(42) The concept of forgiveness

INTRO: During the break, I had some time, along with my final year studies, to re-evaluate my healing journey so far, particularly because I was confronted with a past that had left deep scars in my memory. This was when I realised that perhaps I hadn’t healed the way I desired, and I had to make some key decisions about how I would go about in healing better, in which forgiveness was a part of. This episode discusses the nuances in the concept of forgiveness and the practice of forgiveness, where every individual has a right to practice forgiveness in the way that they decide is comfortable for them and allows them to heal for the long-term. Regardless of how we forgive, forgiveness of oneself is emphasised in the episode as a key step to releasing feelings of resentment and focusing on our own healing journeys.We all deserve to have healthy relationships, those relationships that are built on the foundations of trust, loyalty and love, and that blossom into long-lasting connections that leave an imprint on our hearts and minds and transform our perspective on life

Humans are one of the most interdependent species; many species, including humans, are altricial but the immense amount of support, care and love we require the moment we are born is unique to humans. As babies, we enter the world requiring a strong support network that will aid us to grow and mature with time, but once we are exposed to the rest of the world, we also require a trustworthy and strong network of connections with humans, and other beings, who are able to help us continue on with our journeys.

Unfortunately, our journeys are not smooth and come with multiple, even countless, barriers and fluctuations that really test the strength of the connections we have made over time, really testing how strong our support network really is. This isn’t to say that we, as individuals, put in no work whatsoever and fully depend on others for success and support; difficult times are the biggest tests for our own strengths, but hitting a low point in our lives, or multiple, helps us to identify whether we can overcome this obstacle on our own or with the help of others, be it your closest and strongest connections or professionals that specialise in the area of concern.

There are many types of problems one can have and the effects of these will be dependent on yourself. We all can suffer from the same issue, but the impacts of these problems will be varied according to who you are as a person and how you tend to cope with difficulties. However, a lot of our problems do arise from connections, from those connections that are weak, that destabilise the support network we have created over the years, or that we were born into. Some connections we have no choice over, such as the family or the home you are born into, or being coerced into making connections for the sake of others. The connections that we choose to make, some of them turn out to be of poor quality, or were of poor quality from the start but we chose to believe that they have substance.

Whatever the nature of these connections, the guilt that comes after realising the impact of these connections on our own lives and our support networks is very heavy, too heavy for many people to deal with by themselves, but along with guilt comes the dilemma of what to do next. Our brains go haywire, in many instances, on how to deal with a connection that’s pulling us down, our other connections down, often due to the multitude of options available for us but also various factors that stop us from taking a quick decision.

This main question of asking ourselves “what should we do with this meaningless connection?” leads back to the concept that has left so many of us divided, be it based on religious or personal beliefs, the concept of forgiveness.

Forgiveness, in its basic definition, is an act, a verb, something that the hurt do to the harmer. Those that are harmed forgive those that harmed them to overcome resentment and attain greater inner peace. Forgiveness doesn’t just include the person giving forgiveness but also the person receiving forgiveness, whether they have asked for it or have no idea that they have been forgiven.

No matter what the context of the act of forgiveness is, forgiveness is an act that involves more than one person, more than one being. So then if forgiveness is a verb, how is it a concept?

I believe that everything is more than just a noun, verb, adjective, or any other similar categories. In my previous episodes, I have emphasised the need for decategorisation of our complex world. Our names are more than just nouns, the word beautiful is more than just an adjective, forgiveness is also more than just a verb. Forgiveness is a concept, and like all concepts, forgiveness is what you define it to be, in any situation, for any person.

Forgiveness is not a ‘set-in-stone’ concept, as we are told at a very young age. Forgiveness is flexible, forgiveness has religious and spiritual variations, those variations that are shaped with our life experiences and elements within us that are inherent to us, gifts we are born with. So, is it right for us to stick to a definition of forgiveness when forgiveness itself is unique to the individual giving forgiveness? Is it right for us to shame others for the way in which they give forgiveness? Whether it’s “too nice” or “too harsh”? Is it right for us to restrict people to a definition that feels right to us, or right for the rest of society, but doesn’t feel right for the people in question?

