A Quest for Forgiveness

“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Mark Twain

“Before we can forgive one another, we have to understand one another.” Emma Goldman

“The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.” Thomas Szasz

“Forget what hurt you, but never forget what it taught you.” (unknown)

If someone were to flip through my notebook of quotations, they’d notice that the last couple pages are full of quotations about forgiveness. It seems that, at this point in my life, the concept of forgiveness has been turning up a bit more frequently.

I admit that, for me, forgiveness is kinda like rock-climbing or, say, travelling across the Arctic via paddling and portaging, like Adam Shoalts in his captivating book “Beyond the Trees: a journey alone across Canada’s Arctic.” I enjoy reading books on the topic and it’s easy to get information as I’m reclining on my couch or waiting at a bus stop, but I’d rather not deal with it in real life. And yet… I have, in fact, been pleasantly surprised at the outcome after the hard work that often goes with forgiveness (as for paddling or rock-climbing, I’ll still leave that for another time).

Until a couple of years ago, forgiveness wasn’t something I thought about very often, at least not in practical, everyday terms. Having been raised as a Christian and embracing that faith until about a decade ago, I was familiar with forgiveness mostly in terms of, “Jesus has forgiven our sins so that we will be saved… Jesus forgave us, and therefore we should forgive other people… We are instructed to forgive lots — ‘seventy times seven’ times! (that’s 490!)…through God’s grace and mercy, we are forgiven.”

In my first couple of decades, perhaps life hadn’t thrown many opportunities at me in which I felt the need to delve into “what is forgiveness really all about?” Looking back now, I see that in many of situations, knowingly or not, I let a lot of things slide. I was perhaps naive or oblivious, or just young. But as life goes on, I have become more aware, more observant, perhaps a bit more tuned in to “healthy versus unhealthy ways of going about our relationships.” Perhaps I’ve developed a thinner skin, or simply have more life experiences and now pick up on behaviours that I find acceptable and those I don’t. In any case, life in general has become a bit more complicated, and forgiveness isn’t such a foreign concept anymore.

In my quest to learn more about forgiveness, I searched one of my go-to places for advice on such things: PsychologyToday.com There I found an article titled “What Is Forgiveness and How Do You Do It?” by Nancy Colier. (By the way, I highly recommend this brilliant article.)

When you forgive someone, it means that you will try to see the person who hurt you in a different light; perhaps you won’t immediately conclude that they are a criminal or a sociopath, but simply a fellow human being who is most likely also struggling with a set of problems in life. And yes, we often think that their problems don’t seem significant enough that that’s permission for them to hurt us, but we also don’t always know the entire story or the inner workings of another’s brain. The article encourages us to “create a different past” as well. Perhaps there are other things going on in that person’s day or week or life that angers them, and they re-direct that anger inappropriately (for example, towards you). Perhaps they are misinterpreting your actions in a less-than-generous way, and then their response to you is misguided. There’s usually a lot more going on than we see in the moment, and it can be helpful to zoom out a bit and see the bigger picture — basically, to come up with some different stories — so we can manage our own feelings and then reach out with more understanding.

When I look back on people who did hurtful things in my past, I see now that they were often acting from a place of fear. I see now how a former co-worker set me up for failure at our workplace because she was worried that if I learned her tasks properly, maybe our employer would consider replacing her. It wasn’t until years after we both left that workplace that she emailed me to apologize for her behavior; until then, I didn’t consider the role that fear played. When I look back on how some people treated me when I left the Christian faith, I see how their own fears (“What if that happened to me? What’s going to happen to her? me? us?”) sprang to the surface and overshadowed any empathy that might’ve been there so they could react in a different way.

When you forgive someone, it means that in the future, you will try to view them with openness and curiosity, unencumbered by your previous ideas about that person. Rather than expecting all future interactions with that person to be unpleasant, it might be helpful to remember that things can unfold in a number of different ways and to look for the opportunities in that.

Colier reminds us that when we seek to forgive another person, we must not expect anything in return from the other person. (By the way, note that we can seek for forgiveness, regardless of the other person’s involvement – whether or not they even acknowledge us, whether or not they apologize and ask for forgiveness, whether or not they want to talk at length, whether or not we think they’ll change their ways in the future.) Hopefully there will be reconciliation to some degree, but it’s also important to remember that forgiveness is largely for ourselves — our own peace of mind, our own permission to move forward, our wholeness as a human being, regardless of anyone’s response to us. I find this part to be challenging, because it means that there’s not always a happy, cozy ending to the story. There aren’t always hugs all around, and life doesn’t often continue as “normal.”

