Forgiveness is taught to us as one of the most important virtues for life. When someone causes us pain or discomfort, we are told to ‘be the bigger person’ and ‘forgive and forget’. Even Jesus Christ is believed to have advised his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’. But in real life, forgiveness doesn’t come easily to everyone. From small mistakes to serious betrayals, we are affected by a range of transgressions. And while sometimes a simple apology is sufficient to salvage the situation other times, we end up carrying these wounds with us for years.
Holding on to painful emotions and thoughts affects us in more ways than one. It can cause us immense discomfort and hold us back from living our lives to the fullest. That’s why it is important to forgive, even when it seems impossible to do so. In this feature, Soulveda explores the concept of forgiveness, and how we can learn to free ourselves from the pain we’re holding on to.
Over two decades ago, a woman named Colleen Haggerty was in a road accident. At 17, she was run over by a car and had lost her leg. She was faced with a long, painful, uphill battle to recovery. For years, she struggled to recover from the trauma, not only physically but also emotionally. And even though she went on to be a model survivor, learning to ski, kayak, skydive and rock climb on her prosthetic leg, she couldn’t be her old self.
The anger and resentment Haggerty held towards the man who had run her over burst out of her in the form of rage and prolonged depressive episodes. Haggerty realised that despite doing so much with her life, she was profoundly unhappy. It wasn’t until she learnt to let go of her anger and forgive the man who took away her leg that she managed to turn her life around. Today, Haggerty is a successful author and a forgiveness mentor. In her Ted Talk titled Forgiving the Unforgivable, Haggerty says, “Each time I forgive, I open the door to the possibility of being more of who I am meant to be. No matter how serious the transgression, the choice to forgive is always a gift we give ourselves.”
That intense negative emotions like anger and resentment can hold us back in life is not hard to understand. Most of us might have experienced this in our own lives. We know it affects us and we would like to be able to forgive and relieve ourselves of the negativity. But it isn’t always easy. To be able to forgive and let go, we first need to ask, what does it mean to forgive someone? Does it mean we condone their hurtful actions? Does it mean we let them back into our lives? Does it mean we set ourselves up to be hurt again? Not always.
Twenty-two-year-old Anika Rajesh’s experience shows what happens when we forgive unwisely. “I unconditionally forgave my ex-boyfriend for badmouthing me in front of his friends. A few months later, he did it again and when I was upset about it, he said, ‘How come you let it slide the last time then?’ Naturally, I had to put an end to that relationship,” she says. Indeed, not everyone deserves our forgiveness. There might be people who take advantage of our good nature for their own benefit. By forgiving such people and giving them a chance to hurt us again, we only end up enabling them. Sociologist Vani Subramanian agrees. Says she, “It’s problematic when forgiveness becomes synonymous to being a pushover or not setting clear boundaries. This can take a toll on your mental health.”
Most abusive relationships thrive on such a dynamic, where one person constantly hurts and the other constantly forgives. This can land the one at the receiving end in a pit of mental health issues that might be hard to recover from. So what does one do in such a situation?
Sometimes, by confronting the person who hurt us, we might just get caught in a never-ending loop of arguments and bitterness. In such a situation, the best way to go might be to deal with the hurt by ourselves, without involving the other person.
Subramanian has some advice. “Take a step back and evaluate the situation. Let the emotions pass and use someone else as a sounding board. Take some time to figure out what it would mean to forgive the person involved and go forward. See if you need to remove yourself from the situation completely,” she says.
Sometimes, by confronting the person who hurt us, we might just get caught in a never-ending loop of arguments and bitterness. In such a situation, the best way to go might be to deal with the hurt by ourselves, without involving the other person. By quietly coming to terms with the effect the other person’s words or actions had on us, we can begin to move on with our life—with or without them.
Often, we may find that besides the other person’s actions, we also regret the chance we gave them to hurt us. At vulnerable moments, we might even blame ourselves for what happened. While being honest and taking responsibility for our actions is good, blaming ourselves for our wounds can be a harmful exercise. To be able to put the hurt behind us and move on, we should learn to forgive ourselves.
Forgiveness is a virtue that requires maturity and great strength of character. The love and generosity one needs to have to forgive come from humility, says actor-director Kimberly Yates in her Tedx Talk titled (Re)Learning Forgiveness. In the course of her lively, anecdote-rich talk, Yates says, “…I am not little miss perfect. I have been forgiven for so many things in my life and I need that forgiveness.” When we forgive, we are simply paying it forward from a stockpile of love and generosity and forgiveness that we have received from the people that we have hurt in the course of our lives. If we don’t have this every day, free-flowing forgiveness, the society as we know it would collapse, she goes on to say.
Everybody makes mistakes and everybody needs forgiveness. When we begin to empathise with each other, we might be able to walk a mile in the shoes of the person who hurt us. And even if we cannot justify the deeds of the person, we can understand and come to terms with them. This will help us put the pain behind us and take nothing with us but the lessons we learnt. After all, as Oprah Winfrey puts it: “True forgiveness is when you can say, ‘Thank you for that experience.’”