“Forgiveness is Another Word for Letting Go”

I don’t have a specific reason for writing about forgiveness, but when I recently read Matthew Fox’s quote (in the title, above), it seemed like a good topic to take on for Letting-Go Lent.

Forgiveness can be easy or it can be nearly impossible. You can forgive your brother for taking your coat, but can you forgive him for taking your fiancée? You can forgive your mother for forgetting your birthday, but can you forgive her for forgetting to praise you your whole life long?

Unfortunately, whether the anger and resentment is about something small or life-shattering, it fills up your soul, like a gas, the same way. And it has the power to poison your spirit, whether the emotion can be justified or not. It doesn’t matter whether you have a perfect right to be angry and hold a lifelong grudge. You are the one who ultimately suffers.

A woman I knew was talking once about a person who had wronged her. She said that she had forgiven this person. “I’ll forgive” she said with emphasis on every word, “but I’ll never forget.” That got me thinking about the phrase “forgive and forget.” It’s hard enough to forgive, but to forget—is it divine, or is it just plain dumb to forget that you were wronged?

My initial thought about this friend of mine was that she couldn’t have really forgiven. She may have gone through the motions, but if she really couldn’t forget, did she forgive? Even the guys on the Sopranos, not really prone to forgiving, often pardon offenses by saying “fuggedaboudit!” Then, of course, the pardonee turns around and promptly gets whacked.

“The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.”

So said the Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas S. Szasz.   Maybe, in fact, forgetting is a form of denial. Perhaps the key is in what happens when the act re-enters your consciousness in the remembering. Does it enter a neutral space in your mind? Or is it tainted with dregs of resentment? Or has the emotion been transformed in a useful way? So, in the remembering, maybe the experience can help us learn to take difficult and painful feelings and flip them over into deepened understanding and insight about ourselves and those who have wronged us. And then we transcend the painful experience and learn from it.

The Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says,

“Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the energy of hate, of anger, of fear. We forget that in us there are other kinds of energy that can manifest also. If we know how to practice, we can bring back the energy of insight, of love, and of hope in order to embrace the energy of fear, of despair and of anger.”–Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions  Thich Nhat Hanh

In A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson talks about how living in the present can help release resentment and make forgiveness possible.

“At a certain point we forgive because we decide to forgive. Healing occurs in the present, not the past. We are not held back by the love we didn’t receive in the past, but by the love we’re not extending in the present. Either God has the power to renew our lives, or He doesn’t. Could God be looking at any of us and saying, ‘I’d love to give you a joyful life, but your mother was so terrible, my hands are tied’?… We can grow from any experience… Forgiveness remains the only path that leads us out of hell. Whether we’re forgiving our parents, someone else, or ourselves, the laws of mind remain the same: as we love, we shall be released from pain, and as we deny love, we shall remain in pain.”

I had another friend whose husband had done significant harm to her and her family as an alcoholic. He eventually found recovery and they stayed married, but my friend was having a hard time letting go of anger for wrongs done in years past. In her mind, her feelings about her husband were like a big empty room in her head. The floor of the room was littered with crumbling, dying leaves, like fallen autumn leaves. One day she was visualizing that room in her head, and all of a sudden, without any conscious effort on her part, a breeze blew through the room and swooshed all the leaves out. And the room was clean and bare. And she realized she had finally forgiven.

As Marianne Williamson said in the quote above, forgiveness is really for us, not the forgiven. Lack of forgiveness is separation. Forgiveness is unity. And when we don’t forgive, who is being shut out? Aren’t we shutting ourselves out? Why do that to ourselves?

Sometimes it’s difficult to forgive others unless we forgive ourselves first. Is it intentional that in the Lord’s prayer we ask God to forgive us first?  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  When you’re imagining the leaf-strewn room in your head—do you need to cleanse and forgive yourself? If so, think about what fallen leaves in your life are cluttering your soul, and swoosh them out the door.

Action Item for Today:  Right now I am thinking of a person who did my mother harm 30 years ago. While I have never dwelled on resentment and let it affect my life, I have never actually consciously let that go either. So, today, 30 years later, I am taking the opportunity to say to this person, “I forgive you. I pray for your happiness and well-being. You are God’s child, as are we all, born in the light of His love. And so can I do any less than to love you, too?”

Join me in thinking of an act or of someone that you need to forgive—yourself or someone else or even God. Whatever the hurt is, today, let it go. Release it, and fill the interior space with love and be free.