveness that our parents and other primary caregivers hold. These are likely the same ones they were taught themselves, modelled down the generations. The point here is not to place blame; rather, it is to show how ingrained it is. How we forgive – whether we can or cannot – probably doesn’t get much thought.
Here are a couple of scenarios to illustrate how many people are taught forgiveness.
Andrea adores her older sister Amy. She finds everything Amy does and has fascinating, magical even. Amy however has told Andrea in no uncertain terms never to touch any of her stuff. One afternoon while Amy is at school, Andrea finds one of her sister’s books on the couch. Wow, it’s about dragons! She starts to flip through it and then a few pages fall out. Later Amy finds her torn book and runs to their mom, crying, yelling, and blaming her sister. Their mom asks Andrea if she has ripped the pages and if so to say sorry. Andrea tries to defend herself and in the end is made to say sorry. Even though she doesn’t feel it’s her fault, she also doesn’t want her sister to be mad at her. Their mom then prompts Amy to forgive her little sister. Amy does so begrudgingly. Both girls are sent to their rooms. Both girls sulk for the rest of the day.
Out of nowhere, Adam runs into the living room and kicks his older brother. Tom jumps up and chases down his brother and starts to hit him. Just then their mom walks into the room. She yells at Tom, who tries to explain that he’s not the one who’s started it. Nevertheless his mom demands he say sorry to Adam, who is standing behind her, grinning ear to ear. Because as the oldest, he should know better. He is also bigger and can really hurt his brother. Tom is reminded that as the older brother, it’s his job to look after his brother, no matter what.
How Did You Learn to Forgive?
Do these examples sound familiar? Maybe you are the parent in one of these scenarios. When sibling squabbling and rivalry are often dealt with in this way, is it surprising that many of us do not learn how to truly forgive? We’ve probably learned to hide what we do better, not get caught, and hold grudges.
Wrapped up in these forgiveness exercises are the birth of many beliefs, feelings of shame, doubts about belonging, for example. The world is not fair. No one listens to me. It sucks being the oldest. It sucks being the youngest. It totally sucks being the middle child. He/she is their favourite child. I always get blamed.
Swap the sexes in the scenarios, some additional beliefs and lessons learned may include “boys don’t cry” or “girls don’t hit.”
If we learn how to truly forgive as children, and even as adults now, the results are transformative. Instead of raging against an unfair world, feeling unbelonging or unworthy or fighting to be heard or to be right, we learn the beauty of right relationships, with ourselves and with others. It’s a foundation stone for self-love and respect for others.
What Does True Forgiveness Mean?
Forgiveness is releasing ourselves from hurt, resentment, and being victims. It means letting go of the need to be right, at any cost.
We forgive for ourselves. So that we can live in the present, live our lives more fully. What we are not doing is excusing or condoning the offending behaviour or fall into a delusion about who the person is, while also allowing for both our evolution. Like Caroline Myss teaches, we boundary out the behaviour, not the person. It’s an important distinction.
At the highest level true forgiveness is embodied in the beautifut word – namaste. The divinity in me honours the divinity in you. True forgiveness is to remember that our earthly incarnation is more than it appears. Everyone plays a role in our lives. Whether as friends or foes, ultimately everyone is part of our soul family here to ignite and support our awakening. We are all connected and we are all divine. Through forgiveness, we create a space on the human level allowing for the divine to be expressed. Let’s call it a portal.
Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
So yes, forgiveness is also for the other person. When we can truly forgive, we understand that we all come in with our individual and collective wounds. While it does not excuse the choices people make, we acknowledge that the playing field is not even. Circumstances such as early childhood experiences can compel people to feel life is not fair and they have no choice. When we release them energetically, we are cutting cords and dissolving those daggers we have thrown their way. And they do feel a release, perhaps even inspiration to turn their lives around.
Mark Nepo suggests we also need to look at how these conditions are created. Why is mental health so fragile these days? Why is opioid addiction so rampant? Or why is there so much anger and rage?
