I was a guest speaker at a book club the other night – reviewing the best of parenting, relationship and personal growth books – when I was asked, “What about forgiveness?” In response, I talked about the ideas in Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring’s book How Can I Forgive You?, but as I drove home I felt unsatisfied with my response. It wasn’t complete enough.
Don’t get me wrong. Dr. Spring’s book is terrific, providing a workable framework for moving to forgiveness. It’s practical, it’s pragmatic and it’s well-written. The book was not my problem. I was glad I had mentioned such a useful book.
No, my problem was – no surprise for this “words girl” – the semantics of the word “forgiveness”. What is it? What does it mean? We hear about forgiveness from pulpits and pop culture all the time. Why, it’s a gift we give ourselves! It’s the right thing to do! Forgiving is a sign of our spiritual development and piety!
Forgiveness has become such a ubiquitous word, in fact, that perhaps it’s lost its potency. I bump into someone in a crowded store and I say, “Excuse me.” Am I asking forgiveness for my offense? Many of us say “sorry” almost as often as we say “uhm”. Do we seek forgiveness each time we blurt it out? Teens say, “My bad” and their buds say, “No problem.” Is that a forgiveness exchange?
What does “forgiveness” mean?
As I drove home, pondering, this definition popped into my head:
“Forgiveness is when the hurt you’ve suffered no longer drives your decision-making, nor defines who you are. “
Here’s an example: Tom’s wife left him for another man. Tom was devastated. For the first few months, he was among the walking wounded and would tell the story of his betrayal to anyone who’d listen. And some who didn’t want to listen. His mind was filled with thoughts of retribution, retaliation and revenge. Nearly every thought he had, nearly every course of action, was directed by his wife’s affair and their subsequent divorce. And women? Pffffft. Since his wife had betrayed him and she was a woman, then all women were capable of betrayal and should be avoided. Women were not to be trusted. No one was to be trusted.
He was not in a place of forgiveness.
Over time, though, he began to add different activities to his schedule. He got into mountain biking, planned outings with friends and explored his beliefs. He recommitted himself to his work, and got a promotion. He gingerly made friendships, then dates, with women. Gradually, his decisions were based on his life now, not his life then. He no longer needed to tell the story of his wife’s affair to people – because it no longer seemed that relevant. If you asked him, he’d say, “I’m Tom. I’m a 45 year old engineer who likes mountain biking, wine and hanging with friends. Oh, and I’m divorced.”
He had arrived at the place of forgiveness.
That doesn’t mean his wife’s affair had no impact on Tom’s life. It did. Forgiveness didn’t mean Tom pretended he wasn’t hurt. He was. It doesn’t mean it was OK for Tom’s wife to have had an affair. It wasn’t. What happened in his marriage became a part of the accumulated experiences of Tom’s life – just not the key, defining part of his life.
Forgiveness meant that Tom was no longer driven or defined by his hurt.
In many cases, one person hurts another person and they stay in a relationship. The hurt may be big or it may be small. But it’s a hurt and the only way forward is through forgiveness. This mutual forgiveness benefits both parties.
We’ve seen how a hurt person’s path to forgiveness helped him. In an ongoing relationship, forgiveness is a huge relief for the injuring party, too. She knows that she’s not going to “have to pay for this for the rest of my life” since his decisions are not going to be solely based on the hurt (“I’m only doing this because you lied to me twenty-five years ago.”). And she knows he’s not going to forever define her by having hurt him (“You know I can’t trust you because you lied to me that time twenty-five years ago.”). But to get to forgiveness she has do her part. She has to acknowledge that he’s been hurt, she has to work to help him recover, and she has to promise not to willfully repeat the injury in the future.
Sometimes the person who needs forgiveness is you. Many people, for instance, carry shame and guilt over a failed marriage, or a lost job, or a blown diet. “If only I had…If only I had been…If only I hadn’t…” is a constant refrain. Yet, this song is an oldie. It has a good beat, and you can dance to it. But it’s the same old song and dance. Singing it keeps us firmly in the past. When where we’ve got to live is in the now.
Forgiving ourselves – acknowledging what happened, how it impacted us then and now – and moving to the point where our perceived shortcomings no longer fuel our decision-making or define who we are, is the key to living in the present. And living happily. This may require therapy to understand how we hurt ourselves in the past and to work through the issues so that we don’t continue to hurt ourselves in the future.
Viktor Frankl, noted psychiatrist and author of the classic Man’s Search for Meaning, founded an innovative school of psychology called “logotherapy”, which holds that if people have meaning and conscience in their lives then they are more apt to be successful. This idea underpins much of modern psychological thought and took mental health into new and productive areas.
Now for the reveal. Frankl developed his theories while imprisoned in Auschwitz. Man’s Search for Meaning details the suffering, deprivation and humiliation the men and women in the camp endured. It was unlike anything most of us have seen. No one should experience such inhumanity.
Although Frankl’s experience in Auschwitz birthed the most significant work of his life, Frankl didn’t appear to define himself by the time in the camp – rather, he defined himself by his work, his life.
He became bigger than what he had suffered.
And that’s the promise of forgiveness. You can become bigger than your hurt. With forgiveness you can leave the wound in the past and be your best self. And you can start right now.