I participated in a good discussion last week about forgiveness. Okay, I admit it was with two of my nieces on Facebook, but it was a good conversation nonetheless. We went back and forth trying to define forgiveness and as it turns out it’s easier to describe what forgiveness isn’t than it is to define what it is. And, that got me thinking.
For years I didn’t get the concept of forgiveness because I was stuck on something. I thought that if I said I forgave someone that would mean that I was saying what they did to me was okay, or that I deserved it, or that it was all right to tread on me without any consequences. So, I didn’t forgive and instead I carried the burden around while (seemingly) my perpetrators happily skipped along never giving their bad acts a second thought. The possibility that they weren’t suffering just made me more hurt and frustrated. I once heard that not forgiving was like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I was definitely drinking enough poison for the both of us.
So, I decided it might be a good idea to find a definition of forgiveness that resonated with me so that I could actually do it. Here’s what I came up with. I decided that in spite of what anyone had done to me and in spite of any good fortune that may come their way, I would have the best life I could create. I told myself that no matter what happens to them (good, bad, or indifferent) it will have no bearing on whether I’m able to move through the hurt and come out the other side. If the other person never apologizes, never throws themselves at my feet begging for my forgiveness, or never takes out a full-page ad in USA Today detailing the 101 ways they stink and I’m great, I’ll be fine. I decided in that moment that forgiveness to me was leaving their bad acts and intentions piled up on the sidewalk for them to collect if and when they wanted. And, I decided that in my definition of forgiveness it would make no difference to me whether or not I ever knew what they did with their stack of ugly.
I also decided that I could never really hurt someone enough for hurting me. What I mean by that is no matter what I did to the other person it wouldn’t erase my sense of betrayal or disappointment. As much as I wanted to believe that my creative daydreams about their ultimate ruin, public embarrassment, or financial disaster would make me feel better if they came true, I knew that wasn’t the case. Wishing ill on others did nothing to erase the acts for which I needed to forgive so I decided just to let life take care of that. Oh, and there’s one more thing. I also gave myself permission to let go of the need for an explanation. A smart guy once told me about a disappointment from his childhood and then said, “My parents did what they did.” I expected him to continue with the standard line about parents doing the best they could with what they had at the time and was surprised when he didn’t. I asked why he stopped short of a full explanation and he replied because his parents didn’t do the best they could. They just did what they did! He went on to say that there would never be a reason sound enough or big enough or perfect enough that would pull everything together for him and make the situation hurt less. Like I said, he’s a smart guy.
Fast forward. I finally came to the conclusion that forgiveness is something I give myself. I don’t need to know everything about everything in order to forgive. I know that my definition needs to make sense for me even if doesn’t work for anyone else. Whew, what a relief! What definitions or approaches to forgiveness have helped or hindered you?
In a recently published paper, experts in decision making Dolly Chugh, Katherine L. Milkman, and Max Bazerman asked an important question, “How Can Decision Making Be Improved?” (PDF): We propose...By Diane J. Levin