We often talk about forgiving others even though the person we may struggle most to forgive is ourselves.
How often do you think of the past? Do you perhaps blame yourself for letting something happen? We may ruminate over “what ifs”. What if I turned left instead of right? What if I only stayed home that night? What if we didn’t move to this town? This only eats at us, leaving us in turmoil and without peace. This is hell.
While most of us feel that “an eye for an eye” will only make the world blind, we still want the world to be fair. We need to know good triumphs and is rewarded.
It is not uncommon for someone to still want the other person to suffer as they have. Just as good must be rewarded, so must wrongdoing be punished. Isn’t it only fair for the other person to reel from the same pain? To have their dreams dashed, to feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them, and to just feel like crap?
The Shadow Making True Forgiveness a Challenge
You may have heard that other people are our mirrors. Everyone reflects an aspect of who we are. What we struggle with in other people are those aspects we do not like about ourselves and have secreted away.
Every new encounter with ourselves and others, every deed that we do or refuse to do, is a step in our perpetual transformation.
Part of why forgiveness is so challenging may be because of all these parts that we hate. On a subconscious level, we are punishing ourselves for having the same failings as those who have wronged us. Or perhaps it’s because they reflect who we are and remind us all that we want to forget. We want to quash it so that the evil finds no outlet. So that no one else clues in to what lies hidden from the light of day within us.
Because if they do, they’ll only realize how unloveable we are and the imposters we are. That is why we have stuffed into the shadow everything we somehow decided is wrong with us. [hint – this is not who we are in truth. It is part of our journey to remembering ourselves as love and it’s time to unlearn all this programming!]
To help us forgive, it is essential to delve into what exactly is triggering us. We must recognize that we project those undesirable traits onto other people. If we question the origins of why we find these parts so distasteful, we may be surprised by our exploration. Perhaps we have suppressed them because of a belief we have absorbed and adopted as a child without the full comprehension of the nuances and the real working of the situation. Forgiveness is an act of love by our our true self, rather than our small self.
Let us all forgive ourselves. Until we arrive at the truth there is nothing to forgive.
How Do We Forgive Hitler?
In most conversations about forgiveness, it inevitably turns to how do we forgive people who have violated others or have taken lives. Drunk drivers. School shootings. And what about those who have committed unimaginable crimes against humanity? Or brought destruction through colonialism and imperialism? What about the government internment of citizens of Japanese ancestry? Perhaps it’s someone like Hitler or groups like the Khmer Rouge, governments, or the blanket “white people”. How do we end genocides?
Yerachmiel Gorelik writes about the role of teshuvah or repentance in forgiveness according to Jewish teachings. A lecturer of Philosophy of Traditional Judaism at the Colorado State University, Yerachmiel Gorelik shares in his article Exploring the Complexities of Forgiveness how the perpetrator cannot expect forgiveness unless sincere efforts are made to ask for it. This includes self-examination, confession, and feeling remorse.
He concludes that due to the enormity of what the Nazis have done, the level of the teshuvah required, and the lack of such efforts, forgiveness cannot be granted. Those who perished in the Holocaust are not alive to give forgiveness and their families cannot offer it in their place. Doing so, he writes, would be “to dishonor the victims of the Holocaust and to degrade our own moral compass.”
However, survivors like Eva Mozes Kor have that choice and have forgiven the Nazis. Founder of CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Eva Kor is a forgiveness advocate and the author of Surviving the Angel of Death: The True Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz.
Can forgiveness be given to those who didn’t ask for it? Can people who were not wronged directly give forgiveness? Do we have the right?
Perhaps instead of asking if we can forgive Hitler, we should first ask, “who can I forgive? Who can I not forgive and why?” Surely there are people we can first forgive, before delving into such complex questions. Forgiveness is a process and just because we are unable to forgive people such as Hitler, pedophiles, and trophy hunters of endangered animals, it does not mean true forgiveness is “broken”.
