ISSUE #014 - May 07, 2019

Understanding Forgiveness

Isa Gucciardi

The following is an excerpt from the book Coming to Peace by Isa Gucciardi

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

– Nelson Mandela

The effort to forgive and be forgiven is at the heart of restorative justice practices. True forgiveness is serious business. To forgive or be forgiven is a complex and stirring process that requires each side to dig deeply in order to restore peace. To reach a place of true forgiveness, we must set our sights on the heart of the conflict and begin the necessary work of self-examination so that we may find and release our attachment to the offense. Only then can we truly be free from our pain.

When it comes to forgiveness, there’s a tendency by both parties to rush toward the finish line. But forgiving another or our self is more akin to a journey than a race. While it’s understandable that we would want to smooth over emotional wounds in order to reestablish the relationship, rushing to do so is a mistake. Unless everyone involved engages in the hard work behind true forgiveness, the relationship will forever be tainted by the offense. The relationship then bears the risk of becoming superficial, marked by compromise at best and hypocrisy at worst. Rushing to forgive creates a mask of neutrality behind which volatile and sometimes destructive emotions loom. This can lead to a state of incomplete forgiveness which can generate further conflict – either internally or in external relationships.

True forgiveness is not easy, and depending on which side of the offense we are on, the work necessary to grant or receive it is markedly different. As we will see, “the offended” and “the offender,” while both responsible for their part of the forgiveness process, have distinctly different roads ahead.

The Offended

If we’ve been hurt by someone and are in the position of granting forgiveness, the process is primarily one of release. Doing so allows us to move on from the offense and the harm it caused us, and prevents any further harm from occurring. But before we can do this, it’s important to examine all the places inside us that remain attached to having been wounded.

The reasons for staying attached to an offense are unique to each of us. Some of us may not realize we are attached to the offense and the emotional wound caused by being wronged. Others of us are unclear about the effect the offense has had on us and, therefore, we’re unable to let go of it. And still some of us are so angry at having been hurt that we decide to actively cultivate a grudge to punish the other person, which only binds us more permanently to our wound and the person who committed it.

But there is hope. By engaging the process of forgiveness in a serious and dedicated manner, we can actually begin to uncover these attachments so that we may heal and release them. It’s only by participating in this process that we can reach an authentic experience of forgiveness.

One of the best ways to determine where we are in relationship to the offense is simply to ask ourselves how we are feeling about it. If we’re feeling angry and unable to move past that anger, then it’s important to honor the reasons for our anger, rather than feeling badly for being mad. So often we are pressured to forgive prematurely by outside forces like family and friends who want things to be better quickly. But we also put pressure on ourselves because we want to move beyond the ordeal too. Yet pushing past our anger is not the solution. In order to truly reestablish peace, our best bet is to take a good look at our anger so that we may understand all that it has to teach us about where we are twisting away from ourselves in an attempt to make the situation appear better than it actually is for us in the moment.

By acknowledging our anger and feeling its presence, we have the opportunity to understand what it’s trying to teach us about the situation. It informs us about what issues still need to be addressed. Once we do this, the anger will naturally shift on its own. In instances where we have become attached to the offense, it may feel impossible to forgive the person or group who has harmed us. In these cases, it is still important to accept our feelings and not feel badly for not being able to forgive yet.

When we remain in the dark about how we’re feeling, our physical responses can serve as clues. For instance, we may feel highly irritated with the person who caused the offense, or we may avoid that person altogether. We may also experience some physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches, or digestive issues when we’re around or even just thinking about the offender. These may all be signs pointing us to look more closely at the issue and what we need to do in order to genuinely heal from it.

Once we have dissected our reactions to the offense and are ready to grant forgiveness, we move on to the ultimate healing process of releasing the offender to the consequences of their actions. It goes without saying that this is often the most difficult part of the process, especially if we are determined to see them take responsibility for their behavior in a particular way. When we base our forgiveness on the actions of the other person, we remain tethered to them and the offense. It’s only when we can let go of our attachment to the offender taking responsibility, and release them to the consequences of their actions, that the process of forgiveness can become one of liberation from the offender and the pain they caused us.

This last piece is particularly important for those of us wanting to forgive trespasses committed by someone we are no longer in contact with or who has died. In this way, we’re able to free ourselves from the offender without their participation.  Through the process of forgiveness, we can reclaim the power we lost during the offense, giving ourselves the strength needed to heal our wounds on our own terms, without attachment to the outcome. This creates a true field of neutrality that buffers us from the person who wronged us, which must occur for forgiveness to take place. It is within this field that our attachments dissolve, and we can begin to move on with our life.

The Offender

As the person who is seeking forgiveness for causing harm to another, the process is one of engagement whereby we move toward the offense and take responsibility for our actions. This is often easier said than done. Requesting forgiveness is a humbling experience, but if we approach the process with sincerity in our intention and kindness in our heart, we may not only be granted the reprieve we desire, but likely will also learn deeply transformative lessons about ourselves.

