A question about forgiveness
Forgiveness is a hard, hard topic to cover.
Questions like how do I forgive someone and when do I know I’ve forgiven someone do not have easy straightforward answers. I know; I’ve looked. There’s also, interestingly, not consensus on if you need to forgive or why.
For me, when I was recently asked one of these very things - when do I know I’ve forgiven someone - the best answer I could come up with seems less than satisfying….you just know.
I gave an example.
Not long ago, I summoned the courage to tell a long-time friend about something she had been doing that hurt my feelings. Even though I knew there was no malicious intent, I had to tell her or risk my resentment hardening. She responded as a caring person would - I’m sorry, I never knew.
When I eventually understood the situation from her point of view as well, I also acted as a caring person and said I’m sorry that it’s like that for you. The moment that we both acknowledged each other my hurt feelings dissipated and, I hope she’d agree, we strengthened our friendship.
Now looking back, intellectually I know I was hurt, but I no longer feel it. I no longer feel the squeeze in my gut. In fact, what’s left doesn’t feel like it’s about me at all. What I feel now is empathy for my friend’s situation, gratitude that she was brave enough to share it with me, and, well, I think, forgiveness.
But what if you can’t have that kind of caring exchange? What if the person you’re trying to forgive is gone? What if the person you’re trying to forgive is not capable of the necessary insight required to say I’m sorry, I never knew?
And what if the thing to forgive is much, much bigger than this? What if it's something that affects you down in your core; something that colors your whole life?
I’ll admit; this is a quandary.
I think it’s still possible in these circumstances - even preferable for you - to work to forgive, but there’s a catch: it takes a long, long time. It takes much longer than most people would assume. And in my experience, around about the time you’ve assumed it’s going to take (which isn’t long enough) is when you start to ask when do I know I’ve forgiven someone?
Think of it like aging.
If you jumped from 20 to 50 in a matter of minutes you’d notice. There’d be fine lines on your face, gray in your hair, a few extra pounds here and there, some aches and pains you didn’t notice before (ah, so joyful, yes?). There would be no denying a change had taken place.
But we don’t age that way, we age gradually. Every day from 20 to 50 we look in the mirror, which prevents us from noticing the changes; to ourselves, we always look the same. The difference only becomes clear when you look back to a photograph, for instance. To your mind, it’s the way to jump from 20 to 50 in a matter of minutes.
That’s forgiveness when you don’t, for whatever reason, have the assistance of the person you need to forgive or when it’s a really huge thing to forgive. If you’re doing the work - analyzing the experience, processing the emotions - it’s happening slowly; ever so slowly over time. You won’t feel it as a quick release, but rather as more of a letting go.
And you’ll see it as you look back. You are making progress.
The challenge is, however, that even when we work on it, there’s always the chance that it may not ever come. The work may not ever be complete.
But it is worth it, I think, to give yourself the gift of at least moving toward forgiveness. Even if you’re only just slowly making progress for the whole of the rest of your life.