Whilst understanding that universal definitions of forgiveness and punishment are required in relation to the justice system, variations for both are still required for each situation and individual requiring justice. The forgiveness I am addressing in this episode is more on the personal level, but I do understand that even personal relationship problems can lead to legal sanctions.

I have had my personal battles with forgiveness and still am not entirely happy and satisfied with how I think of forgiveness, partially because I feel this guilt that I am not doing what I have been told to do from a young age and what is expected of me. But this guilt is indicative of a major flaw in the ways in which we perceive forgiveness, and then act it out. Going back to the simplified definition of forgiveness being an act of forgiving someone, or people, who have hurt you, if we look carefully, this definition compels us to base the act of forgiveness entirely on the person/people that we are forgiving, when in fact forgiveness is not just about the person being forgiven, but also the person that is forgiving.

This is common sense, but when we see forgiveness being played out, it’s usually the complete opposite. We see those that are in the process of forgiving give their entire energy into forgiving the other person, often times forcing themselves to induce feelings of compassion and kindness to those that have broken their trust and disrespected their love. This is because so many of us believe, and are told to believe, that forgiveness is the equivalent to compassion, and compassion means releasing all feelings of resentment towards that person, or people; if this means reintroducing that connection back into our networks then be it, because the “strong” forgive. Being a “better” person means we choose kindness over resentment.

But I ask this, if forgiveness is unique to us, why isn’t kindness, compassion and relieving yourself from resentment also unique to us? Why isn’t being the better person a personal decision but instead dictated by what people outside the broken relationship think?

The biggest flaw in many of our understandings of forgiveness, as a fundamental understanding, is that we prioritise the wellbeing and happiness of the person that has harmed us before ourselves. We tell ourselves that when we forgive, we must let go of grudges, anger, hate, any feelings in fact, not for our inner peace but for the peace of the person that has broken our trust, the weak connection. We spend hours, days, weeks, months, years telling ourselves to forgive the other person and convince ourselves that this is part of our healing journeys that will rid us of the pain that the other person has caused. Instead, we fail to understand, or even choose to not understand, that the person who is giving the forgiveness, who is hurting, yearning for peace, has been ignored, so that the person who has done the harm is free from guilt.

What about us? The ones who are hurting? Who are yearning for peace? Where do we fall into this? Is it enough for us to say that our only roles, in the process of forgiveness, is just to forgive the other person?

Think about a time when you had to make the decision to forgive someone. Try not to think about those times where you misunderstood a situation or someone accidentally hurt you, but rather think of a time when you had to make a difficult decision to forgive someone who deliberately hurt you. Did that person repeatedly ask for forgiveness? Did that person get angry at you for confronting them about the act and not seek for forgiveness? Were you deeply offended by the person’s actions? Were you able to forgive them at the end? Did they re-enter your life? Or did you decide to cut them off?

Now think back to the nature of these questions, and notice how these questions, although are putting you at the centre of the query, are really just asking you about the person who hurt you, and not about you as a person and how this event helped you develop as an individual, and where you went after this situation. These questions ask you whether you forgave the person, how the person reacted to you confronting them, if that person kept asking you for forgiveness. These questions are symbolic of the flawed definitions of forgiveness we carry around in our dictionaries.

I want you to think back to the same event, where you had to forgive someone that deliberately hurt you, where a relationship was one-sided essentially, and think about the answers to these questions, similar to the questions before but subtly different. When the person hurt you, did you forgive yourself? Did you get angry at yourself for being in that relationship? Did you feel hurt knowing that you trusted and loved this person? If you decided to keep this relationship, did you do so because you wanted to or that person, or other people, wanted you to? If you decided to cut that person off, how did you heal after this situation?

