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Forgiveness is one of the most challenging issues we face in life. It seems easier said than done. And even when we say that we forgive someone, often we're still holding on to some deep resentment.
It's resentment that causes us so much of our suffering, and yet our resentment toward someone else doesn't necessarily affect that person. They could have done something really horrible and naturally that makes us angry, but oftentimes our anger does nothing at all to affect that person. They might go on with their life as if they've done nothing wrong, never taking responsibility for their behavior. And typically, this only causes us to be all the more resentful, which in turn causes us to feel more miserable. So we end up being the one who's miserable, while they seem to go on without a care in the world.
This is the whole nature of resentment, that even if we feel that our anger is justified, the question is who are we really hurting? Because, again, it would often seem that it's not causing the other person to hurt. It's only causing us to hurt. So the question is: do we wanna live with that or do we wanna be free of it?
And of course we wanna be free of it. Who doesn't wanna be free from the misery of resentment? But how do we let go of that resentment, so we can move on with our lives, so that we can be happy, so we don't have to go on suffering because of something someone else did?
I wanna start by addressing one of the biggest misconceptions about forgiveness, because this is often what's preventing us from being able to move forward.
Somehow we've gotten the idea that forgiveness means condoning their behavior of the person who's offended us; that we, in some way, approve of it. That is, we excuse it and that we're willing to tolerate it. But even if we are willing to tolerate it, that generally does nothing to resolve the feeling of resentment.
So let's look at the word "forgiveness." What does it mean? To forgive means to "give up" which essentially means to "let go." But to let go of what? You already know this, because we've already discussed it. What we're letting go of is resentment. That's all that forgiveness means. We're not excusing the person's behavior. We're not condoning it or approving it or validating it in any way. And we're not suggesting that we're going to continue to tolerate it. And it may even be the case that we need to remove ourselves from the situation or walk away from that relationship in order that they don't keep mistreating us.
But forgiveness, itself, really has nothing to do with the other person at all. It only has to do with us, and with whatever resentment we're holding on to.
So part of the problem is that we think that forgiveness is something we give the other person, that we do it for their benefit. And this is one of the reasons we find it so difficult. Because why would we want to do something for someone who has done nothing but disrespect us? Suppose we're talking about someone who has never done anything to benefit us. All they've done is take or abuse or in some other way cause some disturbance. But they have never given us anything. So why should we give them anything, especially forgiveness? Perhaps they don't deserve our forgiveness.
Well, maybe they don't deserve your forgiveness. Let's suppose that's true. But the real question here is do you deserve forgiveness? That is, do you deserve to be free from the suffering that comes with resentment? Because, once again, forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person. It may appear, in some instances, that a person needs your forgiveness in order to feel better about themselves. But that's really just an illusion, because they could just as easily forgive themselves without your approval. Or they could just as easily go on beating themselves up long after you've forgiven them.
So really, forgiveness is not something to be given. It's about something which needs to be given up, to be let go of, to be released and relinquished. And that is, once again, resentment.
Now, something a lot of people seem to struggle with is this idea of "forgive and forget." They say, “How can I forget what this person did to me?” Because it would seem that asking someone to forget is like saying it never happened, or at least pretending like it never happened. So if someone betrayed your trust, for example, is it possible to simply pretend that they didn't? Because, essentially, this is what we're being asked to do, when we're being told to forget about it.
So I would say that this is going about it all wrong. Forgiveness has nothing to do with forgetting. Just as I mentioned earlier, we should acknowledge exactly what the other person did, and whether it was intentional or unintentional, and whether they're sincere in making an effort to take responsibility and correct their behavior. And we do that in order to decide whether we're going to maintain our relationship with them or whether we're going to walk away from it. And all of that requires being totally aware of the situation.
So, to keep with the example of someone betraying your trust: when this happens we find it very difficult to trust that person ever again. And we seem to think that forgiving them means trusting them again. But here's the thing, trust is something earned. And if someone shows you that they aren't trustworthy, we can't just pretend to trust them. But we can forgive because forgiveness, once again, is about us, not them. And the issue of trust is an entirely separate issue.
So if someone has broken your trust, they're gonna have to earn it back again. And that might take a lot of work. Or it may not ever be fully restored. But we don't have to attach resentment to that. We don't have to be angry with them because we don't necessarily trust them. We can simply acknowledge that they may not be trustworthy without having to be angry about it. Often the anger is there because we're disappointed. And we're disappointed because we had some expectation. So, this now becomes a question of whether we can let go of that expectation by simply accepting the fact that they may not be trustworthy.
I meet people in life from time to time who simply cannot be trusted. And as soon as that's made clear to me, I simply make a note of it. And I decide that I'm simply not going to rely or depend upon them to do certain things, even when they promise. That is, I don't expect them to live up to a certain standard of behavior, nor do I expect them to live up to their word. And when they don't, I'm neither surprised nor disappointed. And because I'm not disappointed, I really have nothing to be angry about. And if I have no resentment in the first place, then there's nothing to forgive.
But I can still choose whether or not to associate with that person, or whether or not to rely on them to do something or to behave in a certain way, or whether or not to allow them to take advantage of me, and so on. All of that has to do with trustworthiness, respect, consideration, and so on. But all of that is an entirely separate issue from forgiveness.
So once again, it's very important not to confuse forgiveness with trust, or to confuse it with tolerance or forgetfulness, with condoning or excusing a person's behavior, and so on.
True forgiveness is really about letting go of resentment, not for anyone else's sake, but for our own; for our own peace of mind.