The Practice of Forgiveness

Dr. Kate Marshall

Much has been written about forgiveness.  Some see it as the only route out of permanent victimhood.   These therapists and theologians believe that it is at the heart of physical, psychological and spiritual healing.  They point to studies that show how forgiveness can promote openness , and relieve unnecessary physical and mental burdens.   They further cite evidence of  lowered blood pressure, better relationships, and  less depression, stress and chronic pain.

Others see the “forgiveness path” as a cop out, a kind of spiritual and psychological shorcutting where the person avoids doing their real work.   In jumping to forgiveness, they maintain, we court denial and avoid the painful route to justice and personal accountability.

A third group might describe forgiveness as a work in progress:  a genuine practice of letting go that can be very useful for some under certain circumstances.

The Delimma

When is the forgiveness path genuine and clear sighted, and under what circumstances is it indeed a continuation of the practice of unhealthy denial?  What does it mean to actually forgive or “let go” of an old hurt or grudge?  Does it mean excusing terrible acts, denying responsibility  or somehow condoning bad behavior?  And can there be real forgiveness or letting go if the other person doesn’t acknowledge or accept accountability and make amends?

Jumping to “forgiveness” after the experience of severe abuse, for example, can  indeed be a cop out and perpetuate a pattern of generational abuse.   But hanging on to old grudges almost like a rainy day fund can also block our connections and lead us to unhealthy practices.

I come from a family of elephants.  “Elephant family systems” have never mastered the process necessary to acknowledge, apologize, make amends and move on.  Individuals in such systems hang onto wounds, hoarding them them  as a caution and protection against possible future wounding until it becomes an ingrained habit.   It was a pricey method for me and my siblings, but one that felt necessary for survival in a difficult world.  In examining this system, I’ve come to several conclusions.

Perhaps forgiveness is not quite the right word for the process that can also be referred to as “unhooking” or “letting go”.   The word “forgive”  can be freighted with many types of unhelpful baggage, including the implication that something is wrong with the person who can’t “forgive.”  It’s often paired with the cliche, “forgive and forget,”  and can raise false hopes that forgivenss means that  the other person will change or be transformed.

Requirements for Authentic Letting Go

Authentic letting go can best be accomplished if the proper preparation and readiness has been achieved.

Lasting and genuine  unhooking from past emotional trauma or significant abuse requires adequate self-valuing , a way of understanding the world that allows for both appreciation of our own and others errors, and the ability to recognize and reject abusive traps.  The practice of authentic letting go is complex and does not involve forgetting or rationalizing terrible acts.   It’s not about giving up the right to be assertive and the necessity of establishing personal boundries.  Unhooking is about relieving our alienation and the need for endless rumination, but does not guranantee a close relationship with the person who’s hurt or offended us.  It instead means divesting from or writing off bad emotional stock that that have long ago ceased to pay real dividends.

Cultivating Self-Forgiveness

Several months ago, I attended a workshop hosted by Jack Kornfield a noted Buddhist psychologist.  Among other topics, he discussed his own forgiveness practice.    One of the his important exercises was self-forgiveness, asking our own pardon, as we are often our most harsh taskmasters.  Authentic divestment or letting go is about cultivating compassion and generating kindness to ourselves as we come to terms with our own shortcomings.

Ultimately, forgiveness often includes arriving at  a different understanding about the ways people are and the way the world works:   a sense that our commonalities far outweigh our differences.  For some, there is an important spiritual dimension.    Sometimes,  peace can only come from the acceptance of a basic truth:  that to be forgiven, one must learn to genuinely forgive .

In closing, only you can decide if the timing is right and you are ready to embrace the forgiveness process.   It’s also important to note that if you’re  not able or willing to let go of past hurts at this time, that this is not a character flaw or a personal weakness.  It could in fact be an attempt to establish boundries or to solve other deeper issues or concerns.

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