April 27, 2009
Excerpt from Dare to Forgive
By Dr. Ned Hallowell
Chapter 3: Forgiveness Sets You Free
To understand forgiveness, you must first understand what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not running away. Forgiving someone does not mean that you condone what the person has done, nor does it mean that you invite them to do it again. It doesn't mean that you forget the offense, nor does it mean that by forgiving you tacitly invite bad things to happen again. It doesn't mean that you won't defend yourself.
So what does it mean? Forgiveness is one of those words that we assume we can define, but when asked we stumble. Before you read on, try it yourself. How would you define forgiveness?
The dictionary can help. My American Heritage College Dictionary defines "forgive" as, "To renounce anger or resentment against." It goes back to a Greek root word that means "to set free," as in freeing a slave. Ironically, when we forgive, the slave we free is ourselves. We free ourselves from being slaves to our own hatred.
According to the dictionary definition I just cited, in order to forgive we must renounce resentment or anger. We do not have to forget, ignore or condone anyone or anything. We just have to renounce our anger and resentment. Even doing that may seem impossible, especially if whom or what we are trying to forgive has hurt us deeply. How do you forgive murder, child abuse or any other horrible offense? How is anyone supposed to renounce anger and resentment in cases like those? How do you stop feeling what you are feeling, or at least how do you renounce what you are feeling?
This distinction is crucial, not just a nicety of language. One of the chief reasons that people don't try harder to forgive or be forgiven is because they think it is impossible. They think that forgiving means ceasing to feel anger, hurt or the desire for revenge. How can you forgive someone who has murdered your friend, ruined your career, taken away your spouse or hurt one of your children? If forgiveness means that you cease to feel any anger or resentment toward that person, then for most of us forgiveness is indeed impossible—if not immoral—when the injuries are severe.
Forgiveness has therefore taken on a daft quality for many people, or at least a quaintness, as if forgiveness were a sweet old lady—a sweet old idea, one to which we pay our respects but think of as fragile and weak, unable to help us do the heavy lifting of everyday life. For the heavy lifting we believe we need strong young men—ideas that pack a punch, like vengeance, retribution and that great masquerader, justice.
But that is wrong. Forgiveness is much stronger, not to mention much wiser, than vengeance or retribution, and it begets the best kind of justice. Forgiveness is not a sweet old lady but a strong, seasoned veteran of many wars. Forgiveness bears a greater burden than vengeance ever could. Vengeance lets hatred rule you. Forgiveness overrules hatred. Forgiveness is not only stronger; it is much more clever and wise than vengeance or retribution. Forgiveness takes intelligence, discipline, imagination and persistence, as well as a special psychological strength, something athletes call mental toughness and warriors call courage.
If you look back at the definition of forgiveness, you can see why so much more is required of a person to forgive than to take revenge. When you forgive, you renounce anger and resentment. You give up your claim to anger and resentment. Above all, you cease to live under their rule. You are consciously, deliberately renouncing your claim to what you probably want more than anything in the world: retribution, vengeance, a chance to get even. Doing this takes immense courage and strength.
But forgiveness does not require that you cease to feel the anger and resentment you so naturally experience. Not at all.
This crucial distinction is what makes forgiveness humanly possible, albeit still strange and difficult.
What does it mean to give up your title to anger and resentment or to refuse to live under their rule? It means that you set yourself free from those feelings. You no longer let those feelings own you; you disown them. When you feel the yoke of hatred start to take you in its grip, you step out. You lift it off. You renounce it. You put on the yoke of love, instead.
When you've been hurt, why on earth would you do this? In order to improve your own life. As Joanna North, a philosopher and renowned expert on forgiveness, put it: "What is annulled in the act of forgiveness is not the crime itself but the distorting effect that this wrong has upon one's relations with the wrongdoer and perhaps with others."
Throughout her writing, North emphasizes how forgiving (or accepting forgiveness) makes people healthier and happier. As she says, "Through forgiveness the pain and hurt caused by the original wrong are released, or at least they are not allowed to mar the whole of one's being for all time"
On the other hand, holding onto your title to anger and resentment, as if it were a precious deed of ownership, is like holding onto your title to a polluted pond.
Now, return to what I asked before: If you know why you want to forgive, then how do you do it? How do you stop feeling what you are feeling? It is often not enough just to want to. How do you stop your anger from ruling you?
The definitions point the way. You do not have to stop feeling what you are feeling. That's impossible. However, you can refuse to act on those feelings and you can refuse to welcome those feelings when they hungrily come to your door, hoping to feed on your fantasies of revenge.
When we forgive, we may continue to feel anger and resentment, just as we may continue to feel anger and resentment at the traffic cop who stopped us. But, if we are wise, we put those feelings aside. We do not let them rule our actions.
Furthermore, we try not to welcome the feelings when they skulk back, looking to be nursed. That means when we think of the person who hurt us, we do not give in for very long to the temptation to dream up scenes of revenge or revel in methods of torture. You can luxuriate in imagined scenes of revenge, you can cuddle and nurse your angry feelings, but after a while you risk nursing those feelings into a monster that ends up destroying you, not your enemy.
Try to think of feelings of anger and resentment as dangerous drugs—useful sometimes in small doses, but highly toxic as regular intake. Try to resist welcoming them into your imagination. They rarely do you good. They often do you serious harm.
When the vengeful feelings creep in, refuse to live under their rule, for your own sake.
Instead, be guided by the principle of love.
This is where forgiveness gets tricky. How can you love, or even like, someone who has hurt you? You naturally feel emotions quite different from love, be they fear, anger, resentment, dislike or even hatred. You cannot control what you feel, any more than you can control the weather.
But you can control what you do with what you feel. You can renounce the rule of anger, resentment and hatred, and subscribe instead to the rule of love. This much you can control. This much you can consciously and deliberately decide to do.
Gradually, as you resist the rule of anger, you can develop empathy for your enemy. There is no one you can't develop something like love for if you know their whole story. I know that sounds like an awful stretch when you are talking about people who have done terrible deeds. In those cases, simply begin by letting the principle of love rule your actions, the principle of love for all humankind, not just love for your friends. Then, gradually try to understand where the evil came from. Try to understand how your enemy, who was once an innocent and loving infant, turned into such a monster. As you understand, your hatred will gradually subside, and in its place something like love will start to grow.
Right alongside, you will grow as well.
*As an adult adoptee, I just wanted to comment on this article. Adoption is the great deceiver. Why? Because it requires the adoptee to disown his/her own reality. The reality of loss (of family, relationships, identity, connection, grief). We are legally transferred into a new identity and family, without regard to our loss of who we were born as. That is primal. And deceptive. Adoption is celebrated, when to the adoptee, we are denied our very core. It throws us immediately into the dysfunctional disowning of our very LIVES. That is why (in my opinion) it is extremely hard for an awakening adoptee to forgive. Because the love and truth we NEED to forgive was pulled up by the roots when we were asked to disown our own reality and fulfill the role we are adopted into.
We have to learn to embrace our whole, intertwined, paralyzed identity ~ breaking through societal expectations and shame-inducing sealed records of our very identities and core selves. Emotions locked in place to survive. Disowning is our way of life. Until we don't know up from down. No roots to hold on to what is real ~ real anything, including love and acceptance of ourselves. Just a facade. Until we have the courage to become real and face the disenfranchised grief that has held us as emotional puppets our entire lives. Not being real.
Forgiveness requires realness & truth. Then and only then can adoptees journey through to genuine forgiveness and love.