Forgiveness – the most selfish thing you can ever do
© Jorgan Harris. jorganharris.co.za
1. To begin with
Why is it so hard to forgive? Why is it so hard for us to just let go? Why do we allow pasty grievances to torment us for years after it occurred?
It is because we are living under this misconception that you are doing the other a favour by forgiving him or her. You are living with the misconception that you think you are in the power seat by forgiving the other person. You are feeling that your sense of what is right or just, is assaulted. You are feeling that you have the right to return the hurt, to hit back – called the lex talonis (law of retaliation). Retaliation and hatred is the way to cure the hurt.
There is also the view to be the lesser and simply to forgive and to let go. By simply forgiving you are making a shift in your rational mind but your feelings that cannot reason, are still hurting and the feelings just do not go away. Forgiveness is not just a simple act of putting something behind you, to free the other person and to just let it go.
Forgiveness is the most selfish thing you can ever do. These profound words are not my words. As far as I could determine, it comes from the mouth of a cardiologist, Dr. Dean Ornish.
If you can’t forgive, you are the one hurting yourself the most, because you are the one who is struggling with all the negative thoughts, the pain, the anger, the bitterness, the shame, the hurt, the guilt, the blame, psychological problems and subsequent medical problems. You are the one who now feels like a victim. Hate is actually placing someone else in charge of your life, since that person is “causing” your feelings. To just let go, is unfortunately also putting that person in charge of your life, because you still experience feelings of anger.
The irony of it is that you believe that the person is in charge of your life and feelings. Most of the people you are angry with, do not even know that you are angry with them. They do not even know they’ve hurt you. They did what they thought was good at the time. They have probably responded to their own pain and sense of survival.
Confucius once said: “If you devote your life to seeking revenge, first dig two graves.”
Forgiveness is a choice. It is not something you just can let go. It’s also not about the fact that the person was “worth” your forgiveness or not. It is primarily to take control back and especially, to set yourself free.
But you still have the problem with the two graves. It is possible to bury the other person, but to what extent do you draw yourself into the grave with that other person?
2. What we believe
We grew up with the misconception that forgiveness is a single act where you say: “I forgive you” and everything is over and you then do not feel anger anymore.
You have learned:
- you are not allowed an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth (Matthew 5:38);
- that you have to live a life of gratitude. Jesus gave his life by dying on the cross for us, unconditionally, for the sake of our lives without getting angry or complaining;
- to turn the other cheek;
- not to be angry and not to take revenge. “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord”;
- you have to respond in a loving, respectable and graceful way, which is totally against your nature;
- God forgives you unconditionally and so you must forgive your fellow man unconditionally. If you do not unconditionally forgive, God will not forgive you (Matthew 6: 14-15 and Mark 11: 25-26);
- the Bible is full of stories where forgiveness seems so simple. Esau forgiving Jacob’s betrayal (Gen. 33), Joseph forgives his brothers (Genesis 45 and 50), the prodigal son’s father takes him back unconditionally (Luke 15). Paul advises the church of Corinth to forgive (2 Corinthians 2), Hosea repeatedly forgives his wife’s rejection and infidelity, Paul advises to bear others no matter what they do to them and urges them to forgive as God forgives them. The best example is where Jesus accepted his prosecution, assault and victimisation (1 Peter 2). Even on the cross, Jesus forgave his murderers (Luke 23:24);
The message we get is that if you cannot forgive, you also do not deserve to be forgiven.
3. The pain of these beliefs
When forgiveness denies that you are angry and you are acting like it never happened, as if it never hurt, pretending everything is forgotten, you should not trust it. It is not forgiveness. It is a mere fantasy.
Such thinking may cause psychological effects. This can result in disturbed interper-sonal relationships, bitterness, hate, regret, alcoholism, insomnia, resentment, low self-esteem, helplessness, mistrust and relationship problems. This can result in stress as you might fear getting hurt or humiliated again. In the end this can cause anxiety and depression.
Research shows that anger and the associated bitterness and resentment of anger is the number one cause of burnout.
