On a show called Story Corp of National Public Radio, a mother shared her life story of how her young adult son was shot and killed by another male. As her narrative unfolded, she spoke of her incredibly deep sorrow. She attended the court hearings daily in an attempt to understand this person who caused her such unbearable pain. Once the court sentenced him, she began to visit him in prison…often. When they released him, he had no resources. She took him into her home and helped him get an education. She said, “I gave him the education that I couldn’t give my son”.
As I remember her voice, I feel tearful, as I did when I listened to her story. How is it possible to experience such a deep, profound loss and not only forgive the person who hurt us, but love them? How do we release the chains that bind us and open our hearts toward compassionate, loving forgiveness?
All of us have been hurt by someone at some time in our life. Mom, dad, aunt, sibling, friend, teacher, neighbor, spouse, boss, clergy, stranger. Some wrongs, we’ve forgotten about and let go of. Others seem to have become a part of our identity. Who would we be if we let go these wrong doings? How would our life change?
I remember a client who once said to me, “If I forgive him, then I’m accepting what he did and I don’t accept it. It’s not okay”. Let’s consider another perspective. This client was partially correct. For her, this behavior was NOT okay. But forgiveness does not equal acceptance or approval. The act or behavior is so unacceptable that it requires forgiveness. You don’t forgive acts or behaviors that feel good. You only consider forgiveness when you’ve been hurt.
Forgiveness requires you to move through grief before letting go. For the mother in the story who lost her son, her grief is obvious. But what about for the person whose mom was extremely critical? Or who has the aunt that touched them inappropriately? Or for the spouse whose wife/husband had an affair?
In those examples, you grieve what was supposed to be, what you wanted. You wanted a loving, non-critical mom. She didn’t deliver that to you. You wanted your aunt to respect your body. Instead, she crossed your physical boundary. You wanted your spouse to be faithful. Instead, he/she stepped outside of the relationship. The mother in the story wanted her son alive.
When you hold onto the old or recurring story of hurt, you may experience increased anxiety or depression. However, when you forgive those who hurt you, you experience increased hope and increased self-esteem.
Scientific research is now studying how forgiveness changes the brain. Specifically, they are finding that forgiveness effects the regions of the brain associated with emotional regulation, moral judgements, perceptions of physical pain and decision-making.
Imagine how this mother might have lived if she did not open her heart, develop compassion and forgive the man who murdered her son? Her decision to forgive this man changed her life. If she did not take control and choose to forgive, her life would have been shaped by anger, resentment, depression and loneliness. Instead, she gave this man the life she could not give her son. She chose love.
Forgiveness may be one of the hardest decisions you make. If someone in your life continues to hurt you, you can forgive them while also drawing healthy boundaries and necessary distance if needed. Forgiveness does not mean tolerating hurt. It does mean that you stop that hurt from shaping your future experiences.
Forgiveness requires you to practice compassion, for yourself and for others. It also requires you to live in the present. When you forgive and let go, you create a new narrative, a new way of life.