As I walked into the local coffee shop to grab an iced coffee to power me through this unseasonably hot Spring morning, I caught sight of someone I hadn’t seen in YEARS. Sitting right there was one of my high school teachers, and (sadly) one of the very few who I didn’t remember fondly. In an instant all of the decades-old feelings came flooding back, and suddenly I was sixteen years old again, feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and deeply disempowered. Forty-four year old me felt bitterness fill me up. It was quickly joined by confusion. How on earth had forgiveness escaped me? How could I still be bitter and angry with this man with whom I had studied for one brief high school semester after all this time?
So what exactly had he done? I think it boiled down to one thing really: he didn’t particularly like me and it felt bad to be in his presence, and subject to his judgement every day. As a people-pleasing, achievement-seeking, ne’er-do-wrong, honors student, I couldn’t understand it and it was incredibly frustrating. I consistently got C grades in his class (English, with heavy emphasis on writing) no matter what I did. I don’t know if he knew it, but the man had me absolutely dancing for him. There wasn’t a hoop I wouldn’t have jumped through to get even just a B from him.
He also accused a friend of plagiarizing.
I had my reasons for feeling angry and hurt.
There were other teachers I hadn’t enjoyed learning with and from. One of my math teachers struck absolute terror into my heart. But on the day of my graduation, she stopped me in the parking lot. We had a shockingly pleasant exchange and all was forgiven in an instant. Another teacher was a retired Army Colonel (I think?) and he ran his class like a boot camp. Decidedly unpleasant, but not at all personal. When he crossed a line, I stood my ground and he honored that. And for that, I can offer him my respect and forgiveness.
But this one guy…
I saw him the instant I walked into the coffee shop. For just a moment I considered doing an about face and going back to my car sans coffee. Then I considered speaking to him, but I didn’t see much opportunity for a fruitful discussion given how I was feeling. So I moved through the shop purposefully, collected my things and departed swiftly.
The bitterness I felt subsided quickly, but the confusion lingered. I didn’t like feeling this way, not only because it’s uncomfortable, but because I encourage and try to consistently practice forgiveness. It felt a little bit childish and terribly hypocritical to be carrying this much resentment when I am very deliberately trying to create more love and compassion in the world.
My choice: I was heading home to figure this out, to forgive this man and write about it.
So what do we do when we’re baffled by something and need to understand it? We Google the thing.
Oftentimes when I begin researching a topic, I start by looking at popular quotes on the topic. So I popped over to Google Images to take a peek at images and memes. And two things very quickly became evident.
First, humanity has been interested in the topic of forgiveness for millennia. The interest cuts across all the lines that divide us, with great artists, thinkers and influencers from many vocations, nationalities, religions, and historical periods offering their thoughts and insight.
Second, there’s a wide variety of perspectives on what forgiveness means, why we should forgive, and how we should do it.
So I spent a little time combing through some of the sources to cull out the ideas that resonated most strongly with me. Here’s what I found.
What Is Forgiveness?
For purposes of this discussion, and according to Merriam-Webster, “to forgive” means to
Why Practice Forgiveness?
It Liberates You
This explanation, penned by an anonymous contributor to a piece called “Resent Someone” from the publication, “The Cocoon” seems to cover a wide swath of reasons to forgive, mostly centered on the unintended consequences of harboring resentment.
The moment you start to resent a person, you become his slave. He controls your dreams, absorbs your digestion, robs you of your peace of mind and goodwill, and takes away the pleasure of your work. He ruins your religion and nullifies your prayers. You cannot take a vacation without his going along.
He destroys your freedom of mind and hounds you wherever you go. There is no way to escape the person you resent. He is with you when you are awake. He invades your privacy when you sleep. He is close beside you when you drive your car and when you are on the job. You can never have efficiency or happiness. He influences even the tone of your voice. He requires you to take medicine for indigestion, headaches, and loss of energy. He even steals your last moment of consciousness before you go to sleep. So, if you want to be a slave, harbor your resentments!
While this might be a little melodramatic (Is it? I’m unsure.), it makes some very valid points. As I read this, I could feel a churn in my belly, and a tightening of my throat and chest. They are telling me that besides this man, there are a few other people I need to work on forgiving for my own good. I know who they are as they haunt my dreams from time to time. So…teacher man first and then I’ll work on them.
