By: Noelle Sterne
But You Don’t Know What They Did!
Admittedly, one of the hardest of life’s lessons may be forgiving others. But when we don’t forgive, we’re angry and tight. We hold on to old hurts and hug our rightness like a parka against the stinging winds of change. Our arms are crossed and our mind crosses out possibilities. And worse, our unforgiveness blocks the great things we dream of and want to do.
The psychiatrist and Course in Miracles teacher Jerry Jampolsky in Goodbye to Guilt calls forgiveness “the ultimate challenge” (p. 149). We cling to hurts, slights, insults, betrayals, wrongs, anger, resentments, annoyances—and on and on, through months, years, decades, and, before we blink, a lifetime.
You know the stories—maybe you have one—of parents who were horribly neglectful or deprecating, partners or spouses (or exes) who never supported our dreams, brothers estranged for twenty-five years over an argument they can’t even remember, childhood buddies who parted over an imagined snub, weeklong seething at that rude woman who pushed her cart in front of us in the supermarket line. These resentments, and others, whatever their size and import, poison our outlook and color our perspective black.
Forgiving Them Benefits You
So, for whoever we need to forgive, I recommend six universal principles. They will help you grapple with and overcome your heart-hardness.
- It’s okay to get angry.
You are entitled to feel anger at the other person’s wrongdoing. You are entitled to burst out with disappointment, shock, rage. Those emotions are cathartic and healthy. But here’s the big BUT. Too often we hang on to these emotions. We never seem to express them enough. Any slight reminder starts us off again. They become our chronic reaction. This is the unhealthy part that translates so often into physical symptoms and full-blown illnesses. As many studies and even the medical profession now attest people who hold longstanding resentments are at greater risk of cancer than others who let out their pent-up feelings and let them go. So go ahead. Express your anger.
- It’s not okay to cling to your anger.
Express—Yes. Ruminate, obsess, linger, cultivate, replay, grind away—No.
This is the stuff of disease, depression, and decrepitude.Maybe you’re thinking these words sound too much like indiscriminate, unfounded generalizations. Look around. Generally, the sourest, frail, sick people are those harboring the most held-to resentments and blame, sometimes for generations.
- The one who did you wrong needed to do that.
This declaration may go against all apparent logic and the rage in your stomach. You may have been in the fury habit for so long that it feels natural. But see how you reconsider your accusations and condemnations with this perspective in mind, impossible as it may seem at first. You’ll get used to the idea that the culprit’s misdeeds or terrible actions weren’t entirely personal, aimed specifically and maliciously at you.
Even though that horrible person may have acted willfully toward you and you alone, something else was likely precipitating the nefarious action, outside your specific presence or actions, and probably very deep inside. It’s highly possible that the dreadful act stemmed from a very old, deeply intimate need of theirs and not primarily something precipitated by you or the circumstances. That need, I’ll bet, was probably something many of us carry around— lack of childhood love and support, rage at an absent parent, frustration at a stalled career, jealousy of everyone, feelings of unworthiness, and so on. In other words, they needed to do that.
- It was the best that they could do at that moment.
This is a hard one, especially because their action hurt you. When you realize that they needed to do it, for their own convoluted, unforgiving, transferential reasons, you can accept this principle a little better. To do so doesn’t mean you’re condoning or excusing them. Rather, you realize that at the moment of the unforgivable action their level of maturity made them act in the best way they knew how.
This is another way of saying that they weren’t aiming their entire quiver of poison arrows only at you. In fact, they could have acted no differently. As appalling as the action may have seemed to you, given where they were in their development and how they handled the circumstances, they were doing the very best they could. Even with good intentions, like, for example, most parents have, they may not have been equipped to respond, advise, or support you.
- What they did simply “missed the mark.”
The sin perpetrated on you can be seen another way, reframed. In Jesus’ original language, Aramaic, the word for “sin” also meant an error or mistake. From this standpoint, a sin is not irrevocable, to be pushed in our faces at the Last Judgment. It is simply a mistake and requires correction. Author and Unity minister Eric Butterworth in The Power Is Within You writes that sin is only “missing the mark” (p. 149).
Taking in this perspective benefits us. As we forgive others their mistakes, we also forgive ourselves. How? Jesus said, “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Lk. 6:37).
Our condemnation does nothing to unpack our own baggage of anger, resentment and hatred. When you see the wrongdoing instead as simply missing the mark, you get some distance, put some space between you and the action, stop the blame, and take the next constructive action for yourself.
- Continued resentment and blame, especially if not faced, keep battering you.
When we rush to condemn and blame the other, we produce more of the same suffering for ourselves. Hugging the other person’s wrong to you only glues it closer. Dr. Fred Luskin, co-founder, and director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project paints a graphic picture: “By carrying around these hurts, you are letting the person who harmed you continue to inflict new bruises. You are renting space to him in your head” (interview with Salley Shannon, “Five Steps That Could Change Your Life,” Woman’s Day, February 1, 2004, p. 61).
When we study and practice and embrace these principles, we will find it easier to forgive anyone, from those decades-old insults at the Christmas party that have grown beards to the pinpricks of yesterday’s cutoff drivers. We will feel lighter, freer, and amazing more energetic.
And we will be able to channel and convert all that unforgiving negative energy into positive, joyful feelings and enthusiastic living.
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011). For reprinting, please contact Noelle Sterne through her site: www.trustyourlifenow.com
Author, editor, mainstream and academic writing coach, writing, and meditation workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, poems, essays, and short stories in print and online publications and anthologies.
Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Ruminate, Story Monsters Ink, Textbook and Academic Authors Association, The Write Place At the Write Time, Two Drops of Ink, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. She also contributes monthly articles to several online literary blogs.
With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers.
Her book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) has examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings.
Noelle’s book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees.
In addition to her own expression in writing, Noelle’s mission is to help others create the lives they truly desire. Visit Noelle at http://www.trustyourlifenow.com/
A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume: https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/
Writing, and recovery heals the heart