When we change perspective, we change the way in which we approach situations and the way in which we invest our energy into people and ourselves. By asking ourselves how a situation has impacted our lives and how we can move forward from it, instead of focusing on the other person, it helps us to recover from the experience and be better prepared for any similar events in the future.

I, like many others, have spent the majority of my life trying my hardest to forgive people, reminding myself to never forget their actions but to forgive them, so that I can let go of negative emotions attached to that connection and move forward. However, when certain events in the present trigger a memory connected to my past experiences, the pain returns, dampened by maturity over the years, but the pain is still there. Not over losing a connection but rather being ignorant, often times dismissive, of signs of a failed relationship, a weak connection. The guilt of being in a relationship with toxic people and remaining in that relationship for some time was still there.

I would tell myself that this is normal, that healing is not about forgetting your traumas and pain but rather accepting it as a part of your journey, particularly my spiritual journey, however I clearly hadn’t accepted the pain because I hadn’t done the main part, forgiving myself.

We often find it easier to blame ourselves over others, because if we blame ourselves no one else will complain. However, what we don’t realise is that instead of healing we end up damaging ourselves and we see that through symptoms of PTSD. Yes, just an event itself can be extremely traumatic, but what ensures the wound remains open for years after the event is the difficulty in overcoming the fact that this event happened to us. Why us? What did we do wrong? And then we revert to punishing ourselves. Any confidence we had starts to fade, and the connection that needs to be strongest in our lives becomes the weakest, the connection to ourselves.

When we choose to forgive the other person before ourselves, we tell ourselves that we aren’t important, that our happiness lies in the happiness of others, or even in the sorrow of others. Our happiness now becomes dependent on an external source, a source that may just be hypothetical but keeps us going because we believe it to be there. We tell ourselves that our resentment has vanished, our emotions for that person are gone and we are finally free, until we encounter certain moments in our lives, after that event, that make us realise our wounds never really healed, we were just learning how to tolerate the pain all this time.

What if we had just worked on ourselves and addressed our own pain from the start? What if we had just told ourselves that we need to forgive ourselves to begin healing, and if we need a professional’s help we can seek for it?

How we forgive ourselves is as unique as how we give forgiveness, and until we don’t try to understand ourselves and what hurts us the most, how we enact forgiveness will be difficult to recognise and then apply to future scenarios. Forgiving ourselves is a major part of self-help and self-love, however, without putting in effort to understand ourselves we won’t be able to understand how to forgive ourselves, therefore growth in our healing journeys will be stunted.

I was conflicted over forgiveness because I experienced the wrong version of forgiveness, one in which I was expected to focus on the person that harmed me rather than focus on my own healing journey and to grow from my pain. I was convinced that forgiveness really doesn’t work for experiences that leave deep scars inside you, especially childhood traumas. I was convinced that forgiveness was only for people who accidentally harmed you, and no one else, because I left myself out of the question.

Do I think forgiveness is important then? Yes I do. I have changed my mind and now believe that forgiveness is essential, but only if it begins with the forgiveness of oneself, and forgiveness can just be forgiving yourself and yourself alone.

Forgiveness has shown to have numerous benefits for physical and mental wellbeing in many scientific studies. A study by psychologist Loren Toussaint, along with other colleagues, found that benefits of forgiveness tended to increase with age. Their survey, completed by 1500 Americans, that asked for the degree to which individuals practice/experience forgiveness and their health statuses, showed that middle age and elderly were able to forgive more than young people and that those that practiced forgiveness also had better health. What the study didn’t show was how these middle aged and elderly people were practicing forgiveness; was it in a healthy way or way in which they were pretending to themselves that they were genuinely happy and healthy? The study also didn’t show whether the forgiveness was occurring in closer relationships, where we all tend to be more willing to forgive the people we have the strongest connections to, but the evidence of forgiveness improving our wellbeing is there, it’s just how we forgive that determines the sustainability of our happiness and wellbeing.

