Today, I want to cover a necessary and somewhat controversial subject: forgiveness. While I would like nothing more than for this to be the comprehensive guide on the subject, I realize that I need to make this digestible for one sitting’s worth of reading. Just now, I checked Amazon to see how many books just have the word “forgive” in the title: 3752. So, this entry will mainly reflect my own personal experiences with this subject. First, I will (as briefly as possible) explain why it is important to forgive others and ourselves. Secondly, I will give you my four step plan on HOW to forgive. Lastly, I will end by punctuating what forgiveness is not. (It’s necessary to understand the distinction.)
Why It Is Important to Forgive
There are many benefits to forgiving. I could go on and on about them, but instead I’m going to let Dr. Everett L Worthington, licensed clinical psychologist & researcher and author of 30 books about the subject tell us what he has discovered. He says, “Forgiveness isn’t just practiced by saints or martyrs, nor does it benefit only its recipients. Instead, studies are finding connections between forgiveness and physical, mental, and spiritual health and evidence that it plays a key role in the health of families, communities, and nations.1”
I have personally seen the benefits of forgiveness in my own life. When I was permanently injured in a car accident when I was 18 years old, it was not my fault. My boyfriend2 at the time was driving, and he fell asleep while driving. Clearly, it was his fault. He didn’t mean for it to happen, but that didn’t make me any less paralyzed for the rest of my life. I knew that I wanted to forgive him from the moment that the accident happened. I could not imagine the kind of guilt he was experiencing, and more importantly, I didn’t want to be the victim twice. I knew that holding on to these negative feelings would hold me back. And though I was willing to forgive from the moment it happened, it was a process. A very worthwhile process.
Step One: Be Willing to Forgive, Extinguishing Thoughts of Vengeance
When I was a teenager, I was very into exacting revenge, punishing those who had wronged me. I worked at a Burger King drive-through, and one time a man wearing an Applebee’s shirt came through who was so rude to me (for incorrectly repeating back his order) that he caused me to uncontrollably sob for the better part of a half hour. Nothing made me feel better until I thought about finding him and punishing him for what he had done to me. So, I did what any normal person would do in the 90s before the Internet was a major thing: I got out the Yellow Pages (this was a giant phonebook) and I called every nearby Applebee’s to find out who this guy was. And, eventually, I found out his name was Tony. And, eventually, I found out his work schedule. I convinced my friend Kerri to drive us there. My plan to dine and ditch got somewhat derailed by the discovery that he was a manager and not a server. So, we ate there, and I left behind the meanest note that I have ever written. As we got into the car afterward, feeling somewhat proud of ourselves, the car wouldn’t start. We were stranded and had to ride the bus to get home. After that, I decided never to do revenge again.
Vengeance sounds fun, but the truth is that it’s not. The truth is that we can never satisfactorily punish anyone the degree that we feel they deserve it. My note to Tony: very anticlimactic. Did he learn something from this experience? No. He probably continued to be a fabulous jerk. (Though you think you would know better working in the service industry, but whatever.) The point is that nothing was accomplished, and we had to ride the bus home.
Letting go of feelings of vengeance has physical implications. This is aptly illustrated in the medical cases of Dr. Dabney Ewin3, a surgeon who specialized in skin grafts for burn patients. He recognized that burn injuries often came with a lot of anger. He states, “I’d […] help them forgive themselves or the other person, […] I’d say, ‘You can still pursue damages through an attorney. You’re entitled to be angry, but for now I’m asking you to abandon your entitlement and let it go, to direct your energy toward healing, and turn this over to God or nature or whoever you worship. It’s not up to you to get revenge on yourself or someone else. When you know at a feeling level that you’re letting it go, raise your hand.’ Then I’d shut up, they’d raise their hand, and I’d know that skin graft was gonna take.” Because of his unique take on medicine, his patients had a much higher rate of healing.
Step Two: Try to Feel Empathy for the Offender and Look for the Good
This is the second step, and it is a hard one. I know from personal experience that forgiving is super hard. The offender doesn’t seem worthy of our consideration. Why should we have to feel empathy for them when they clearly didn’t do the same for us?
This is the trouble with NOT feeling empathy for the offender: they start to look less human to us. They don’t have feelings. They are just idiots who deserve to be treated badly. In fact, it doesn’t hurt them when they get tortured. They should be killed. Right?
“But, Kim, what if they are a white supremacist Nazi who has killed and maimed? Surely, there is nothing I can do to empathize with that sick, twisted soul.” Yeah, I know it can be really hard. But empathizing with someone to see their humanity does not mean that you agree with what they believe or approve of what they have done. It simply means that you see them as a human who has done both good and bad, and where they may have jumped the shark and done some heinous things, you hope for the possibility that they may have some good in them. Something worth saving.