What we as “outsiders” can do is hold space, heal the lands energetically, and not add fuel to the fire by fear- and hate-mongering. We can also look at why we ourselves are so angry, what is being mirrored to us? What parts of ourselves can we not forgive? We have work to do ourselves.
Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear.
My personal opinion is that reparations needs to be separate from forgiveness. On an individual level as with a amicable divorce settlement or on a large-scale agreement to the aboriginal survivors of Canada’s residential schools. Even though these financial arrangements cannot fully compensate for the suffering, shame, and immense loss, the wronged are being acknowledged.
Reparations do not erase the emotional trauma. Forgiveness, we must remember, is not to excuse or condone the violence, violations, and voiding of peoples.
If we continue to come to the table, angry at the past, how do we change the present? Those who committed these crimes may no longer be present. Do we continue to rage against their descendants? And is this what we want our legacy to be, passing our trauma to future generations?
Forgiveness in these cases understandably may take lifetimes and generations. It has to be given fully and willingly. All points of grievances must be listened to respectfully and addressed.
Here’s How to Teach Children & Ourselves Forgiveness
Child development expert Maurren Healy shares that there are five steps to forgiveness.
- Acknowledge what’s happened
- Experience your feelings, rather than suppress them.
- Communicate that you want to forgive
- Forgive by saying what you don’t want to hold onto any longer. This could be anger, resentment, or frustration.
- Let it go. Release it to the Universe, your concept of source. It may be Jesus, nature, Great Spirit.
As parents and caretakers, it is essential to take time and be patient with the process. Both sides need to be heard fully to uncover the underlying causes of bickering and fighting. Children need to be encouraged to explore their feelings, not to suppress them, or to ridicule how other people feel. Through true forgiveness, children can learn to take other people’s feelings into consideration and to listen better.
Raising children is no easy task, undoing all the old programming, so bravo and thank you. Parenting also reveals our own biases, beliefs, triggers, and wounds. These are time bombs that can distort our true perspectives, destroy relationships, and block us from fulfillment. It’s time to purge all that we once thought was true and realizing nope, it’s just a construct of old beliefs that no longer work.
What to Remember about Forgiveness
- Take your time. It’s important to recognize, honour, and experience all your feelings about what’s happened. This is so you can get to what’s at the core of your wound. Teach children that they have a right to feel what they do and not to belittle their own feelings or those of others.
- Forgiveness is unconditional and complete. It’s not an opportunity for bartering as in “I’ll forgive you if you do [this].” Nor is it to extract the same from the other person.
- Learning to forgive is also learning how to listen to another person’s perspective, understanding that there is more than our side of the story, being more skilled at reconciliation with integrity, and seeing how being right is not as important as having right relationships.
A Forgiveness Prayer
If I have harmed anyone in any way either knowingly or unknowingly through my own confusions I ask for their forgiveness.
If anyone has harmed me in any way either knowingly or unknowingly through their own confusions I forgive them.
And if there is any situation I am not yet ready to forgive I forgive myself for that.
For all the way I harm myself, negate, doubt, belittle myself judge or be unkind to myself through my own confusions I forgive myself.
Forgiveness even in small matters can be a struggle for many people. We are not hurt only because someone broke our favourite pen. There is more going on. We are complex emotional and social beings. When we live from our ego and small self, we are easily pained, calling up all the childhood slights, ancestral wounds, and past life trauma.
Challenges are opportunities for us to pause and look at our lives. Maybe it is to remember we are spiritual beings in a human form and we have orchestrated life for growth. From this perspective, we understand there is nothing to forgive. We are all here to play out a role agreed to, no matter how unsavoury that personality is on the human level.
Whatever the scale of the behaviour, forgiveness is always available. We also cannot judge ourselves or others if at this time we are not able to release ourselves or the other person into the present. True forgiveness is both simple and complex. As is the journey of a soul as a human.