So, the question then comes to whether the unforgivable can really exist. If we should forgive, can we really say that there are people we can’t forgive, or actions we can’t forgive?

This is a question that I will continue to ask, especially during my transition from believing that forgiveness doesn’t work to working on forgiving ourselves. I still strongly believe that once we forgive ourselves for being in a toxic relationship or environment, we automatically release guilt and pain associated with that memory, in terms of blaming ourselves for our pain. But others will still ask whether it’s valid to leave out the person who inflicted pain on you in the process of forgiveness, does this not go against the meaning of forgiveness?

I think there are no questions about forgiving just yourself when the other person didn’t ask for forgiveness, but what if the person did? Multiple times? Once you have forgiven yourself, can you work on forgiving the other person? This question is difficult, because it depends on the person, your nature of forgiving and the offending action, so again it depends on the person giving forgiveness as they are the ones that have been hurt and so they have full right to decide on what they want to do with this relationship.

Whatever your decision may be, you should still remain at the centre of the decision. You should be actively asking yourself “what will make me feel happy in the long-term?” Often times we have to make a decision which is initially uncomfortable but beneficial for the future, it’s a question of seeking stability for the longest time possible and understanding what you are physically and mentally comfortable with and with what intention you are taking this decision.

Can I forgive a pedophile who has sexually molested a child I know, or attempted to rape the child? Currently, no. I most definitely cannot forgive the act of molestation of a child and if that act is done by someone who willingly wanted to molest and abuse a child close to me, or any child, I don’t think I can forgive the pedophile either. *

Can I forgive someone who used to bully me and caused childhood trauma, when I knew that they were being emotionally and physically abused at home and were most likely inflicting their pain on me? Maybe, maybe in the near future. I understand that the likelihood of abuse victims inflicting pain on those around them is high, but I also have met abuse victims who were able to transform their pain into compassion for others. Still, everyone is different, and everyone copes differently. With this mindset, maybe one day I could bring myself to forgive those people, but only once I have been successful in fully forgiving myself [which I haven’t]. *

Can I forgive someone who inflicted a physical trauma, which could have been life-threatening, on a child I know because they were bitter with the parents and wanted to get revenge? Right now, no. Traumatising an adult is bad, but traumatising a child? And that too for revenge? For me, in my current state of mind, is unforgivable. To hurt an individual who was so naïve and oblivious to the darkest parts of the world, is unforgivable in my eyes. *

I know that there are lots of people who have been able to forgive people for the most heinous crimes. I have seen stories on the news of Christians forgiving a shooter who killed their children whilst they were praying in church, I have seen sexual abuse victims forgive their abuser after years of torture, I have seen people forgive their childhood bully or a friend who backstabbed them and left them traumatised. I would call this level of forgiveness as the highest of all.

I am sure all of us will agree that to forgive your child’s murderer, to forgive your abuser and forgive a fake friend who continuously hurt you as a big act of kindness, to the person but also to yourself, it’s the type of forgiveness everyone dreams about reaching to. But is this type of forgiveness comfortable for you to adopt? Would you genuinely be at peace or would you be forcing yourself to be happy with forgiving the person that hurt you immensely?

If you are the latter, you may well still want to forgive the person but only after you have forgiven yourself, and have had enough time to heal and not be affected by the situation as much as you were when the wounds were still fresh. But if you are like me and don’t feel as if you can ever really forgive the person and their actions, and also don’t feel comfortable in attempting to give forgiveness for whatever reason, it’s best to become indifferent to this weak connection. Having a lack of strong emotions helps us to dissociate with the person and gradually dilute the intensity of emotions connected to that event.

Building indifference towards a person and a memory requires quite a lot of work too, especially because you have to allow yourself to be exposed to the memories until you can think about those events and not feel the same guilt and pain that you did. Additionally, if that person held an important role in your life, and your interactions with them were on a daily basis, it will require even more work to build indifference if you choose to break off the connection.

