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There are three kinds of forgiveness, all interrelated. There is self-forgiveness, which enables us to release our guilt and perfectionism. There is the forgiveness we extend to others and receive from them, intimates and enemies alike. And there is the forgiveness of God, which assures us of our worth and strengthens us for this practice.
All the spiritual traditions raise up the value of forgiveness, but many people still find it to be a nearly impossible ideal. Just try it. Look truthfully at one hurt you have not been able to forgive. Identify any associated feelings you might have, such as anger, denial, guilt, shame or embarrassment. Imagine what it would be like to live without feeling this offense. The let it go.
Other steps may be necessary for healing – a confession of your contribution to the conflict, making amends, changing behavior, a commitment to the community – but giving up your claims for, and sometimes against, yourself is where you have to begin.
We all know the obvious symptoms that could be relieved by forgiveness – feeling so wounded that we want revenge, constant brooding over a long list of petty grievances, feeling so guilty we don’t know how to approach someone we have offended, worry that the hurt could happen again. Bitterness and stubbornness can also be signs that forgiveness is called for, especially when these attitudes are associated with a need to be recognized as the one who is right.
In contrast to these limiting behaviors, which usually erect walls between ourselves and others, forgiveness is freeing. It means that we can move out of our previous position and move on with our lives. Best of all, it enables us to be reconciled with our neighbors and with God so that once again we feel part of the greater community of the spiritual life.
Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is classic novel about forgiveness. It has been made into a Broadway musical and several films. Jean Valjean, just out of prison after serving 19 years, steals some silverware from a bishop who has given him dinner. Caught by the police, Valjean is stunned when the bishop not only forgives him but makes it possible for him to remain a free man. In gratitude, he goes on to lead an exemplary life, becoming the mayor of a small town and the benevolent head of a factory.
He is pursued, however, by Javert, a police officer who is so filled with self-hate that he can only hurt others. Offered absolution himself, he cannot accept it. This story explores the very real power of forgiveness to change lives for the better and, when refused or denied, for the worse.
The need to resolve conflicts and forgive each other becomes very evident in the close confines of a home. Without discussing a particular grievance, talk together about some ways you can facilitate forgiveness. Some couples, for example, don’t let the sun go down on an argument. Other couples say to each other every day, “I thank you. I love you. I forgive you.”
Forgiveness is freeing up and putting to better use the energy once consumed by holding grudges, harboring resentments, and nursing unhealed wounds. It is rediscovering the strengths we always had and relocating our limitless capacity to understand and accept other people and ourselves.
Bob Mueller is the vice president of advancement and community relations at Hosparus. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer.