UNFORGIVENESS (…but I LIKE putting myself in prison!)

I’ve had many, many years to practice unforgiveness. Unfortunately, I’m actually pretty good at it. My more noble side recognizes that refusing to forgive is toxic, but its so rewarding! I feel so self-righteous…for about 30 seconds. Then the “ugh” sets in.

When I’m able to step away from my ego for a moment, and gain some perspective, I admit that I have wronged as many people as have wronged me. And if I think harboring that anger and self-righteousness will bring the offender to humble penitence, I may be in for a long wait.

I want my forgiveness to be conditional: IF the offender apologizes and seeks to make whatever restitution I deem appropriate, THEN I can forgive them (maybe). Its as though I can somehow control them by not forgiving them. In truth, I’m keeping myself in an ugly prison.

This is not about ignoring or excusing the inappropriate and sometimes cruel behavior of others. I’ll talk about dealing with those situations next time. My concern is “how am I poisoning MYSELF by refusing to forgive”? And what exactly is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is deciding to no longer be held captive by the offense of another.
It doesn’t excuse the behavior of others. It does develop compassion for our shared flaws.
It’s not about forgetting. It’s deciding that the offense will no longer control us.
It doesn’t require reconciliation. It does free us to choose more wisely.
It doesn’t just happen in one moment. It is a process; we decide to forgive and then the work begins.
It doesn’t expect the offender to agree or even understand. It is based on the acceptance of what is, not what should be.

When someone (intentionally or not) says something that offends or hurts me, my ego goes into overdrive. Part of this is biological: we are created with a very active fear response, whose purpose is to keep us from harm. I interpret their words as an attack and respond accordingly. What I am learning, though, is how often I make a quantum leap from what is said to what I hear. My interpretation of their words is often full of assumptions and deeply tied to my own beliefs about myself. What got triggered in me?

At this point I have 3 choices: (1) act like it didn’t hurt, and stuff my emotions (NOT a good idea); (2) start planning my retaliation (NOT a good idea); or (3) acknowledge, at least to myself, that I was hurt, give the other the chance to clarify what they meant, and spend a bit of time in honest self-reflection. Did the hurtful words have a ring of truth? Is there something I’ve been avoiding? If nothing rings true, then consider that the offense was not really about you. I’ve certainly struck out at others because I was struggling with my own issues.

Remember that forgiveness is not the same as excusing. Nor does it require forgetting. Cruel atrocities have been committed throughout human history, and the offenders should be held accountable. But I’m no longer willing to sit miserably in a prison cell of my own making. May each of us continue to grow in courage and self-awareness as we learn to truly forgive and move forward.

Next week: When Forgiveness Seems Impossible

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