Whose bright idea was it to forgive and forget? It’s been an idiom of the English language for over 600 years, yet is it really good advice? I ask because when we’re being recommended to forgive, forget seems to be the very next word we all think of.
Yet, I think forgetting is only in the best interest of the person who has done the wrong in the first place. I’m sure they’d love for you to forget what they did.
I’m guessing it was a guilty party who first invented the phrase to get themselves off the hook. Not so fast. Remembering is accountability. For instance, we should definitely remember U.S. Confederate history. That’s not the same thing as honoring it. We have special places for things we want to make sure we don’t forget. They’re not the same places we put things we wish to honor. We will have to forgive our past in order to come to terms with it. But we won’t accomplish it by forgetting. Some history just needs its proper place and context.
Just as there’s a difference between remembering and honoring, there’s a difference between forgetting and forgiving. Forgiving is about letting go of the anger, resentment and hurt we experience as a result of someone else’s actions and no longer allowing those emotions to have power over us. It’s not letting them off the hook. It’s about letting go of the poisonous aftereffects of our experience. They no longer serve a purpose except to hold us back.
Our continued emotional hold on our pain only helps them keep winning every time our hurt is remembered afresh. As long as we don’t forgive, their knife is still in the wound, doing its damage. Only they don’t have to do anything except go on with their lives. We’re the ones now holding the knife in place. You can take it out now.
It’s time to heal. Which can’t happen fully if we forget about what hurt us in the first place. We can’t learn from our trials if we forget about them. Remembering while forgiving is the key, as well as the hardest thing of all to do.
It’s easy to maintain forgiveness when we’ve forgotten the hurt. Sadly, that’s how history repeats itself, when we brush our past under the carpet. But we can separate the two. We can work through and heal the emotional pain while retaining the historical fact. This is the basis of all trauma therapy.
It’s understandable to say something like, “Well, I’ll never forgive them for what they did as long as I live.” Forgiving is not condoning. You can forgive someone whom you still plan to prosecute. But it will be easier to create solutions that will actually change things for the better, rather than just perpetuating the old cycles of vengeance. This is the difference between retributive justice and restorative justice. One just punishes; the other wants to know why it happened and take steps to heal the original wound so it never happens again. One silences a bell to the universe, the other rings it.
We don’t forgive for the purpose of allowing the wrongdoing an opportunity to repeat itself. Sometimes that means forgiving someone strictly for our own sake, but not continuing the relationship, because trust is gone. Forgiving doesn’t always mean getting together again. Sometimes it’s just closure.
Forgiveness itself is not something we just do once in a while; it’s a life practice. It stems from the practice of nonresistance. For as you may remember, nonresistance is a platform of allowing that gives us permission to see those who have trespassed against us in a more human light. Nonresistance is a preparation for forgiveness. “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” we forgivingly might say when realizing that, had the shoe been on the other foot, we might’ve done the same thing.
When someone has harmed us, either deliberately or accidentally, we undergo a chemical and emotional stress protocol in our bodies. Depending on whether or not the person who harmed us is remorseful, and has perhaps validated our experience with genuine apology, we’re able to achieve a sense of peace about what has happened and can move on.
But this doesn’t typically happen. Especially with more serious offenses. It isn’t often we get the kind of validation and remorse we truly need from those who’ve harmed us. We usually have to forgive those who aren’t actually asking for our forgiveness and who probably have no interest in validating our negative experience with them.
Our inner peace isn’t handed to us on a silver platter; we have to work for it. That’s where life practices come in. Dharmas. They guide us toward right actions we might otherwise only be able to manage under the most perfect circumstances. And life is rarely, if ever, perfect. We need tools. We need practice.
Notice the difference between anger and rage. Anger is motivating, sometimes even productive. Rage is only destructive. If you feel rage, even rightfully so, it means the situation has moved you into a state of reduced effectiveness toward your goal. You’ve allowed it to go too far. Take steps to correct it.
As an exercise toward this, try to see the humanity in your opponent and be allowing of the existence of their fear. Pray for them. This will offset the balance in your brain chemistry and downshift your rage back to a more effective, and less personally damaging, regular old anger. Your actions will reflect your higher presence of mind and they may even affect how your opponent responds. Is consciousness at work here, too? What do you think?
The practice of forgiveness on a daily basis for ourselves as well as others begins, as all things do, in small ways. Notice your feelings. Don’t judge them, just notice them. Passively observe them as if you had a mini-stenographer sitting on your shoulder taking notes. See if you notice a pattern in the types of things that upset you most. If you see a pattern, there may be something in you being triggered by things having nothing to do with the present situation. Be curious about them.
Make sure you understand your triggers and not let them negatively impact the present. Sometimes we’re more hostile than we mean, or than the moment required. Was our outburst all for the person who just upset us? Or was some of the excess leftovers from the past? That’s when the rubber really hits the road in the life practice of forgiveness. We have to open up the cans of worms we’ve been avoiding. There’s always a stack of old things waiting to be let go. Chip away at the pile one thing at a time. You’ll be surprised at how quickly it goes, once you start.
Notice what you do when you get mad. This is so important. If you’re a person who brags about how no one wants to get on your bad side, or if you take pride in holding on to grudges, you may have some work to do in this area. If you believe that no one can be trusted, and that you trust no one as a matter of principle, you definitely have some forgiveness work to do. And it won’t be easy. But it will change your life. Start small. Avoid revenge at all costs, even if it means swallowing your pride. Don’t worry, you won’t choke on it.
Choose to see the dignity and humanity in those who’ve hurt you and treat them as such. They will still be accountable for their own actions, but you will no longer be a victim of theirs.
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ, Unitarian, in Lancaster, and producer of The UU Virtual Church of Fitchburg and Lancaster on YouTube. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.