These feelings can furthermore cause guilt. Guilt is one of the most destructive of all human emotions and many of the problems of the people in my practice can be traced back to guilt. Guilt builds on fear and the fear of hell is the biggest fear there is.
Murder is the ultimate failure in forgiving others and suicide is the ultimate failure in forgiving yourself.
Your cognitive functioning and even your memory may be affected by anger. People with suppressed anger often tell me that they have difficulty with concentration and memory. It’s as if they keep on remembering that old anger. It is as if they are trying to convince themselves that they are not angry anymore. Your thoughts keep on taking you subconsciously back to that anger, even without realising, it takes your attention away from that anger only on a conscious level.
This thinking can result in physical diseases such as suppressing your immune system with the result that you can develop colitis and arthritis. You may develop high blood pressure (what is making your blood boil?), as well as heart disease. Your heart is also the seat of your emotions and grief can indeed lead to heart disease, a sore heart and thus a broken heart- literally. Repressed anger also suppresses your immune system and may even lead to cancer. Cancer can be caused by your body’s reduced immunity, self-mutilating habits, your system attacking itself or whatever reasons. Cancer is caused by suppressed feelings- as if a cancer is eating away at you.
Your pain causes anger and the anger hurts you. This hurt causes you even more pain and so this turns into an endless vicious circle that just goes on and on.
4. Reaffirm your humanity
Let us pause here for now.
Is it sustainable to hold on to the thoughts and beliefs we grew up with? Is it possible to just forgive and just to move on? Is it possible to just let go of your feelings of retribution? Is it possible to not hurt? Is it wrong to feel angry? Is it okay to suppress your own feelings for the sake of forgiveness?
To be angry is part of our nature. You feel a threat and you can then think about it in any way that you want. A biological reaction is taking place and you experience a surge of adrenaline that enables you to fight or flee. The adrenaline just does not go away. In ancient times, you could beat up someone with a stick or a rock and the danger or the anger would be over, or you could run away until you are out of danger. Today this is not possible and you can’t beat up your bank manager or run away from the Receiver. You have to handle it, yet your adrenaline keeps on boiling inside of you.
Let’s look again at the ideas with which we were raised.
However, consider the following ideas:
- Is forgiveness really as simple as just releasing and letting go? You and I are not God or Jesus. We’re just people with human emotions like anger and hurt. Are we not allowed to be angry and like Jesus on the cross, just forgive our trespassers?
- Did Jesus himself not get angry and upturned chairs and tables in the temple?
- Do you have no right to self-pride? You are uniquely created with even a unique finger print no one on earth shares with you. Most people can do what you do, but no one can do it the way that you do it.
- Matthew 22: 37 Jesus says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is unto this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ We think that we should love God first, then our neighbour and finally ourselves, but we forget the word “as”. The word “as” in the original Greek is the word “homoios”. This word implies that you must love yourself first before you can love your neighbour and therefore God. Not self-love in an egotistical way, but true self-love as a valuable human being created with all that is needed for their mission on earth.
- Are you not created with everything you need to achieve your purpose here on earth? You were created with everything needed to do this. You have received all the talents for your purpose on earth. Sometimes it’s just hidden under the bushel.
- Are you a victim and not a conqueror? The biggest lesson you can ever learn in life is that you are not a victim, but that you are a survivor. More than just a survivor, a conqueror, because you always have choices. If you feel you do not have a choice, it’s because you do not believe in yourself enough to believe that you are a survivor and you can always be more creative to generate more choices.
- Do you really always have to be grateful for all that you have received? Do you have an obligation to use what you’ve received for whatever your purpose in this life is?
- Do you realise how important you really are? God’s Universal Plan includes you too and this Plan cannot be fulfilled without you.
- Do you have to turn the other cheek, in light of this context? Mathew 5: 38 says: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek.” Be the lesser, gentle and without pride. I have to thank my reverent father for the following insight: when someone strikes you on the right cheek that person (if we assume that people are normally right-handed) will strike you with a backhand and for a Jew it was a great humiliation. So, to turn the other cheek and let the person strike you in the proper manner. The Bible doesn’t then tell you what you should do to that person…
- You know you need to forgive, but do you know how forgiveness works? Can you simply forgive and deny your emotions as we have been taught to do?
