“You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.”
― M.L. Stedman,
Forgiveness is related to gratitude, but more complicated. To cultivate gratitude, we only have to direct our attention to blessings being received. To forgive, we have to see that our pain is part of damage on a broader scale.
The Stedman quote above comes from the mouth of a character who is violently persecuted for being German in Australia during WWII. The clear choice not to take the persecution personally comes as a blast of counter-intuitive fresh air. It is true that to resent requires constantly refreshing our own anger, and that we do have the choice to give that up.
We are inclined to see the world in terms of aggressors and victims, but there is another view. The following quote is taken from a recent column by Washington Post advisor Carolyn Hax (edited by me):
Q: [Having been raped,] how is forgiveness actually possible?
A: Carolyn Hax – To my mind, forgiveness is not about absolving. I see it more as a matter of bringing a broader understanding to what makes people do bad things to each other. So, the perpetrator did something bad, it was that person’s choice and fault–but who comes to such an awful choice without something horribly wrong in that person’s life?
So your pain is not isolated, it’s part of a continuum of pain and of human frailty–and in that is where, speaking only for myself here, I find the stirrings of forgiveness. It’s the start of a decision, counterintuitively, not to bundle up your anger at the perpetrator as part of your own pain, but instead to release the perp to his own pain: “This wasn’t about me, I was just unlucky to be there–this was about a broken person who must live the consequences of that brokenness.” That in turn releases you to be about you, and healing.
The change in perspective that Carolyn Hax describes may be very difficult to arrive at on one’s own. Any trauma deserves to be treated with the help of a skilled and caring therapist.
The “truth and reconciliation” process that was undertaken in South Africa started with the confessions of the aggressors. Healing came from confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is rare that the full process can be realized; perpetrators of harm rarely confess and ask for forgiveness. And yet we would do well to attempt to free ourselves from the prison of resentment.
A good working principle is that everyone is doing the best they can with their currently available resources and understandings. Many of us do things that we think will make us happier or better off and then discover that they don’t. We can’t know what goes on inside other beings.
Many of the hurts we carry with us are small ones. Perhaps we can start by forgiving the momentary annoyances and perceived slights. While trying to keep ourselves out of harm’s way, we can come back to gratitude for what we have, fortified by forgiveness as needed.