Forgiveness is one of the biggest challenges people face because it requires one to let go of something or someone that has probably held them as a volunteer hostage for any given period of time. It pre-empts moving on and that leads to new definitions and having to be an active participant in the fight to reclaim one’s power. It also involves a struggle of sorts, whereas keeping a grudge gives one a comfortable crutch that invokes sympathy. Victims are allowed to take time out in the functioning of society to lick their wounds and “recover”, all the while living in this responsibility-free comfort zone that keeps them willingly powerless.
When someone wrongs you, you can shut them out so you don’t have to deal with them. Their wronging you becomes an excuse for you to stay in bed, or the reason for failure, or even the cause in the effect of just about every other obstacle you “cannot” overcome. The truth is that people always assume that it is easier to be the passenger in a car accident than it is to be the driver. As a passenger, you are the obvious victim. You have no blame to carry and though you may sympathise with the other casualties, you are allowed to pay them no mind and focus on your own pain. The driver, on the other hand, carries the weight of the accident on his shoulders. He is forced to deal with the effects of the accident in each of the casualties’ lives. What we don’t realise though, is that in an accident, everyone is a victim, so as much as the passengers need to forgive the driver, the driver must also learn to forgive himself.
And as difficult as it may be for one to forgive others, it is often a lot more difficult for one to forgive oneself. When forgiving someone else, a lot of the time, all that is required is an apology, genuine remorse and some kind of indication that the person is trying to make amends. In a situation where one is required to forgive oneself, however, that person is both the person seeking atonement, as well as the one giving it. One has to accept blame for their part in the situation, and then they have to be willing to forgive themselves. And assigning the blame is the part where most people get stuck.
A friend of mine once lost a loved one in a car accident after having an
argument with him and demanding that he makes his way to her immediately. He was in no condition to drive but got into the car anyways and never made it to her house. My friend has never forgiven herself for his death, part of the reason being that she blames herself for a decision he made. It may sound cruel, but he was the one who drank those beers. He got behind that wheel and he was the one who was speeding. Those were decisions he made and she should not hold herself ransom to them. But like I said, that sounds cruel and we shouldn’t speak “ill” of the dead.
The point however is that if one blames themselves for something they had no control over, they can never truly forgive themselves. They may learn to live with it, but they can never move on from it. Assigning blame goes hand in hand with taking responsibility, and you can not take responsibility for anyone’s actions except your own. My friend needs to forgive herself for pressurising him and for her role in the way things ended between them, because those things are a direct consequence of her decisions. His death however, was an accident that she had no control over.
Equally challenging though, is the stage after assigning the blame. Accepting that (in the words of Macbeth) “what is done is done and cannot be undone” is also an integral part of forgiving oneself. My friend cannot change that argument so to hold on to it would be futile. There is a prayer called the Serenity Prayer, often chanted by addicts and other people going through crippling situations. It says: “God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” I think this prayer sums up the steps to forgiveness perfectly, because as simple as it sounds, we often get caught up in the things we cannot change and allow those things to make us believe that we cannot move forward. That, in turn, allows us to sink into a comfort zone of self-pity, or resentment; and prevents us from living a fulfilled life. Because regardless of how much sleep you lose over your ex’s philandering ways, or your father’s absence, or your rapists inhumanity; there is a chance that they are sleeping just fine.
There is a saying that: to err is human but forgiveness is divine. Everyone makes mistakes: some more far-reaching than others; but that doesn’t necessarily make us bad people. It just makes us human. What defines character is how one responds to those mistakes. It takes a divine character to forgive and the only person severely affected by your holding a grudge, is you. If you allow yourself to be caged by situations that have passed (be they your own doing or caused by someone else), you can never truly spread your wings and soar to your destined heights. In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran writes: “You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief. But rather when these things girdle you life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.” Forgiveness is freedom.
*FIRST PUBLISHED BY http://www.consciousness.co.za/ *(October 2009)