Thinking about: Forgiveness - easy?

A short while back I got a call from my brother. This is noteworthy because I hadn't heard from my brother in years. We didn't get along well as kids, but as adults I thought we had reached a point where we could at least talk to each other. But then for reasons unclear to both of us we just stopped talking. Then, out of the blue, after almost 7 years, he calls.

I won't share the whole conversation, but we got on the subject of forgiveness.

"You're a Christian, it's easy for you to forgive, right? Wish it was that easy for me."

"Easy?", I ask, "Who said anything about easy?"

"Well, isn't that what it's all about? You have to forgive people. Turn the other cheek and all that."

He had a point. Isn't forgiveness the root of the Christian life? Turn the other cheek, seventy times seven, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?

"Well, that's certainly a big part of it, but that doesn't mean it's easy."

"Well sure it is. You say a prayer to your God and He just makes it go away. Or at least that's what your church tells you."

"I don't remember that, but let me tell you, bro, there isn't anything easy about it. There is no magical formula, no special words I can say that just makes it go away. Do I try to practice forgiveness? Yes. But forgiveness isn't the same as forgetting and it's because I can't forget that makes the forgiving part very very hard sometimes."


Forgiveness is certainly a big part of the teachings of Jesus. But no where, in not a single verse or passage, did Jesus say it would be easy.

Now, I'm not talking about just saying the words "I forgive you" and acting like everything is OK, I'm talking about true forgiveness. The kind of forgiveness that it takes to actually turn the other cheek, the kind of forgiveness that it takes for the parents of a murdered child to visit the murderer on death row and be his friend, the kind of forgiveness it takes for you treat the person who has wronged you the most as if they were truly loved by you. That is how forgiveness is shown in the New Testament and that kind of forgiveness is very very rare, and very VERY hard to do.

I will spare you the boring personal details of the events of my life, but needless to say there are things that have happened, things that have been done to me and the people in my life, that I have needed to forgive other people for having done. Needed to? Yes, needed to. Because they were sorry and deserved to be forgiven? No. Because the Bible tells me to and I have to? Well, I don't think there are any "have-tos" so no, not for that reason either.

I needed to forgive them for me. I needed to forgive them so I could put an end to those things and put them behind me. Not letting them off the hook, letting me off the hook. Not so I could forget, but so I could put those things away once and for all.

I'd like to expand on that, but that's another blog post. This time I want to talk about how hard it is to forgive, even in the Christian life.

You, dear reader, may be a Christian, maybe not. (If not, stick with me, because this applies do you, too.) No matter what your "religious persuasion", you can do this exercise:

Think of something painful that someone else has done to you. How does that make you feel? Just the process of recalling a memory brings up all the emotion associated with the original event. Anger, pain, confusion, shame - all that is boiling just under the surface with that memory just waiting to be brought up again.

It's the complex set of emotions associated with an event, and a person, that makes it hard to forgive.

I could cite articles, but there are hundreds from doctors and scientists that show how emotion and memory are linked. (Here's an example published on Emotion helps "brand" things into your memory. That's why your can probably clearly remember your first kiss but not what you had for breakfast that day. There was much more emotion coursing through you at the time of the kiss than there was at the breakfast table. Your emotions have set that memory permanently in your mind, and while they were at it, they set themselves right along with it. Think of that first kiss. What emotions come up along with that image?

Emotion makes it hard to forgive. Hard, but not impossible.

But you might have to work, and work very hard, for it.

So where to start?

I am not an expert. I'm not a psychiatrist, I didn't go to Bible college, I'm not a published author, nor am I a popular blogger. I'm just a guy. So the only advice I have to offer is my own.

There was one thing that it took me an especially long time to forgive. There's no reason to go into the details, but I will share my process of forgiving the people involved.

I started by admitting that I was doing more to hurt myself by holding on to anger and bitterness than I was hurting the others involved. Withholding forgiveness for what happened had no effect on them whatsoever, it was myself that I was hurting by holding on to all that stuff.

It's hard to accept that you are hurting yourself, but think about it. In my case, the people I was refusing to forgive had hurt me. I did not really have a relationship with them anymore, but I thought as long as I held on to that anger that I was in some way paying them back. They didn't deserve my forgiveness. They weren't sorry, they never apologized, and for all I knew they were out there hurting other people. But I was going to show them. I was going to just not forgive them, then they'll know they'd done wrong.

Not every logical is it. When emotion is involved things are seldom logical.

A sidebar here. Some people will tell you that you have to face the people your are forgiving to truly practice forgiveness and "letting go". And I think that can be good, if it's someone you wish to continue a relationship with. But if it's someone you haven't continued to associate with, then I don't see any reason in talking with them. It is perfectly ok to have a "secret" forgiveness. As I said before, forgiving does not mean forgetting. Forgiveness does not mean you just throw the doors of your heart and life open wide and give people the opportunity to do it again. "Turn the other cheek" and "forgive them 70 times 7 times" does not mean you let yourself be an idiot. I don't think that's what Jesus meant when he said those things. Forgiveness in a relationship can and will lead to changing hearts on both sides. Forgiving someone who is no longer part of your life can and will change your heart and since they are no longer part of your life, what do you care where their heart is? Maybe some will think that's a little "unChristian", but I am speaking from experience. Sometimes it's better to just have some people out of your life.

