We all have something to forgive, or someone. And often the person to forgive is ourselves. It is not unusual for forgiveness to be a journey, and sometimes, it can be a long one with winding roads and obstacles born from an unwillingness to release the person (or yourself) from the offending act. It doesn’t always take a brave soul with an open heart to forgive, sometimes it just takes a little practice. And when you reach forgiveness, it is not just rewarding, it is liberating. A freedom worth the work. Worth learning the art, to shorten the journey.
I used to think that to forgive was to excuse someone’s behaviour to the point you were saying what they did was OK. Acceptable. Right. To say it didn’t matter. To exonerate. To condone. To absolve. A while ago, in order to try and come to terms with my own need to forgive, I wrote a journal piece about a particular incident from my past, the hurt, which I had carried for many years. It had become a heavy back pack full of pain I had been dragging around. Weighing me down. I wrote about it, to see if I could write my way to forgiveness and healing. I decided the logical staring point of my writing was the definition of forgiveness. I felt I needed a solid foundation. A concrete base to build my house of forgiveness. I was shocked to discover the definition of forgiveness by psychologists was not what I assumed it to be. It was not in line with my understanding of the word. Not at all.
According to the Greater Good Magazine forgiveness is defined by psychologists as:
'“…a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.”
They go on to explain that forgiveness is not condoning, you can still consider the action as wrong. It also does not excuse the person from what they have done. They are still responsible for their actions. Nor does it involve forgetting what has happened. To forgive is not to give your pardon, or wish the person an official pardon. Nor does it require any form of reconciliation or restoration of a relationship. It simply means, you do not hold any ill-will towards this person. You do not wish them harm and you have decided to release yourself from any bitterness or negative feelings. You may still not like what they have done, but you don’t wish vengeance on them. You may still feel what they did is wrong, but you do not wish harm to come their way. You may not forget what they have done, but you will not let it define you. Also, you do not have to have them back in your life, after you forgive them. These last two were big for me. I realised as I read the definition of what forgiveness was and wasn’t, that these last two parts of the definition were the two things standing in my way of forgiveness. Blockers which lifted the moment I read those very words. But let’s come back to that in a little while.
Firstly, let’s apply this definition of forgiveness to ourselves. When you do something wrong, something you are deeply ashamed of, you may not like what you have done but there is no need to wish vengeance on yourself. You may still acknowledge what you did was wrong, but wishing harm to come your way is not helpful and will not change what you have done. You won’t forget what you did, but it does not have to define you. If you do not like what you have done, or who you are, you do not have to keep being that person, or acting that way after you forgive yourself.
I have said to my children, since they were very young, ‘It is not the mistake you make that counts, but what you do afterwards that matters.’ Humans make mistakes, it is how we learn. How we find out what we need to change in our lives or to change in ourselves. How we need to adjust our behaviour to live in harmony with others. After making a mistake, apologising or making it right in some way is much more important than the mistake itself. This is where the energy needs to be. This is what matters. This has seen me, and my family, through difficult and sticky situations. It has also helped each of us, when feeling helpless by the fact we cannot take away our words, or change something we have done, which has hurt someone. It has helped us all to move beyond what we cannot change, and focus on what we can. To make the difference. I should point out that making it right is sometimes to commit to not repeating the mistake, to simply learn not to do it again.
I am not sure how, but somehow along the road of life, I locked into my sphere of understanding the idea that how someone treats you, defines who you are. That someone else’s action, someone else’s choices, make you act in particular ways. And it made me change who I was. Be who I was. For a long time. I blamed my failings on how someone else had treated me in the past. Rather than taking responsibility for my actions, I let someone else’s actions define and drive my own. It took a long time for me to realise how ridiculous this was. And, thankfully, I no longer do this. I have forgiven, separated my responsibility for my actions from their responsibility and moved on. Let go. Forgiven. I also thought if you did not let the person, you needed to forgive, back into your life, you weren’t truly forgiving them. I was stuck on this one for a long time. And frustrated it was blocking my path to forgiveness. Discovering you can forgive people, while you walk away from them, was equally as liberating as discovering that my actions are totally my own. With this combined knowledge, I have a found forgiveness and the associated freedom, to live a happy and fulfilled life full of love and joy.
This realisation of not letting how someone else treats you define you, was reinforced when I stumbled on Elizabeth Smart’s Ted Talk. Well worth the 11.36 minutes she takes to shake your perception. To make you rethink things. If you haven’t watched her Ted Talk, do so, those 11.36 minutes are some of the most valuable minutes you could choose. Her story is nothing like mine. I have not been physically or sexually abused. I have not been abducted. I have not been held captive. Yet her story, and what she has chosen to do with it, has helped me come to terms with my own journey and cleared the path to forgiveness like no other. That is the power of stories.
At 14 years of age Elizabeth was abducted and this resulted in a horrific nine months, before she was rescued. One minute she was in bed asleep, just an average school girl, the next minute she was held captive in a tent, at the mercy of others - a newly claimed ‘wife’. She was physically restrained like an animal, so she could not run away. Her story is beyond heart wrenching. Today she is a child safety activist and missing persons advocate. The day after her rescue, and reunited with her family, her mother gave her advice which Elizabeth has chosen to follow in life. With great wisdom, love and tenderness, her mother, Lois, said to her:
‘Elizabeth, what this man has done to you is terrible and there are not words strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is. He has stolen nine months of your life that you will never get back. The best punishment that you could ever give him, is to be happy. To move forward with your life, because by feeling sorry for yourself, by holding onto the past and dwelling on what has happened to you, that is only allowing them more control, more power and stealing more of your life away from you. Don’t let that happen. Justice may or may not be served. Restitution may or may not be made. But don’t you dare give them another second of your life.’
Elizabeth uses her story and her mother’s advice to help people realise they have a choice in what their lives look like, despite the past, despite circumstances. To encourage others to live their lives as they want to, without it being defined by the actions of others. And she is awe inspiring as she talks about how, despite her horrific experience, despite the fact she would not wish what happened on herself or anyone else, it is to her something she has, astonishingly, chosen to be grateful for. Because she has chosen perspective and empathy, over pain and anger. Because she has chosen to speak out and encourage others to have the courage to speak out. To share their story. She believes we all have things to overcome. She does not hold her story above anyone else’s, but chooses to use it, make it her own for preventing this happening to others, and for healing. She has chosen not to be consumed by what was done to her, but to take her circumstances and do what she wants with it. For her to define who she is, not others. There is no doubt that Elizabeth has a brave soul and an open heart. That it has taken great courage for her to be who she is today. To forgive the world for what happened to her. There is also no doubt that she continually practises forgiveness. Find out more about her work at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation.
Elizabeth’s story is a reminder that to heal, we must first forgive. And that the art of forgiveness starts with a choice. And that choice is ours to make. No one else’s.