It’s Good for Your Mental & Physical Health
This article from Psychology Today outlines they why and the how of forgiveness. This particular excerpt is especially compelling.
These benefits include reducing anger, hurt, depression and stress, while increasing feelings of optimism, hope, compassion, physical vitality, self–efficacy, conflict resolution skills and confidence. Forgiveness can even improve our physical health with some studies suggesting it reduces hypertension. One article published in IDEA Fitness Journal showed study results indicating that ‘people who are forgiving tend to have not only less stress but also better relationships, fewer general health problems and lower incidences of the most serious illnesses–including depression, heart disease, stroke and cancer.’
If the hurt, anger and resentment we carry are strong enough, they can undermine our health and happiness in so many ways. Forgiveness just makes sense, no matter how vulnerable it might make us feel. And it might just be the ultimate act of self care.
It’s an Act of Strength & Love
The reasoning here is admittedly subjective, but very much consistent with my experience and seemingly supported by many great minds based on my perusal of forgiveness quotes and wisdom. The practice of forgiveness requires some measure of vulnerability, empathy and compassion, which are all attributes of a courageous heart. Courage requires strength, sometimes a great deal of it.
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. – Mahatma Gandhi
This blog is really all about love, and my greatest hope for it and for my life is to create more love in this world. And true forgiveness always comes from love – of self, of another person, of all humanity, of all life. To forgive is to love, and we should all strive to be as loving as possible in all aspects of our lives. As beautifully stated by Gitte Lindgaard, “To forgive someone is the highest, most beautiful form of love.”
How to Practice Forgiveness
Now here is the hard part. The actual forgiving.
I read a few pieces on this, and it seems to me that it boils down to perspective in several ways.
Walk a Mile in Their Shoes
First, are you able to put yourself in the shoes of the person who hurt you? Can you imagine where their hurtful words or actions may find their roots? Perhaps they spring from an old hurt that they haven’t worked through and still carry through their day-to-day life? Perhaps they learned ineffective interpersonal skills growing up? Or maybe they have been steeped in a toxic environment for years that renders their thoughts, words and actions highly toxic? Is it plausible (perhaps probable), that the back story has little or nothing to do with you. Can you feel some compassion for them?
To love our enemy is impossible. The moment we understand our enemy, we feel compassion towards him or her, and he or she is no longer our enemy. Thich Nhat Hanh
Similarly, look within to see if you can understand the roots of the pain in you. Chances are, it has little to do with the person and situation before you, and a lot more to do with something that happened long ago, or some flawed deeply held belief (or fear) that you carry. Take some time to sit with it.
To Be Human Is to Be Flawed
Second, are you able to see yourself as flawed and a possible irritation to the other person? In the case of myself and this teacher, I wonder if I somehow “set him off”.
Looking back, I remember that I was often late to this particular class as I often lingered late in the preceding class. Did this annoy him enough to make him dislike me and treat me unfairly? (Or, I wonder, did my tardiness spring out of wishing to avoid his class because I sensed his disdain? We’ll likely never know.)
If my perpetual lateness did trigger him, it doesn’t excuse how he treated me or graded my work. As the adult in this situation, obviously, the mature thing would have been to initiate a discussion and address the problem directly. There’s no excuse, but the possibility of a vaguely reasonable cause does make it easier to settle my feelings and inch toward forgiveness.
The Cost of Holding On
Looking at the situation objectively, is it worth holding onto your bitterness, anger and resentment? What does it cost you to hold onto it? What do you risk by letting go? (Please re-read the section about forgiveness and your mental and physical health if you need help answering these questions. I’ll wait.)
Remembering that forgiving doesn’t mean excusing a bad behavior and that it needn’t mean forgetting (in the case of abusive relationships, for example, I wouldn’t suggest that you forget for your own safety and wellbeing), does it make sense to forgive? Can you think of a situation in which it doesn’t make sense to practice forgiveness?
The Decision to Let Go
The decision to let go was simple for me. I didn’t like the way I felt when I saw this person, I didn’t like that I was harboring resentment for more than 20 years, and I didn’t like that all of it was so contrary to how I’m trying to live my life. I knew I had the power to forgive. So it was very clear to me that forgiveness was the path I had to choose.
