If you were to Google the word forgive, you might find simple definitions such as, “[To] stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offence, flaw, or mistake” (Oxford Living Dictionaries). Looks easy enough, right?
But forgiveness is a complicated process—one that may take years or even a lifetime to achieve. It’s not as simple as speaking the magic words, “I forgive you.” Fairy dust won’t miraculously turn anger into flowers.
To truly be able to forgive someone means to hit the reset button, to cut the cord of resentment and begin anew. It does not mean harboring malicious thoughts to be carried around as fodder until the opportune moment to unload presents itself; revenge holds no place in forgiveness.
So, no wonder it’s a terrifying act to consider. Forgiveness is entirely selfless. In order to do it, we have to let go of our ego.
The Need for Forgiveness
Why forgive? There are actions or words that are far too hurtful for some of us to bear. Many people suffer years of abuse—physical and/or emotional. Children and adults alike dwell in wartorn countries, surviving unspeakable acts. Why should victims forgive their trespassers? Don’t perpetrators deserve to suffer for their actions?
Let us, for a moment, consider the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa.
From approximately 1948 to the early 1990s, Apartheid (meaning “separateness” in Afrikaans) was a government enforced mandate of racial segregation. Much like the Segregation within the United States, it was characterized by segregation of public spaces and visible police brutality. Apartheid also institutionally dictated housing and employment opportunities for individuals of color. Moreover, there were deeply disturbing acts of violence, torture, rape, brutality and undocumented disappearances during this time period. Before its dissolution, Apartheid sought to eradicate all individuals who were not of Caucasian race.
When Apartheid was dismantled in negotiations, circa 1990-1991, brutal violence continued in transition. It wasn’t until 1996 that trial hearings for the acts of Apartheid were held by TRC. What was so radically distinctive about these hearings was the granting of amnesty. If individuals, who committed the most unthinkable acts, were willing to stand before trial, admit their wrongdoings, and listen to the testimonials of those they harmed, they were granted a full pardon.
Nothing in history has been done like this, before or since. Amnesty was granted not because the perpetrators deserved it in a jurisprudential sense, but rather for the purpose of healing the country as a whole. While the trials did not heal South Africa entirely, of course, and it is still a very racially separated country, they did initiate the beginning of a long healing process.
We do not forgive just because the person who has wronged us needs it — we forgive because we need it. Resentment, grudges, anger — these are emotions that will dictate our actions and ruin our lives if we entertain them. Desmond Tutu, one of the core members of TRC once said, “Without forgiveness, there’s no future.”
How to Forgive
Whether you are trying to forgive someone else (or yourself) for hurtful acts, it is important to first remember that we are all human. We all, no matter who we are, make mistakes. Some mistakes may be far greater than others. The bigger the hurt, the more need for compassion.
Consider the words of the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh:
“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
In other words, people often hurt others out of their own pain. It is important to remember, no matter how egregious the act, that the person who has hurt you is human. That may be a jarring concept to accept, considering the gravity of your predicament, but humans are capable of horrible things.
The flipside of humanity’s capacity for malicious actions is our endless capacity for compassion. When we forgive completely, we set ourselves free from being at the mercy of others; we take our power back. Often, we remove ourselves from toxic people and situations in the act of amnesty.