- To forgive unconditionally is what the Bible expects from us. This is possible if we go through certain processes.
- There may be examples in the Bible of these processes. For Biblical figures, it was not always possible to simply suppress their anger. Jesus smashed the temple, Job cursed his birthday and Moses broke the Ten Commandments into pieces in anger and frustration.
- Moses got punished for his misdeeds. Just because he committed the misdemeanour, he never entered the Promised Land. This was his punishment. With Jesus’ glorification on the mountain, Moses, even after his death, ended up in the Promised Land. God forgives us… even after death.
5. The process of forgiveness
We now have an interesting dilemma. You may be angry. You may be proud. You may feel that you have been harmed. You may retaliate. You are allowed retaliation, because you are allowed to feel pride. You may not harm your neighbour. You may want to cause hurt. You may do what you want to do and you may say what you want to say. You may want to get it out of your system, but does the other person really need to hear this, or do you need to hear it for yourself? If the other person hears it, it will not necessarily change your feelings, especially if the other person can defend him or herself on the basis of his or her own positive intentions.
Forgiveness is a process and not just a “moment”.
Therefore, the process of forgiveness entails the following:
5.1 Acknowledge your feelings
Give yourself recognition about how you feel. Admit that you have been hurt, that you feel hurt, your sense of self has been hurt, even admit that you think less of yourself. Admit to yourself that you have the right to feel the way you feel. Admit to yourself that your sense of humanity and rights were affected. Especially acknowledge to yourself that you are angry and that you have the right to be angry. Even if you feel that you were wronged by the world and even by God. You may even feel angry at God like Job, without fear of a harsh God who will punish you for this forever. I also believe God understands your anger – even towards Him.
It is important to realise that you are important, that your feelings count and that you have the right to be angry. You are in God’s universal plan just as important as anyone else and you are part of the fulfilment of this plan.
Also, admit to yourself that you are feeling weak. Admit to yourself that you are hurting, that you have needs, that you are vulnerable, that you are feeling dependent and that you are also feeling scared.
5.2 Express your feelings clearly
You do not necessarily need the other person to hear how you feel, but you need to be able to vent your feelings.
Admit to yourself that you feel angry.
- Write this person a letter in which you state all your feelings. You can say whatever you want, even using every swear word you know. You do not need to give this letter to the person. You do not need an excuse. You can just get it out of your system and learn from it. The other party’s apology (if you are able to get it and if it means anything to you, since that person may just defend him or herself with their own positive intentions), will not necessarily make you feel better, or it may just make you feel better temporarily. There is however no deeper meaning in it for you.
- You may use your imagination to tell this person whatever you want. Tell this person in your imagination in no uncertain terms what you think and how you feel and keep in mind that swearing is one of the best relievers of stress according to Mark Twain.
- Acknowledge only to yourself that you are angry and your sense of what is right for you, is affected, in any way you want. You can tear up that person’s photos or you can assault your pillow while fantasising that it is the other person. Whatever you need to do to get rid of your anger.
- But also, acknowledge to yourself your feelings of weakness and vulnerability. Admit that you feel shocked, pulled back to the core of your defenceless being.
- You can still bring that person to justice and challenge him or her to court to prevent it from happening to others, but that does not necessarily mean that you have forgiven them.
5.3 Realise your issues
Realise your own issues and how you can grow from it. Why does it upset you so much? Do you feel that you have been wronged? Do you feel like a victim? Do you feel that you were violated? Do you feel that you are not good enough or that your rights have been suppressed? Where does it come from? Is it just a reflection of your own issues? Or are you a survivor and can you release yourself from the shackles that hold you back?
5.4 Think in a new way
You can change your thinking when you realise that you’re not a victim, but an ingenious survivor.
- Now you realise that you are much stronger than you thought you could be. You always have choices. You can choose not to be a victim.
