Why is forgiving so difficult? We hear from so many that forgiveness is a good idea — from all religions, from health care (mental and physical), from sociologists, and more, yet it remains such a challenge. We, being human, hold onto the wrongs that we feel we’ve been dealt and nurse our negative feelings, rather than releasing it all in order to move on. And most difficult of all: to forgive ourselves.
When we feel slighted, or wounded, by another person — or our employer, or big business, the government, society, Fate, or by our own actions — it’s important that we acknowledge and feel the resulting pain, rather than deny it. However, we don’t need to hold onto it, and in every sense would be better off if we didn’t. Yet, most times, we do. Anger, frustration, depression, despair — these are only some of the feelings that result from owning our woundedness and holding onto the blame of whomever or whatever we deem the cause. None of these are positive emotions, yet we hold onto them because (a) we don’t want to feel passive and a perpetual victim, letting others abuse us without repercussion or standing up for ourselves; (b) anger feels powerful, none moreso than the proverbial “righteous indignation”; (c) depression can, at times, release us from responsibility; (d) we simply feel justified in our negative feelings. Studies show that, even more than the refusal or seeming inability to forgive when we are the one injured, forgiveness when someone we love has been wounded is the most difficult of all.
And yet, though our initial anger can propel us into a proactive response on behalf of our own well-being or even in the form of social activism, thus serving a very positive purpose, holding onto anger, resentment, old griefs and grudges only makes us ill. So how do we forgive? Do we simply walk away from the pain? Do we let the injuring party — even if it is ourself — “get away with it”?
Of course, each case is different — for example, a criminal must be brought to justice and some form of retribution, and hopefully, rehabilitation achieved — but generally speaking, we can pursue the greater purpose of balance far better if we return to a personal state of balance first. And holding onto negative feelings toward another person or entity, or aspect of ourself, represents a clear imbalance physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Only when we release the negativity can we work toward the greater good. And, yes: simply “walking away”, metaphorically — or, better yet, moving on and letting those negative feelings “fall away” on their own — is what’s required. The task is simple. Letting go of the need for the negativity is more complicated.
Recognizing how our holding onto these negative feelings serves us — for example, by making us feel powerful, secure, “right”, justified in our own actions — is the most critical step. Once we realize that the negativity is serving a purpose, we can acknowledge this and then meet those needs in another, more constructive way. Following this increase in awareness, we must choose to “lay it down”, to let these emotions drift away and not to reclaim them, to take a deep breath (or a few, or many, as needed) and to blow out of us all of the negativity that we’ve been holding onto. This is what Buddhism teaches us: a mindfulness of what we are feeling, and why, and how it serves us as well as how we can better meet those same needs … and then letting the emotion itself float away, not to return. Rather than an emotion-free way of living, in a “flat-affect” sort of way, it encourages a rich emotional life in that we are deeply mindful of all aspects of our emotional selves, yet detached from them so that they don’t control us.
We can make the choice to forgive, even in the face of great pain.
Forgiveness. “Turning the page.” And taking care, always, of our own well-being.