For most, the thought of seeking forgiveness is daunting. Perhaps we don’t fully understand the level of commitment required. Or, maybe we know full well what lies ahead and the inner work we must do, but feel paralyzed to take the steps needed to truly release the effect of our misdeed. So we choose not to take responsibility for our actions, making it harder for the person we hurt to forgive us, further ensnaring ourselves in the web of our own actions.

Our journey toward freedom starts when we choose to take full responsibility and examine the depths of our inner world to learn what is going on within us that allowed us to harm another. To begin, we must evaluate the root causes of the offending act, specifically our intentions, thoughts, and actions leading up to the violation. By following these back to their source, we’ll have a better understanding as to why we committed the offense in the first place. This difficult process of self-examination, when engaged fully, can tell us more about ourselves than we could have ever known otherwise. And as we plumb further, clues about ourselves begin to surface, and the clarity they bring helps us shift our relationship to the root causes that lie behind the offending act.

It’s not uncommon to be afraid to take responsibility for our actions because we fear the person we have hurt will blame us and make us feel worse. In fact, there are some of us who will do almost anything to avoid blame. That’s because we are attaching shame to the act of doing something wrong. If we find ourselves justifying our behavior and actions to avoid blame, it’s time to start examining these justifications. What we may discover is that old wounds from earlier in life are feeding our need to justify and defend against feeling ashamed. Thankfully, the process of forgiveness gives us the opportunity to confront and heal these wounds once and for all, releasing us from the need to constantly justify and defend ourselves.

By looking honestly at our behavior and thoughtfully considering the feedback we receive about our actions from others, we may mitigate or transform the consequences of the offense. At this level of self-understanding, we are now ready to perform the next step in the process: self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is when we forgive ourselves for our infractions. It is not a rush to move past the hurt we’ve caused in an attempt to soothe our own discomfort. While it sounds simple, self-forgiveness is anything but. It requires us to hold a positive wish for our own happiness and freedom. Our ability to do this depends heavily on the way we feel about ourselves. If we are harboring negative ideas about ourselves and don’t truly believe we deserve to be happy and free of emotional suffering, the road to self-forgiveness is likely going to be difficult. Alternatively, if we’re able to feel compassion for ourselves and let go of our missteps with relative ease, more often than not it will be easier to practice self-forgiveness.

No matter which end of the self-forgiveness spectrum we are on, the process of seeking forgiveness will undoubtedly bring to light any areas that need our attention. In seeking forgiveness from another, we are given the opportunity to practice self-forgiveness and to evaluate how we treat ourselves. Then we can tap into the alchemy that becomes available to us when we practice true self-forgiveness and turn the poison of our offense into a flickering light of self-revelation. In doing so, we can finally leave behind our old black-and-white way of viewing the world with its enemies and allies, and step into a vibrant existence of peace and gratitude for the lessons our offense has taught us. From this illuminated vantage point, we experience a new sense of wholeness and interrelatedness with others that is at the heart of Coming to Peace and is the basis for true happiness.

Unfortunately, some of us remain trapped by our transgression because we are unable to practice self-forgiveness. Bound to the offending act, we continue to suffer from our actions. Another force that can keep us stuck is the mistaken belief that we must be forgiven by the person we have wronged in order to be released from the harm we caused them. But this is not the case. The truth of the matter is that it is our ability to forgive ourselves after we have stepped out of the shadows of denial and taken responsibility for our actions that liberates us from our misdeed, not the forgiveness of another.

Remembering that freedom from the offense is within our reach isn’t easy when the person we have harmed refuses to grant us the forgiveness we so desperately desire. We may agonize over this but, in reality, they may not be able to forgive us because they haven’t engaged in the inner work necessary to release their attachment to having been wounded.

Other cases are not so benign, such as when the offended person refuses to grant forgiveness with the intent to punish the person who harmed them, and actively builds grudges that solidify the offense. This practice of grudge-making is a trap—but not for the offender. Through grudge-making and refusing to forgive in order to punish, the offended person actually becomes an offender, using their wound to ensnare and harm far beyond the consequences of the original offense. This practice of holding grudges only causes more harm, especially for the person holding the grudge.

While grudge-holding and withholding forgiveness can be obstacles to our freedom, they are not the end of the road for those of us seeking forgiveness. When we examine our intentions, genuinely attempt to make amends, and forgive ourselves for our mistakes, we are well on our way to being free from our offense. Doing this difficult yet important work allows us to move on with our lives, even if the person we have harmed cannot or will not move on. It’s also important to remember that, by holding the other person with compassion, we will not need them to rush to forgiveness to make us feel better. This stops the cycle of harm that can occur between us and others when connected by an offense.

Whether we are the offender or the offended, we have work to do to free ourselves from the negative effects of harmful incidents. Rushing to forgive is not the answer, nor is withholding forgiveness. Ultimately, our liberation from the offense depends on our actions and our dedication to peace.


ISSUE #014

On Somatic Healing & Social Justice
Image: On Somatic Healing & Social Justice

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