To Forgive, Not Forget

There will come a time when heart patients will be advised, along with their medications, dietary changes and exercise regimes, to release the resentments that have built up like rigid shells around their hearts. They will be told to practice forgiveness in order to free themselves from feelings that constrict not only their psychological health but their physical health.

The impact of stored anger on the human system is hardly news. The stress of such negative emotional states radically affects us in unhealthy ways. But knowing this and being able to do something about it are two very different things. We can know that we need to learn forgiveness, but it is highly likely that we know little about how to do that.

I forgive you,” we might declare in all honesty to those who have hurt us. We want to put the pain in the past and get on with our lives and with our relationships. For a while, such declarations seem to work. The anger is absent. We feel clearer when we are with the other person. But then something happens that pushes one of our buttons, something that stimulates old reactivity. The anger and resentment suddenly reappear. What happened? Why doesn't it work so well to “forgive and forget”?

It's both a simple and complex answer: Forgiving is not forgetting.

One of the common misconceptions about forgiveness is that it requires forgetting the events that caused us pain. This notion often leads to the pseudo-forgiveness that is nothing but mechanisms of denial, repression or suppression of feelings — and those defense mechanisms never function the way we wish. They cover up old feelings, but the cost of that cover is a decrease in the overall energy available to the organism. When our energy is trapped maintaining defensive postures, we are robbed of the very strength we need to make positive changes in our lives.

Forgiveness means no longer being activated to feelings of upset, anger, disappointment and hurt when painful memories surface. Forgiveness means letting go of resentment, letting go of needing the past to be anything other than it was.

But the letting go is difficult. It requires more than willpower or the conscious intention to let the past stay in the past tense. Conscious choice is just the beginning of the forgiveness process. Choosing to forgive ourselves and others, and allowing ourselves to be forgiven by others, may well be one of the most life-enhancing, and even life-saving, of enterprises.

In Jewish tradition, prayers for forgiveness include three steps: We pray that, one, we be forgiven; two, we be released; and three, we achieve atonement — despite any and all of our failings, all of the pain we have caused ourselves, others and our planet. Each stage presents its own challenge. Meeting each challenge prepares you for the next — and the ultimate breakthrough in reaping the power of forgiveness.

Step 1. Why is it so difficult to say, “I forgive you”?

The first step on the path to forgiveness is the conscious decision to forgive ourselves and to forgive another.I forgive you” is the announcement of this choice and this commitment. Difficult though it might be to say, either in person or in the imagination, it is the necessary beginning of the process. “I forgive you” means that I want to free myself from the “stuckness” of my own resentment and self-righteousness. It means I have become aware of how my resentments rob me of the fuller enjoyment of my own life. It means I choose a path of greater life. It means I am willing to step into new territory.

The incredibly compelling mechanism of “righteous indignation” renews our upset and anger. There is something in our ego-self that relishes this experience of righteousness. What we need to let the ego-self know is that our lack of forgiveness creates greater pain for ourselves than it does for the ones we are unwilling to forgive. Plus, we remain trapped in the past and unavailable for the present.

Consider the reverse situation. When other people truly forgive us, their forgiveness does not complete the process for us, but for them. Only when we are able to forgive ourselves can we truly receive another's forgiveness. Otherwise, we are still walking within the clouds of our guilt.

So I want to forgive you in order to free myself from the pain I am carrying. I want to forgive you so that I might get on with my life, my unique path of personal evolution. In order to do so, I must choose to release my attachment to being the “righteous victim,” even though that stance is so very powerful.

There are critical questions to ask. Is it worth my own survival to allow myself to forgive you — even when I know you have done me wrong? It's one thing to forgive minor offenses, but what about the major things, actions that have caused us irreparable harm, lifelong grief, gut-wrenching loss? Are those cause to withhold forgiveness even at the cost of my own health and peace of mind?

What's more, forgiveness can be more far-reaching. There comes a time when we choose paths of healing and wholeness because we become aware that our suffering adds to the suffering in the world. “I forgive you” and “I forgive me” announce an intention to be free of the weights that belong to the past.

Step 2. Letting go of needing the past to be other than it was.

The second stage of forgiveness is marked by an acceptance that the past was as it was, whether we want it to have been that way or not. This act of acceptance is evidence of the release of the “should have been different” that we have associated with acts we have done and acts done to us by others. This kind of letting go means we are actually choosing the past to be exactly as it was.

Our memories may still be associated with pain, but they are no longer carriers of the viruses of self-recrimination, self-righteousness or righteous-victimhood. How does one release the need for the past to be different than it was? Intellectually, by noticing that it simply was the way it was. If we decide that there is meaning and purpose in our existence, then it follows that what has been carries meaning and purpose to be discovered and honored and lived. If we believe that events happen chaotically and capriciously, then there is no reason to think that they could have been any better anyway.

Actually choosing your own past allows you to open your heart to all that has been — to embrace it all. This does not mean to deny, repress or suppress your feelings about that past. In fact, choosing it allows you to release denial and repression.

Try that on for a moment: “I choose my past to have been exactly as it was.” Sit with that, and meet your memories, your doubts, even your pain, with that affirmation.

Step 3. Atonement is more than decision, more than choice. Atonement is action.

The atoning act involves expressing energies of healing in our world. Atonement means creating something positive and life-affirming that could not exist without the past being exactly as it was.

Atonement is an act that translates pain into purpose. Atonement affirms deeper meaning in our lives, and contributes to the greater healing and wholeness of all beings. There are still memories of the past, there are still pockets of pain and anguish, but there is no more resentment, no more revenge, no more blame.

Instead, there is something more powerful and lasting and deep. There is gratitude.

What helps — a lot — is to realize forgiveness is a practice.

In Jewish liturgy, we ask the Eternal Presence of Forgiveness to “forgive us, release us and grant us atonement.” In the mystical aspect of Judaism called the Kabbalah, it is recognized that we are the ones who must begin the process that we want the universe to sustain. If we want forgiveness, we must first be willing to give it.

Choosing to forgive, choosing the past to be as it was, and creating meaning from what has been are not always discrete stages in the process. Sometimes the steps are almost simultaneous; sometimes they take more time and more practice. But every step in the direction of forgiveness is a step toward greater joy and fulfillment in living our lives. Each step increases the possibilities of healing for us all. Each step brings us closer to acting out our forgiveness each moment of every day.

Ribono shel olam..... Ruling Spirit of the Universe...

I now forgive all who have hurt me, all who have done me wrong, whether deliberately or by accident, whether by word, by deed, or by thought, whether against my pride, my person, or my property, in this incarnation or in any other. May no one be punished on my account.

May it be Your Will, Eternal One, my God and the God of my fathers and mothers, that I no longer be bound by the wrongs which I have committed, that I be free from patterns which cause pain to me and to others, that I no longer do that which is evil in Thy sight.

May my past failings be wiped away in Your great Mercy, Eternal One, and may they no longer manifest through pain and suffering.

Let my words, my thoughts, my meditations, and my acts flow from the fullness of Your Being, Eternal One, Source of my being and my Redeemer.


Originally published in the Evergreen Monthly, August 2004