Of the articles I read, this piece by the late Dr. Wayne Dyer was my favorite because it walks you through a 15-step process for forgiving. In my case, not all 15 steps felt applicable because my gripe was so old, but the ones that felt relevant to my situation were very helpful. If you need to do some forgiving, I encourage you to read through this and pick out the pieces that work for you and your situation.
Switch the Focus from Blaming Others to Understanding Yourself (Step 4)
I think I may have reinterpreted this from what Dr. Dyer meant by it, but I also think he’d be okay with my reinterpretation. I used this as an opportunity to look past the dynamic that existed between myself and my teacher to the feelings I felt then (and all over again at the coffee shop). It’s pretty clear to me that the situation triggered every fear I had about my own likability, my own capability and my worthiness. Why I gave him or that situation the power to do that, I do not know. The teacher-student dynamic? Male-female? Elder-child? Any or all of them seem to be reasonable explanations.
I continue to allow this to happen at times in my adult relationships. I surrender my power and hand someone else the rights to determine my value and my belief in myself. So clearly, I have work to do. I could be alarmed or threatened by this, but I’m choosing not to be. It is just valuable information about how my mind works that will help me on my life’s journey.
Take Responsibility for Your Part (Step 7)
That tardiness I mentioned in “To Be Human Is to Be Flawed”? That. And perhaps more? It’s hard to say. I remember that he always gave us a choice of thesis statements on which to base our weekly papers. I strongly preferred to develop and support my own concept. Perhaps my irritation with his process undermined the quality of my writing back then? And perhaps he graded my work fairly? I’m still inclined to think not (I did so much better the following year with a teacher who was more broadly critical and far more demanding – and likable) but the mere possibility makes forgiveness feel more within reach. I’m a step closer.
Let Go of Resentments (Step 8)
Ah, “letting go.” It sounds so easy but it can be so darned hard!
Over the years, I’ve learned that I do best when I can create a visual metaphor for what I’m going through, so I can actually “see” the release. While I’m generally not a “seeing is believing” person, in this instance, I find that the seeing makes the letting go feel more real, more sincere, and more permanent.
The ocean is one of my favorite places, and I feel great peace at the seashore. So I chose to visualize putting a hand-written letter with the record of my grievances and all of my feelings about them into a glass bottle and throwing it out to sea. I feel the emotion of writing the letter, and a strong sense of determination and destiny as I put the letter into the bottle and walk to the beach.
Standing barefoot on the beach with the waves stretching their cold fingers toward my toes, I throw it hard and watch it sail through the air. It lands with a splash and bobs up and down a few times before it finds balance and begins to travel out to sea, carried by the ocean currents. I watch it for a few minutes and a sense of calm settles over me. It now rests in the loving arms of Mother Ocean who will hold the conflict and honor the feelings for the rest of my days. PEACE.
Send Love (Step 15)
Dr. Dyer encourages us to replace all anger, bitterness, judgement, and criticism with love. I can attest to the effectiveness of this practice. When I remember to send love to everyone I meet, I am a happier person. Sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it comes with great ease. And to be very honest, there are times when it makes me feel like a princess as I walk through a crowded place sending love to everyone around me. (I’m not sure why; maybe I’ll do an study on it and write about my findings in another post!)
In this case, it requires a bit of effort, but honestly, having gone through the other steps, it takes surprisingly little. The “letting go” has cleared a path for love to travel from me to him.
(I keep imagining the scene at the end of the first “Sister Act” movie when the bad guys are being hauled off and Whoopie Goldberg’s character looks at her former love interest with attitude and says, “Bless you.” I kind of feel like that, but with less attitude.)
All Is Forgiven
And that’s it, Friends. I believe it is done. The true test will likely come on another steamy-hot morning when the iced coffee is calling to me and I find myself back in that coffee shop faced again with this person from the past. How will I feel? Only time will tell. I’m hopeful that I’ll feel calm, confident and fairly relaxed. But if the old feelings pop up again, I will revisit this post and this process again. Perhaps I’ll do some reading, journaling and meditating and work harder to achieve forgiveness. But I suspect there won’t be a need.
All that said, there are people I know I still need to forgive who’ve hurt me in far more damaging ways. Those will require significant effort because the injuries resulting from those relationships cut deep. But I can do it, and I must. To free up my own energy, to relieve the burdens I’ve been carrying, and to position myself to be more authentically and deeply loving so I can do the work that I know God wants me to do.
Sending you love.