I’ve done lots of forgiveness work over the years, in classes and workshops and therapeutic settings. Guided meditations, visualized conversations for healing, letter-writing exercises. Usually, some rich stuff gets unearthed — my own blind spots, a fresh perspective on an old grievance, hidden resentments I didn’t realize I was still holding. Sometimes, I’m even able to resolve some of those.
But I must admit that forgiveness usually doesn’t flow effortlessly for me. I can kindle a grudge forever.
You know that workshop demonstration where someone is asked to hold a glass of water out in front of them, with a straight arm —? Holding it for a few seconds is no big deal, but after a while it gets really heavy. Eventually, it becomes unbearable; it hurts to keep holding it. This is supposed to illustrate the weight of un-forgiveness — the longer you hold it, the heavier it gets. Well… let me tell you, I can hold that glass for a long-freakin-time. And if my arm hurts, then that, too, will be the fault of the person who wronged me in the first place. Now, I’m holding two glasses — look what they made me do!
It’s not that I mean to be a jerk about it. It’s just that I’m all about accountability. How I like to think of myself is: I can forgive anything, as long as there’s been a conversation to clear the air, as long as everyone takes responsibility for their part in the upset, as long as we’ve clarified our commitments and it seems like we can transform our old dysfunction into a new intimacy and workability…
Which all sounds pretty good. In my head, at least, it sounds like an opening for healing, completion, and possibility. It sounds like taking a stand that calls forth everyone’s best selves, our empowered selves, our divine selves.
Trouble is: it’s terribly, utterly conditional. I’ll forgive you, if and only if you yada yada yada… There’s a ton of sanctimony and judgment in it, preserving the right and righteousness of my resentment. It misses completely the spirit of generosity and grace to which we’re invited by true forgiveness, with no strings attached.
Spoken-word artist and poet Buddy Wakefield said, “Forgiveness is for anyone who needs safe passage through my mind.”
What a beautiful idea — “safe passage through my mind.” Wishing someone well when we encounter them in person or in thought, even if they’ve hurt us. Not cursing them with karmic payback or comeuppance. Not withholding our blessing until they make amends. Maybe even helping to facilitate their safe passage through our minds and/or in the world, whether or not they’ve “earned” it.
I was thinking about this because I read a Washington Post essay by Tara Parker-Pope last week: “Are you ready to forgive? A new study shows letting go is good for health.” This wasn’t exactly breaking news. I mean, the idea of forgiveness as a healing practice has been around for a long time. What I found particularly interesting about the article was that it described forgiveness as important not only for our individual wellbeing, but also as a matter of public health.
Indeed, forgiveness is beneficial on a personal level — mentally, emotionally, and physically. And it’s essential for functional relationships. And I think most people can also groove with the idea on an abstract, spiritual plane. But I hadn’t really thought much about it as a societal issue. The article didn’t follow this line very far, but it occurs to me that forgiveness might be the lynchpin that begins to resolve most if not all of our current social and political ills.
- Forgiveness not instead of justice and accountability, but as a context of mercy through which justice can freely flow.
- Forgiveness as a matter not of forgetting, but of remembering. Remembering wrongs that we no longer need repeat nor perpetuate. Remembering not just how we’ve been hurt in the past, but also how we have grown and healed and overcome, and how we can do it again. Remembering our boundless creative capacity to choose.
- Forgiveness as a practice of empathy and compassion that costs absolutely nothing, and gains and grants everything.
The WaPo article included a link to a workbook and self-directed forgiveness exercises published by Dr. Everett L. Worthington of Virginia Commonwealth University. (reach.discoverforgiveness.org). I completed all the exercises around an old grudge. It takes about two hours to do.
And I must say: while the material did seem familiar, not unlike other work I’ve done before, the structure and organization of it was mighty effective. I believe that I have finally, actually let go of these glasses of water that I’ve been holding not just in both hands, but also balancing on my knees and the top of my head for over five years.
And it feels good. Not only can I allow safe passage through my mind for the other person, my own path also looks safer, easier, happier. I’d been withholding it not just from them, but from myself.
Of course, there’s more work to be done. No sooner had I forgiven that one thing, when a wracking new issue of unforgiveness came out of left field to leave me reeling and broken.
So I’m definitely not claiming to be particularly good at this — unconditional forgiveness still is a big challenge for me. I will, however, remind myself that I’ve got it in my tool belt. I don’t have to wait for anyone else to make it possible. I can choose it and practice it regardless of conditions and circumstances. And it costs me absolutely nothing.
I know it’s the way to heal my own broken heart. And it may be the way we heal the world.
©2023 Drew Groves