I watch a lot of true crime, and I encountered this sad tale of a young woman named Natascha Kampusch, who was kidnapped when she was 10 by a man who enslaved and abused her for more than eight years before she escaped. When asked how she managed to survive such an ordeal, she said, “Because I forgave him every day.4”
These are extreme examples, but the truth is that most of our offenders have not done something of this caliber. That should make empathizing with them a little easier. Well, hopefully.
Step Three: Don’t Say Anything Negative about the Offender
This may seem really hard. And I’m not telling you to keep quiet about anyone who has abused you or broken the law. Obviously, those who have offended us by committing egregious acts need to be discovered, and we need to use our words to turn them in. And we should do this.
What I am saying is that if we are on the road to forgiving someone, we should not open our mouths to spread hate. All this does is open up wounds we are trying to close.
I once had a friend who I loved (and I still love her), but for complicated reasons which I still don’t understand, she decided to very abruptly end her friendship with me. Truthfully, I didn’t deserve this in any way, and it was hard to deal with this kind of blatant rejection. I have been given many opportunities to talk about this amongst mutual friends. When her name comes up, I only express my sadness about the loss of the relationship, recalling the many positive things about this former friend.
Whether or not you believe in the Bible, we can still extrapolate from the wise words of James when he explained, “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. (James 3:2)5” Also let me make this abundantly clear: I still struggle doing this. It is really difficult to keep my trap shut when it comes to people who have hurt the ones I love. I find myself almost reveling about talking about how imperfect they are, and how everything they do is further evidence of their lack of worth. This is wrong, and I have been trying to be better about it.
If you truly want to forgive someone, you need to use your words to build and not destroy. If you can’t use your words to build, don’t use them at all.
Step Four: Process through the Forgiveness and Move On
Whether you believe as I do, in a God who knows all, and Jesus Christ who has atoned for us or not, processing through forgiveness means letting go and letting God (or nature or the universe) take control of the situation. When it comes to getting what they deserve, we sometimes go overboard in what we believe offenders should get for the wrongs which they have done to us (or those we love). They should pay and pay and pay and pay and pay and pay and then pay a little more! This means that regardless of what happens to them, we still will never be satisfied. So, instead of latching your hope to an ideal future which will never exist, you should instead let it go, resting easy knowing that whatever vengeance you have imagined in your head is nothing compared to what your offenders are actually going through: being themselves.
Tony, the Applebee’s guy who ruined one of my nights, is either one of two things. First, he could be a fantastic jerk who is impatient and verbally abusive. In which case, me letting go would let him struggle with being a person who is like this. Really, being Tony is the worst thing that could happen to him. Secondly, he could be an otherwise nice guy who, for unknown reasons (to me) had a really hard night, and all he wanted was a stupid whopper with cheese add bacon, a large french fry and a DIET Coke, and he literally could not bear the thought of his order being wrong. This caused him to act uncharacteristically mean, and afterward, he felt really bad about it, while eating his 1500 calorie meal. In which case, I can easily move on supposing that he aims for better things with his life than verbally assaulting unsuspecting drive-through girls. Either way, I acknowledge that I am not in charge of things. I couldn’t exact a punishment that would fit this particular crime, and this can be freeing. It’s not our responsibility to punish our offenders.
Holding grudges and not forgiving others impedes our ability to be truly happy. And the best vengeance is living a happy life.
When I was 18, something was taken from me that I could never get back: my physical independence. Barring medical miracles or futuristic robot suits, I will most likely live out the rest of my life unable to walk, play the piano, brush my own hair, or scratch my own itches. My former boyfriend took something from me by his careless actions. Could anything he could possibly do repay this deficit? No. It’s impossible. Which means if I wanted compensation for my loss, I could never ever achieve it. I’d be quadriplegic, but I would also be suspending my happiness for a future which would never exist. I am a quadriplegic. But I’m not suspending my happiness for any reason. I was a victim once, but I don’t have to be a victim twice.
What Forgiveness Is Not
Forgiveness is not pretending you were not hurt. Forgiveness is not condoning what the person did to you. Forgiveness is not trusting the offender. Forgiveness is not relieving the person of responsibility.
Forgiveness IS relieving yourself of responsibility. It is letting go of vengeance, being willing to forgive. It is feeling empathy. It is not speaking evil. It is a process. I knew that I had truly forgiven my former boyfriend when good things were happening for him, and I was happy for him. This is just my experience. Even though I have difficulties in my life, for the most part, I am happy. I love living my life, and I am so grateful for everything which I have.
Forgiveness is so important. It is one of the most difficult things that we can do in this life. Holding a grudge and not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I am not perfect at this, but I have found as I have tried to apply these steps in my own life, I have come closer to forgiving others. In fact, I have done so in a way I did not think was possible.
2 Everyone who hears my story always wants to know what happened to the boyfriend responsible for my injury. He was very willing to stay with me forever, but I only liked him as a friend, so I broke up with him while I was in the hospital. We remain friends to this day.