Forgive or Forget? Let Go of a Painful Past

Despite the stress of planning for 200 guests, the headaches caused by grumbling in-laws and the embarrassment of the maid of honor tripping on the hem of her dress as she was going down the aisle, Lori and Ken (not their real names) managed to survive their wedding day and relax into newly wedded bliss during their two week honeymoon cruise.

But as their married life settled into a routine, Lori found herself becoming increasingly annoyed at Ken for minor transgressions – a wet towel on the floor not being a capital crime – and letting her anger seethe when they had disagreements. Small issues would trigger Lori’s rage, and although she knew she was blowing things out of proportion, she couldn’t seem to stop herself.

Lori could feel her marriage disintegrating, and although she loved him, she couldn’t seem to let go of her anger and forgive Ken his foibles.

“Forgiveness feels impossible,” she reported. “I fight with my husband, sometimes over things that don’t even matter. I know the hurts pile up and affect our entire relationship. It’s like I want to stay angry.” Lori felt this as a burden and saw herself as being at a fork in the road: she could choose to hold on to her pain and anger or release it and move forward.

Thus, Lori began a journey of forgiveness, one that required her to go back in time before being able to work on her relationship with Ken.

“All through grammar school,” Lori recalled, “I was taunted and teased by the other kids because of my size. I felt alone and alienated from everyone – the kids at school, my teachers and my family.” Then when she was 13, Lori was molested by an older cousin, yet never told anyone about the violation. With the help of a therapist, Lori recognized that she was acting out her unresolved anger from her childhood and desire for revenge in her relationship with Ken. Lori decided that she had to forgive her childhood offenders in order to have the kind of marriage and life she wanted as an adult.

Yet, forgiveness is much easier said than done. For the most part, forgiveness seems impossible to many of us, especially when the situation feels unfair and extremely painful. If we forgive the offender, we may feel that we are excusing or minimizing his or her behavior. By remaining angry, we tend to believe that we have some control or power over the situation and that we are hurting the person who hurt us – in other words, getting even.

In reality, though, we are the only ones suffering as we tie ourselves up in negativity, believing that our happiness is dependent on staying angry. Revenge is a futile action that only imprisons and further victimizes the victim.

Granted, forgiveness is a difficult and misunderstood challenge, yet it is one of the most healing experiences we can have. Robert Enright and Gayle Reed at the International Forgiveness Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison define forgiveness as “a response to an injustice that is a turning to the good in the face of this wrongdoing.” Forgiveness, according to Enright and Reed, involves a “merciful restraint from pursuing resentment or revenge,” and giving instead “the gifts of mercy, generosity and love.”

Too often, forgiving and forgetting are mistakenly intertwined. It is impossible to forgive what we cannot remember, so Lori began her process by – over a period of several weeks – sitting down and writing out a list of all her past pain, associating each one with the person who hurt her.

Lori’s next step was to make a firm decision to forgive the people who had hurt her. She wrote a letter to each one, telling him or her of her decision. While she didn’t actually mail most of these letters – she no longer knew the whereabouts of many of her offenders – she knew that it was the decision to forgive that mattered.

Over the next few months, Lori reread the letters she wrote and struggled with the process of renewing and deepening her decision to forgive. She found her own stubbornness coming to the surface – all she wanted was revenge. When she found herself angry with Ken, she wanted to hurt him back. But she stayed with it, and eventually became aware of a healing process taking place within her. She felt her anger diminish and even began to experience a desire to wish goodness to those who had hurt her, recognizing that each one of them had their own story and their own pain. And she found herself less angry with her husband and better able to have disagreements without launching a thermonuclear war.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean minimizing or negating the seriousness of the violation, and it certainly doesn’t mean staying in the same house or in a relationship with someone who hurts our children or us. Yet a person can simultaneously forgive an offender and testify against him in court. It is not necessary to have an apology or even an admission of guilt from the person who has hurt us before we forgive. In fact, setting up any conditions limits our ability to forgive and prolongs the process.

In the best of circumstances, forgiveness does not happen overnight. The person who instantly forgives should be suspect, as forgiveness is not real if it is done only because we “should” forgive or if it is done without becoming fully aware of all that we feel. It takes time to become aware of the pain and time to recognize the benefits we will reap – by not dragging the anger into other relationships – from forgiveness.

It’s fairly easy to talk about forgiveness when we consider minor events that bring us pain. But what about the woman whose daughter is killed by a drunken driver? What about the loss of a loved one in a drive-by shooting? How do we forgive these actions and why should we? How do we forgive politicians who lie to us, or terrorists who blow up an airplane on which our family and hundreds of other innocent people are flying? Is it even possible to forgive these horrific crimes?

Most of us are shocked when we hear of someone who forgives the person who murdered her child. We may even get angry that they did this, perhaps because their action challenges us to do likewise.

Forgiveness feels risky to most of us. We tend to believe that if we forgive someone, they will take advantage of us again or see us as a fool. If we give up our anger we feel vulnerable, because anger tends to create a false sense of power. The reality is that the real risk is in not forgiving and becoming an angry and cynical person who brings these qualities into other relationships. When this happens, the offender has truly “won,” because we gave that person the power to ruin our lives. That becomes the real offense, and one over which we have complete control.

As Lori reread each letter for the last time, she threw it in the fireplace, watching the symbol of her anger and pain go up in flames. She felt a sense of gratitude and pride in her own willingness to forgive and move on.

This ritual also signaled a new beginning for she and Ken. They began to process their feelings more constructively when one of them hurt the other. Lori felt like she had taken on a new stance in life, one of understanding and forgiveness. It wasn’t that she never felt hurt or anger, but rather once she did, her focus was to come to a place of forgiveness.

Seldom do we see regret when the victim of a heinous, senseless crime forgives. Instead, they usually report a sense of freedom and peace.

Nothing can bring back a murdered child or one killed by a drunken driver. Nothing can bring back the innocence of a young woman who has been sexually assaulted. Forgiveness, however, frees the victim to move forward and create the best life possible for herself and those around her. It is only with forgiveness that we will become the compassionate and loving people we are destined to be.

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