 Once you have accepted the first step, "withholding forgiveness hurts me more than it hurts them", then the next step is to disarm your emotions. I'm not talking about disarm them like you disarm a bomb (turn them off), I'm talking about disarm like one would disarm a bank robber - take away the weapon he would use to hurt you.

When the memory of an painful event comes to mind, the pain comes with it. We've all experienced this. An example would be lying in bed at night, about to go to sleep, and just letting your mind drift. One memory calls to mind another, then suddenly "that" memory comes up. And you feel it. You feel in your chest or in your gut, an ache, a stab, whatever it is it's a physical pain. No matter whether the event was a day ago or a decade ago, the memory brings the same pain.

What you may not realize is that along with that initial stab there's a low simmering pain. This is what might make you feel nauseated the longer the memory is in the front of your mind. But even when you're not thinking about it, that simmering pain is there, in the back of your mind. And if you have enough stuff simmering back there, you are doing yourself real physical damage. This is the thing we need to disable. Because our minds don't normally allow us to forget these painful events that stab in the middle of the night, but we can cut the power to that constant simmering pain that in the long run is going to do us the most harm.

So how do we do that? Well, again, I can only speak from my own experience. The way we do it is to face the event head on. This can be the hardest part of the whole process.

What I did was write about it. I didn't share it with anyone, but on paper I told the whole story, beginning to end, as I remembered it. I didn't care about grammar, spelling, anything like that, I just poured it out. I didn't even care if what I was writing was true, it was true to me. I just got it out.

You don't have to write, but you need to find some way to get it out of your head in a way that lets you examine it. Maybe that means talking with a neutral party, someone willing to just listen and not try to 'fix it', or maybe talk to a video camera. The mode does not matter. The important thing is putting it "out there" someplace other than your head.

What this does is it separates the memory from the emotion. The emotion is still inside you, but now your memory of the event is someplace besides inside your head. You can look at it, go back and forth through it, in a way that's hard to do inside your mind. The emotion is still there, inside you, but now you can deal with the emotion separately from the memory.

And you must deal with it. This is the next part, dealing with those emotions. Let yourself be mad. Or hurt. Or whatever you feel. Feel it. Express it. Break things. Throw things. Yell. Scream. Do whatever it takes to process the emotions. As for me, I wrote again. Previously I wrote facts as I saw them, this time I wrote feelings. Every little raw painful feeling I had.

The point is, feel the feelings. Release them instead of holding on to them. This isn't to say you're never going to feel these feelings associated with this memory, you will always feel them, but this is the process of taking away their weapons. Taking away the things that  hurt you.

Incidentally, this isn't quick process. I am certainly not saying you have to move through these steps in the course of a few hours or even days. Weeks, months, years are probably better time lines to expect.

Now the hard part, the actual forgiving.

As I said before, this does not have to public. No one has to know at all, just you.

What does it mean to forgive? What does that word mean anyway? What it really means is "to cease to feel resentment" against someone. This isn't pardoning them, this isn't forgetting what they did, it's changing how you feel when you think about them.

Everything I've talked about so far has been leading up to this. As I said, you emotions are always going to be there, the memory is always going to be there. What this part is dealing with is your emotional response to the person or people who wronged you when those memories come to mind. You don't have to love them. You don't have to like them at all. But the hate and anger are what needs to go. Even if the best you can feel is neutral, then neutral it is.

How to do this? There's no simple answer. All I can tell you is my experience. Again I fell to writing. I wrote letters that never got sent. The letters I wrote were more than just "you did this to me, this is how I feel, but now you can't hurt me", though that was part of it. I wrote about what I think they are doing now, how the event that hurt me so much affected their life - or rather how it didn't. I also talked about my life. What it was holding on to the pain, and how it will be after I let them go. I told them that I was forgiving them for me, but not pardoning their actions. And I told them that I wouldn't forget.

And that's it, that's forgiveness. NOT. Guess what. It's not a process, it's a life style. It's not a one time event, it's forgiving them over and over and over again. Daily.

This is the real trick. Continuing to keep this event out of your life. Your brain won't let you forget, your emotions won't let you forget, but you control how you react when it comes to the surface.

I use a box. An imaginary box. When something haunts me, I don't let my thoughts run away. I imagine myself grabbing that thing, stuffing it in the box, then destroying the box. Sometimes I set it on fire. Sometimes I launch it into space. Sometimes I take my official Star Fleet issued phaser, set it to "disintegrate with severe pain and agony", and blast that sucker out of existence. Again, find something that works for you. Paint, draw, write, distract yourself, something positive.

So that's my experience. Preachers might disagree with me, counselors too, but this is what works for me.

Easy? No. The particular event that is the basis for this post took me years - and years - to process, deal with, and finally let go of. There are no short cuts, but in the end I feel better, freer, and overall healthier for having let this thing stop hurting me.

I'm very interested in talking about this. If you have thoughts or comments, share them, please.