- You can make a distinction between the person and his or her behaviour. The person’s behaviour at that time does not necessarily reflect who that person is. There is a reason why that person acted the way he or she acted at that moment.
- You might just not want it to happen again but there is no guarantee. What happened may happen again, but you are a survivor and you can choose to react differently and not to feel like a victim.
- All behaviour has a positive intention, if that person’s behaviour is negative, there is still a positive intention. That person just did not have enough choices at their disposal to act in a more constructive way at the time. That person had no intention of hurting you. They have their own pain and are just trying to protect themselves. That person is most probably not even aware that he or she has hurt you. They are most likely absorbed in their own problems or issues.
- Just like you, they did or reacted in a way that at that specific moment was available to them and no one can expect more than that of anyone.
- To forgive someone, you need to forgive yourself first. Forgive yourself for feeling guilty and for all your feelings of powerlessness. Just as you have to love yourself before you can love others and God, you have to forgive yourself first before you can forgive others and even God. This is where you realise that you are created with everything you need to fulfil your unique purpose on earth. That’s when you realise that you are good enough. You are unique. When you realise that you are special it opens up your ability to love. To love is the greatest ability to feel in control of yourself.
The unwillingness to forgive is perhaps the most unforgivable!
The most important realisation, more important than anything else, is when you realise that you’re not a victim. You are now able to forgive your younger, less experienced and uninformed self and that you don’t have to judge your younger self with the superior knowledge and insight that you have today. You now know better and it is because you are older and wiser now. You have really grown as a person from this.
Gandhi once said: “forgiveness is the attribute of the strong man. The weak man cannot forgive.”
5.5 Let go
That’s when you can let go and leave the past in the past. This is when you can forgive.
Only here can you say: “I forgive you.” When you can do this, then you can free yourself from the shackles you kept yourself chained in. Now you can leave yourself open to gain insight and meaning from this learning opportunity.
5.6 Find meaning
Meaning is when you realise that what happened could have been good for you. Ask yourself what you can learn from the situation, what it means to you and how it can help you to become a better person.
What has happened is in the past and whatever will be, will be and whatever is, is just the way it is supposed to be. You live only in the here and now. The only time that exists is the now. The past is a memory. The future is a fantasy and the time when you are really alive, is now!
It is now possible to forgive as the great figures in the Bible, as well as Jesus could forgive. As Jesus prays: “They know not what they are doing” (Matthew 6:12). If you look past your ego and pain and realise there is an opportunity of growth for you, is when you start to understand and to know what you are doing. That’s when you learn and realise that every event in your life can be an opportunity to learn. You can choose to feel like a victim, or you can choose to see it as a learning opportunity.
It is all about liberation. That’s when you realise that you always have choices. You are free because of your choices. At this point you do not even have to say: “I forgive you”. You may find that forgiveness has now happened sponta-neously.
5.7 Address it
If you are still in a relationship, with the person with whom you are angry with, you can – after you have expressed your feelings and your own issues, after you have developed new thoughts and after letting go and gained meaning from the experience, you can now address the other person.
You can now calmly tell this person:
- how his or her actions made you feel;
- realise that it might be your own issue;
- that you let it go;
- what it means to you and what it may mean to your relationship;
- what growth it could mean for you and your relationship.
6. To end off with
Forgiveness is indeed the most selfish thing you can ever do. Not only do you save yourself from all kinds of negative emotions, but you can use it to your advantage to honestly face your own feelings of vulnerability. This leads to realisation that you are merely human and this humbling fact helps you to start growing into a better person.
Now that you understand yourself better, you can become a better person and you contribute much more effectively towards your important role in the Universal Plan.
This is when you free yourself from emotional issues and physical illnesses. This is when you are free- truly free.
As Dr. Dean Ornish says: “Just let go of your own suffering.”
Realise how important you really are. Acknowledge your weaknesses as well as your strengths. You have a task and a purpose in life and you have received everything needed to make your contribution and to be of significance.
Take good care of yourself. Do the most selfish thing that you can ever do and love yourself. Only then can you help other people and your relationships will grow.
You are more than a survivor.
That’s how it is to forgive.