Maybe you have been hurt and are rolling your eyes at the idea of someone telling you to forgive, “But you don’t understand the depth and severity of my pain!” My answer is harsh but true: it doesn’t matter.
Holocaust survivors have been able to forgive their tormentors, so you likely have nothing that harsh on your plate. Besides forgiveness is not about levels of severity. It is an act that is highly illogical – forgiving someone who has harmed you – but a necessary one and a beautiful one, like love. Let’s get this straight: it is not a condoning of the actions. It’s about letting go of the anger and the pain and the hold that it has on you. It’s about shutting the door on that and moving forward. It is hard and illogical, but something ever worth striving for.
Why should you do it? Well, for one thing, mentioned before: the letting go of that chapter of your life instead of letting it continually control your actions, feelings, and motivations. It lightens your spirit. Pain and anger may give you a false sense of strength and security. You may feel held up in a moment of weakness but it is a false strength, one that any new minor wind can blow over. Only forgiving will let you actually stand on your own.
Forgiving is scary because at first, it means a terrible sense of vulnerability as the sense of self you’ve built up around the injury and hurt has held you up and defined you. To let that go means letting go of your identity and that would be scary for anyone. But it’s a false identity. Are you really your hurt? Are you really defined by that thing that happened? I doubt it. You’re a much more complex and meaningful person than that one thing that happened to you.
Forgive because you’re not the all-powerful supreme being you think you are. It’s a true act of humility and wisdom. You are not the arbiter of justice, nor the judge of all human beings. There is humility in understanding that it is not your place to vindicate the world and to right the scales, nor are you so high and mighty as to place yourself about others. Nor can it be possible. Nor is it healing.
It allows the past to stay in the past rather than dictate your present and thus control your future. An unforgiven hurt will dictate how you interact with people moving forward. Whether you are harsh or welcoming, whether you learn from and change, or repeat the mistakes of the past. In subtle ways, it manipulates you and not into favorable actions.
Let people be free. Forgiveness releases people from their own mistakes. It gives them the chance to become something better or to do something better. It allows someone, even the harshest of criminals, to release the defensiveness. And what replaces that can be so much more, remorse, atonement, and growth.
And if none of these reasons convince you, then how about this one: you will need it one day. No matter who you are, one day you will need someone to forgive you. Great or small, you’re a human and therefore you f**k up. Someday you’ll want forgiveness for the hurt you caused and then what? Give what you one day hope to receive.
How do you do it? It’s simple, but not easy. Empathize with the person who hurt you. Learn about them, put yourself in their place, and think about the pain and hurt that caused them to act in that way. And the best way to come at this is to put yourself in a happy place first. Imagine your happy place: your place and activity that brings you true peace and joy. Picture it in your mind and sit in there for 5-10 minutes. Then switch your thoughts to the person and the situation. You’ll likely approach things from a different perspective. And from this perspective slowly move toward forgiveness.
Ultimately, forgiveness is a true act of love. It is not transactional, easy, or logical. But it is the glue that allows us to move forward. Every religion preaches some form of living a life from the perspective of love, so why not take it seriously? It’s not easy, and it doesn’t come overnight – especially if you’ve held onto things for a while or the injury was grave – but you can start today and not be held captive by the past.