A friend and I had a falling out several years ago. For about eight months, I was quite persistent in my attempts to mend the relationship, but slowly I learned to let go when my attempts weren’t acknowledged. For three years or so after that, we had no contact. During those years, there were still times when my sadness and anger about our broken friendship were overwhelming, and I realized I hadn’t arrived at a state of forgiveness yet. After one such moment, I decided that maybe I should meet her in person so that I could get a better understanding of her and what had happened. When I contacted her, she agreed to meet for dinner the next time we were in the same city. We had a pleasant meal together, and although we didn’t mention our falling out directly, I think we could each piece together enough to get a better understanding of what had happened and then move forward. In some ways it was like the good ol’ days… and in many ways, it wasn’t. For other reasons as well, our friendship will probably never be what it used to be. But at least when I hear her name nowadays, I don’t cringe inwardly. If we’re both invited to a mutual acquaintance’s wedding or Christmas party, I don’t overthink what I’ll do if our paths cross. I’m open to the possibility of having a closer friendship in the future, although I don’t really think that that’ll happen and that saddens me sometimes. But lately I’ve felt more calm about our relationship and I’ve had far fewer ruminations, and that counts as something, too.

In his book “Things No One Else Can Teach Us,” Humble the Poet writes, “There aren’t any bad guys, and the contempt and resentment we hold for those who do us wrong only pollutes us. We can forgive ourselves only when we’re open to forgiving others. Forgiveness doesn’t require an apology, nor is it saying, ‘I’m cool with what you did to me.’ Forgiveness is saying, ‘What happened sucked, and it hurt me, but I no longer want to carry it with me moving forward.’ Achieving a state of forgiveness takes more time for some people than others, and that’s okay.”

Of course, I’m on both sides of the equation when it comes to forgiveness: sometimes I am the one who is in the place of extending forgiveness, and sometimes I am the one to whom others may extend forgiveness. A helpful book that I read on this topic is “The Five Languages of Apology” by Gary Chapman. Some of the components of a sincere apology include expressing regret, accepting responsibility, and making an effort to not repeat the hurtful behaviour. These are not easy tasks, I know! They require us to set aside our pride and admit to ourselves and others that what we did is unacceptable.

A couple of years ago, I was impatient with and, yes, rude to a co-worker. We didn’t cross paths often for the next year or so, but when we did, she’d completely ignore me. I didn’t think I’d been that rude to her, but perhaps I had been. As well, I don’t know her background, her interpretation of the situation, how many people have done something similar, and if I was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I tried convincing myself that she wasn’t taking responsibility either. After all, it couldn’t be completely my fault, could it? But that’s not a helpful approach, I’ve learned. Finally, I wrote her a card, apologizing for my behaviour and telling her to please phone me if she’d like to talk more about it. She never did phone me, but the next time we passed each other in the hallway, she had the biggest smile on her face. For me, it was definitely worth biting the bullet. And if we end up working together in the future, how I treat her will be an indication of the sincerity of my apology. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes: “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” I can apologize all I want, but if my actions don’t change in the future, those words are empty.

Sadly, not everyone is capable of a heartening response to another’s apology. For reasons often unknown to us, after an injury to a relationship, some people may proceed with the silent treatment, holding a grudge, ongoing criticism, or another similar reaction. I’ve had an occasion or two when my attempts at apologizing were met with curt and insulting responses. My words — something along the lines of, “I’ve been trying to make some amends with people in my life, and if there’s something I’ve done that’s been hurtful, please let me know so that I can try to fix it” — were turned around in such a way that, once again, I was made to look like the bad guy in the situation. I’ve been quite amazed, indeed, that my attempts at apology could be twisted around in such a way, but I also learned this valuable lesson: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” I am willing to take responsibility for my part in whatever the problem is — that’s the part that’s in my control — but I can’t fix a relationship all on my own, either.

Occasionally I spout stories to my elderly neighbour about the latest awful thing that Person X or Y or Z did and how hurt I am by that. She listens to my stories and then graciously reminds me that I’ll feel better if I respond with calmness and do things that will nurture the relationship. She also reminds me that sometimes it’s necessary to back away, to leave things alone, to allow others to come around if and when they’re ready (which may be tomorrow or in 2030 or never). She’s 88 years old and knows a few things about life, so it’s probably wise for me to rely on her advice when I’m unsure of how to handle some of life’s challenges.

I’ll probably read another article or two about forgiveness, and then I’ll switch it up and read about, say, scuba diving or hot air ballooning. And although I can guarantee you that I’ll never actually don scuba gear and tumble into a body of water, or set foot in a hot air balloon basket, something tells me that mastering the art of forgiveness will likely come in handy throughout the rest of my life.