I Forgive You, I Forgive You Not
Have you ever noticed how, just when you are contemplating the start of a new practice you think might be beneficial, suddenly you see references to it everywhere?
Everyone you know is trying it, or every magazine you pick up features articles about it, or the characters in your favorite television program suddenly need to solve a case that revolves around it.
Take me and compassion meditation, for instance. A few posts ago I wrote about how I had decided to begin a personal compassion meditation practice and reported in on how it was going so far.
Then I decided to clean out my magazine basket. I opened up an issue of Real Simple magazine to an article called “Forgive & Forget: Can We?” Not having had much success yet with forgiving my crazy neighbor, I eagerly began to read – suspecting (rather hoping in fact) that I would discover forgiveness just isn’t possible in this situation – oh. well.
Nope. I actually discovered it is oh. so. possible…..and that (shocker) compassion meditation appears to help (of course the minimum requirement noted in the article was four hours per week, which means I only need to add about three hours and 45 minutes of weekly practice to my existing routine to reap the full benefits).
I also discovered that revenge is apparently just as beneficial and effective as forgiveness, at least from an evolutionary perspective. The article’s author, Kim Tingley, interviewed a psychology professor who stated “the desire for revenge is a built-in feature of human nature.” Apparently it evolved to help us protect and defend ourselves from the harmful intentions or actions of others.
I was quite relieved to hear this. But I was even more relieved to hear that thoughts of revenge are quite literally sweet – and this is because they activate the same reward center that lights up when I eat chocolate. So those repetitive thoughts of neighbor-as-flattened-street-toad aren’t quite so worrisome anymore – after all, it’s just evolution at work.
But of course I don’t want revenge. In fact, the article also states that forgiveness has already begun when you can visualize the person who hurt you and at least feel a desire to wish them well. I do feel that desire – so the actual well-wishing must not be far behind.
Plus forgiveness is apparently better for me on every level – just like eating kale is technically better for me than eating chocolate (even if sometimes I think the latter tastes oh-so-much better).
One particular point the author makes that I deeply resonate with is that the state of actual forgiveness is both elusive and personal to each person. So for one person, maybe they can forgive right away and without any or much forgiveness-inducing interaction with the party needing to be forgiven. Other people might need to hear an apology, have a conversation or overcome the personal effects of harm done before forgiveness can occur.
When I was six a neighborhood teen boy molested me. He was my babysitter for the evening and he messed with me and then blamed me for his actions, telling me that if I told anyone they would know it was my fault. I told my mom of course, but then I forgot the incident for years – until my 16th birthday, when all of a sudden I started to worry obsessively about why I was 16 and hadn’t been kissed yet. One night soon after it all flooded back.
After that I spent years blaming every bad thing in my life on that night. I was sooooo angry. I felt soooooo violated. And of course the moment I would see a new therapist I would mention it, and from that point forward every time any issue in my life arose (especially any issue around men) the therapist would blame it on that night too.
Armed with what I thought was a particularly effective barrier of angry defensiveness, I wasn’t even contemplating forgiving the boy until one day out of the blue when my dad called me. Apparently he and my mom had been out walking in their neighborhood and they ran into the boy – now a man, married and with three boys of his own. He handed my parents his business card, told them that not a day went by when he didn’t think about what he had done to me and feel regret, and that he wanted to meet me and ask my forgiveness.
I decided I didn’t want to meet him, but I did write him a letter and mailed it to the address on his business card. In the letter I told him that I forgave him. Then I asked him to please forgive himself – I said he was a father now and his boys needed him to be fully present to help them make good, honorable choices. I also told him that, while the incident was painful, it had taught me a lot about developing inner strength.
What was cool about this was that I hadn’t realized I had developed any inner strength from the experience until I wrote that down in the letter. Then I realized other gifts the experience had given me – a better trust radar (including trust in myself to know who was to blame for what in my life) – more compassion for people that do bad things (and for myself when I do bad things) – and, most importantly, the newfound capacity to forgive.
So I know I can do it. I’ve done it before and I can do it again. Maybe I haven’t finished learning from my own pain and anger yet. Or maybe I am just not ready. Or maybe some element of what I need to forgive has not yet presented itself. I don’t know.
All that I do know is that I WANT to forgive, I INTEND to forgive and I am working towards forgiveness….one angry, sweetly revenge-full thought at time.
Today’s Takeaway: What do you think about forgiveness versus revenge? Do you think there are some times when revenge is warranted? Have you ever had to make a choice between the two – what did you choose, and did it help or harm you post-choice?
Woman meditating image available from Shutterstock.
Cutts, S. (2013). I Forgive You, I Forgive You Not. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 28, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/mentoring-recovery/2013/08/i-forgive-you-i-forgive-you-not/