We’ve all heard “forgive and forget” ad nauseam, but how many of us actually put it into practice? Do we even know how to forgive others? It may seem like a simple question, but I find that actively forgiving those who offend us is a very difficult — and necessary — aspect of the healing process. By mastering it, I find that we also become much more resilient to future offenses, and I’d like to explain how and why.
Before I get too deep, I need to clarify that forgiveness does not mean a pardon or an excuse from consequences. People who do mean, hurtful or reprehensible things, especially those who do them habitually or intentionally, deserve appropriate punishment for their actions. My goal here is not to dictate how offenders should be treated in response to their offense, but suggest how the offended people process their pain in order to heal.
That said, as in all things, there is a healthy way and an unhealthy way to deal with pain.
I’ll use something that actually happened to me as an example.
In the seventh grade, I rode the bus with a kid named Luke. I didn’t like Luke; not many did. He was loud, annoying and rather cringey, like a lot of 13-year-old boys circa 2014. But he was even more so to me, because I was the only one who’d talk to him, even if it was just responding to one of his inane attempts to start a conversation. I tolerated Luke when I had to and avoided him when I could. He should have been thankful I gave him that much attention, but one day he took it too far.
I remember I had a bad day, and I wanted to spend the ride home alone with my thoughts. But, Luke decided I wouldn’t have that; he sat right next to me and started yammering the way he always did. It was aggravating, but par for the course. After nearly 20 minutes of ignoring him, Luke decided to pluck my Nintendo DS out of my hands and throw it out the window of the bus. When I, shocked to say the very least, craned my head at him, he grabbed my thigh with one hand and my chin with the other, very proudly smirked and said, “It’s rude to ignore people when they are speaking to you,” and then kissed me on the lips.
Following the incident, Luke was then taken off of the bus for good, and I never had to deal with him again. But for days, and into weeks, I realized that I was still angry. I was still filled with angst and hatred whenever I imagined his dumb face, his dumb voice or his dumb laugh – or whenever I remembered watching him throw my property out the window of a moving bus the way one would discard a banana peel then violating my person.
And it hurt; it made me sad and uncomfortable to know that I kept feeling this way even though my aggressor had been dealt with, and I’d likely never see him again. Was it out of a hunger for justice or vengeance? Did I not believe that he had suffered enough for his actions? Did I want the same thing, or worse, to happen to him? It became a habit of mine to stew in bitter anger over how much I hated Luke for how he had treated me. But hatred is a powerful drug, and like all drug habits, it is all-consuming.
I began to see myself as a perpetual victim. My suffering became an excuse from responsibilities and a claim for privileges to which I was not entitled, believing it would facilitate the healing process. In effect, it did the opposite. New toys, attention from friends, attention from teachers; these things, meant to take my mind off my trauma, had only etched it deeper into my brain, deepened my hatred, deepened my victimhood and, therefore, deepened my suffering.
It was about a month after the event when my mother picked up on how miserable I really was and pulled me aside. I told her how I felt — about my hatred and the attention and the suffering, and she told me it was time to “let it go.”
At first, I didn’t understand; how could I simply let it go when it was at the forefront of my emotions each and every day? How could I let it go when it was the only thing that the people at school seemed to care about? I thought back to why I felt the way I did and began to ask myself questions.
The biggest question was why I hated this person so much that it was filling my head every day? After a lot of soul searching, I found the answer: to me, Luke’s actions proved my lack of readiness. I had my guard down when it should’ve been up. Knowing that, I resolved to never let what happened to me on the bus happen again. And like magic, I instantly began to feel better.
I no longer felt oppressed by my experience. I no longer felt contempt to stew in hatred, because, now, I had a way out, an answer, something I could do to protect myself in the future. Soon after, people began to notice my renewed optimism and things began to return to normal. Eventually, I stopped hurting, and I forgot about Luke entirely, so much so that I had to think very hard to remember enough of this story to use it.
It’s important to take the time to process pain. You need to cry; you need to scream. That’s healthy and necessary. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, but eventually, you need to work toward healing and moving forward – moving on. You need to begin to let go of that person who hurt you, or that terrible thing that happened to you, because it doesn’t define you. When you let your pain define you, it never gets better. Only once you let it go – once you let go of your grudge – can you begin to heal.
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