Forgiveness is a transpersonal quality whose essential role is often overlooked in the story of Good Friday. Today Christians mark the death of Jesus, who before dying, forgave his executioners as well as the thief crucified by his side. Born out of a paradoxical mixture of human suffering, responsibility and love, the essential power of forgiveness is that is contains rather than proliferates violence. Today seems like a good time to explore where forgiveness comes from and the power it holds. How does it happen? And what are the steps that we, in our personal lives, can take towards it?
Forgiveness is a creative process. You decide how much, when, where, how, and under what conditions to forgive. As Jungian psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes, “The important part of forgiveness is to begin and to continue” (author’s italics). It does not happen overnight, it does not have to happen fully. But one thing is certain, it cannot happen from your head. We cannot reason our way around, into, or towards forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the heart, and it requires a great love, a Love beyond ourselves.
“Forgiveness is not an act of passivity or weakness. Every time we forgive, we perform a ‘magical act’, because we break a chain and, by doing so, we free ourselves from a bond. Forgiveness is a conscious act of will and love, that truly knows how to forget and stop the sad succession of resentment, vendettas and struggles among human beings. Forgiveness is the most effective way to bring peace to the souls of the world.”
Throughout the years, I have come to understand that forgiveness is a process of both acceptance and surrender. It is a long process and does not happen once but gradually, many, many times. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when Peter asked him, “How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” Jesus answered, “Not seven, I tell you, but seven times seventy” (Matthew 18:21-22).
There are initial steps we can take towards forgiveness. First we must acknowledge and feel our sorrow, soften our rage, and give room to our grief. The sadness encasing our hearts must be felt, tears must fall, sobs must rattle our chests free of hardened armor. If we don’t accept the pain inflicted upon us by others and release it, that pain will continue to roam our soul like a hungry predator.
Courageously facing our own grief and sorrow—and each of our lives inevitably carries such heartache—will ultimately lead to forgiveness. But we must also want to forgive. Without this inner longing by ourselves, forgiveness will never come. Once the soul is open, forgiveness comes stealthily like a panther. It takes its time, pausing, waiting, watching, easing closer and closer to the wounded spirit. Then, unexpectedly, it leaps into the vulnerable, bare soul.
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Forgiveness is sung as a duet. We bemoan those who have hurt us, but we also must at the same time entreat those we have hurt. We are often the last to forgive ourselves, especially when we have for many years inflicted pain and self-judgement against our own lives. What we don’t forgive of ourselves, we can never forgive of others.
No matter how dark the path or how close to death our past trauma lurks, as human spirits, we are as strong as iron in the blacksmith’s fire, able to re-emerge transformed and free. Forgiveness ultimately restores the living relationship that we have with ourselves, our neighbours, the world, and God.
The moment we forgive, we birth merciful energy into the collective unconscious and help to generate more forgiveness in the world. As the survivor of Auschwitz Eva Mozes Kor once said, “I discovered that I had the power to forgive, and it was a tremendously empowering feeling. Forgiveness has nothing to do with the perpetrator. Forgiveness has everything to do with the victim taking back her life.”
Five Steps Towards Forgiveness
- Write a letter to the person that you feel injured by. Do not hesitate to write down all your feelings towards this person. Hold back nothing. Do not mail this letter.
- Write a letter to yourself. Ask yourself for forgiveness for the things that you might have done or failed to do and are sorry for.
- Find someone that you can trust and who can listen compassionately to your story.
- Write the word “Forgiveness” on a card and place it somewhere that you pass frequently during the day. For example, on your desk, the refrigerator door, or the bathroom mirror. Ask the Higher Self to help you forgive, whenever you see it.
- Try to put a human face on your perpetrator. For example, try to imagine the person who hurt you as a little child. A woman I knew had been molested by her grandfather, but no one else in the family knew. As an adult, she wrote to her cousin and asked him to write a letter describing what he remembered about their grandfather. Her cousin’s response enabled her to see her grandfather in a more human light and this eventually helped her to forgive him.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves, p. 400-403.
David Smith, “Twinned in terror at a Nazi Camp,” Guardian Weekly, January 21-27, 2005, p. 20.
You write how forgiveness is a creative process, and that it’s ongoing, not something that happens once and is over. This is a useful idea, especially when we think about how sometimes forgiving ourselves is challenging as we have created for ourselves patterns of thinking and responding that make changing our thinking difficult. What we change in ourselves affects the lives of all those around us.