I declared earlier that my one resolution this year was to forgive. Because forgiveness is such a large part of what it means to love, and because I’ve said before that we need to include all the ways we love into our Valentine’s Day, I’m sharing what I learned about forgiveness tonight – just in time for this much-hyped but much-misrepresented, holiday.
Years ago, I was at a wedding Mass for a young, starry-eyed couple. The homily focused on forgiveness. The priest predicted that this young pair would probably be saying “I’m sorry” many, many times in their future. I’m sure he was right; if any of us want to develop a mature, healthy relationship, we’re going to have to forgive.
But it’s an extremely difficult thing to do. I’ve talked before about asking for forgiveness, but what about forgiving others, especially those that didn’t ask you to forgive them? What if, by forgiving them, they think it means they can hurt you again? What if it just starts a fight? These are all issues I’d been thinking about.
My own story of forgiveness encompasses a few of these questions. I refused to speak to a family member for more than 20 years. I’d been far too young to understand the complexity behind his hurtful actions. So I just did what many of us do: cut all ties with him and moved on. And for what it’s worth, that method worked for me; my daily life seemed to go on as any normal life would.
In truth, I barely gave this person any thought. But then I got word that he wasn’t long for this world. I knew it was time to give both of us a break. But I didn’t know where to start or what to say.
Opening up a dialogue about it seemed counterproductive. Why stir up old resentments? He was near the end of his life. Perhaps it was best to do it silently, in a prayer. So I went to the hospital and prayed for his safe passing.
As I watched him struggling to breathe, I thought, “I’m sure you didn’t know you were causing me pain, and you did the best you could at the time. I wish you peace of mind.”
I made eye contact and smiled. He smiled back. It seemed as if we understood each other.
When he did pass, I felt more at peace about his hurtful actions. I realized that forgiving him allowed me to see him with more compassion.
Still, it would have been more helpful to know if there was a right way to forgive someone. While I was researching ideas on forgiveness, I came across a most interesting set of recommendations. They’re called the 12 Principles of Forgiveness and were mentioned in one of the lectures for The Forgiveness Project. While I am inherently suspicious of recipe-like descriptions, I do think these principles have a lot to offer those of us who want to forgive others.
When I first read these, I immediately thought back to the experience with my family member. Finding examples within our own experience drives home the point of each item on the list. For the sake of clarity, however, I won’t add my personal thoughts onto each item in the list, but I do urge others to do so while reading.
1. Understand that forgiveness does not condone violent behavior. It does not benefit the forgiven; it benefits the forgiver. It says that we deserve to have peace of mind.
2. Sense the suffering that comes with the inability to forgive. It is not in your best interest to bear a grudge. There is no compassion when self-pity takes over.
3. Reflect on the benefits of a loving, forgiving, compassionate heart. There are countless rewards, both tangible and spiritual.
4. Recognize that the inability to forgive is actually a steadfast reverence for, and loyalty to, our own suffering. Discover that it is not necessary or helpful to be loyal to suffering, ours or anyone else’s. Suffering is not what defines any of us.
5. Understand that forgiveness is a process, not a single action. It does not yield immediate results. It requires you to forgive repeatedly until you feel the peace of mind you so deeply deserve.
6. Set your own intention: define the short- and long-term goals you want to meet as a result of forgiving. These intentions re-set the compass of your heart towards a new direction. By having goals, and focusing on them, you are less likely to give up when you encounter obstacles along the way.
7. Learn the inner and outer forms of forgiveness. The inner form is prayer and the outer form is making amends. Again, these are practices, not one-time actions.
8. Start with the smallest things that can open your heart. Forgive a pet or a child, someone who can be easily forgiven. Then move on to something or someone that is neither painful nor easy, but a rather neutral matter. When you are ready, progress on to a more difficult, challenging, painful situation that presents to you the obstacles, the suffering and the trauma. Recognize that this is the time to stay focused on your intention, and forgive by degrees until your heart is open.
9. Be willing to grieve. Grief involves all the difficult feelings: loss, fear, anger, bargaining, loneliness. Feel these difficult feelings and trust that the process is going to benefit you. Honor and digest them, and then let go.
10. Sometimes trauma is stored in our physical bodies. This makes sense in particular for survivors of physical harm. Include the physical aspect of forgiveness: if trauma is stored in your body, release it through the laying on of hands in prayer, massage, yoga, dance, or other body work. Reaching out to others for help — spiritual directors, healers, massage therapists — helps the process in a more complete, profound way.
11. Shift your identity. This sounds like an impossible task, but it does not mean changing who you are. In fact, it means to get in touch with who you were before you were hurt. That person within you is the core of the true self, the person as God created you.
12. Change your perspective: Instead of seeing your own hurt as the center of your story, see your story as a link to the vastness of pain in all of humanity. Every person is in pain – especially those who hurt us. We are bonded by the burden of our pain. Shared burdens connect us and lighten our burdens.
Unlike other how-to lists, such as the 12 Steps, I don’t think these need to be done sequentially. In fact, I think a few can be done simultaneously and naturally do occur that way. I also don’t think any of us could do all 12 on the first few attempts. I’m not sure any of us need to do all 12 in all cases either. But it is still a very good set of points to consider.
At the heart of this list is the idea that within each one of us is the potential to live out the message of Christ. We are called to forgive. So regardless of your relationship status, this is my challenge to you this Valentine’s Day: Go forgive someone. It does not matter who it is or how you do it. But do it and consider it ultimately as a Valentine to the one who needs your love the most: yourself.