But we have to remember that the process of healing doesn’t equate to wiping a memory from our minds, and it also doesn’t mean that healed wounds can’t open again. Our journeys are determined by many factors, but the factor that has heaviest weighting is our emotional capacity. Some people are more emotional than others and take longer to heal; regardless, everyone has phases where we return back to our wounds, especially when they start hurting again. The key part is whenever you start throbbing again, what is your mindset is when you return back to those wounds? Do you go back and feel guilty and weak with pain again or do you go back and tend that wound and tell yourself that if you come back again you will find an even better remedy to heal this wound again, hopefully for good? And once that wound is completely healed, but something happens in your life that reminds you of your past traumas, do you go back and feel the pain again or do you look at the scar and feel nothing but peace and satisfaction that you worked hard to overcome something that your past self could not?

In this episode I have focused on forgiveness in terms of connections to other people, but forgiveness can apply to anything that involves blaming of oneself, or harm caused by other organisms or hazards. Any event which causes immense pain and leaves us feeling hopeless and guilty that the event occurred because of us, whether you have been wounded by someone, something or an event out of your control, the first step to healing is forgiving yourself so that you can continue on your journey of recovery and progress.

Forgiveness also applies to when you are on the receiving end, where you request that someone forgives you. In this case, you can apply the same thought process as if you are forgiving someone, but rather to hold yourself accountable and empathise with the person you have hurt. If you don’t receive the forgiveness you desire, or receive it late, instead of lashing out and wounding the person further, be patient, or if you don’t ever hear from them again, understand that they may not be comfortable to forgive you and may not feel comfortable in the future too. Everyone has a right to practice their version of forgiveness and be respected for their decision.

But we also have a right to forgive ourselves for our mistakes too, depending on how large of a mistake we have done. Sometimes people misunderstand us and fail to make an attempt to hear our side of the story; in such as situation, we can indeed forgive ourselves. Sometimes people are genuinely upset with our actions and will forgive us and want to remain connected to us, in this case forgiveness of oneself is important too so that you can actively work with the other person to repair and re-build your relationship.

But sometimes people will want to break ties with us, partially or fully, and may or may not forgive us. They may tell us why they are doing so or may not. No matter how much pain that may cause us, we must respect their decision, hold ourselves accountable for what we have done, which can be in many forms depending on the severity of the action, or series of actions, and then work on rectifying those mistakes, which is part of healing too. But again, until we don’t forgive ourselves and accept that we were in the wrong, healing will not happen.

This shows that whatever your forgiveness and healing style may be, without forgiveness of oneself, nothing will work. When we forgive ourselves, we accept what happened to us instead of running away and trying to erase the memory from our minds and we work to heal the wounds that have been caused by our traumas. We work knowing that some wounds may never really heal, and that some healed wounds may re-open again, but if we can look back at these wounds and fill our hearts with forgiveness and willingness to continue to tend to these wounds, we build our capacity in taking in any similar, or other, traumas that may occur in the future, or traumas that may occur in the lives of people closest to us. The moment we realise that our past no longer negatively impacts us, relative to the pain we felt when the event occurred, we find ourselves at a place of peace that is unique to us and created by our healing work.

I would like to end by saying a quote by Lewis B. Smedes on forgiveness:

“Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future”

OUTRO: Sustainable lifestyles also include seeking for sustainable methods for happiness and healing. Realising that we don’t need to conform to universal teachings of healing and forgiveness allows us to focus on working on ourselves for our inner peace first rather than the peace of others, but it also helps us see which of the connections in our support networks help to uplift our work on ourselves and which demean it. Remember to subscribe to the podcast on your app of choice. Follow Mind Full of Everything on Instagram, Faceboo and Twitter, and visit mindfullofeverything.com for additional resources for each episode. I hope that solutions are soon found for the ongoing issues related to, and not related to, the pandemic and wish that you all find time for yourselves to revisit any areas of yourself that need to heal. Thank you for listening to the Mind Full of Everything podcast, I hope to see you here again for the next episode.

* Based off of my own personal experiences