Mental Health

What is forgiveness?

forgivenessI’ve struggled with this question for a long time. The events of my childhood and adolescence had a huge impact on my emotional well-being for many years. I was insecure, selfish, incapable of trust, lacking in confidence and riddled with self-loathing. Even now, despite having come out the other end of therapy and the grounding influence that sharing the responsibility for three young lives with my husband gives me, I still feel an occasional wave of resentment and anger…

It shouldn’t have been like that. I wasted half my life just struggling to live. There were so many opportunities I failed to take advantage of, so many rites of passage that I missed out on. More than a decade of dead, soulless existence, spent trying to blot out the pain with drugs, alcohol, self-harm and stupid risks.

But, it happened; and there’s nothing I can do to change that. It’s made me the person I am today – some of the gifts I cherish; others, I work to overcome. I’m left with a feeling that I have a lot still to do in a much shorter space of time.

But how do I feel about what happened to me? Have I forgiven those from that shadowy, frightening life before – who appear in the movie-reel in my head that burns the back of my eyeballs on the rare night when sleep eludes me, or the dream that threatens to colour my morning blue?

I guess that depends on your definition of forgiveness. I’ve heard lots of opinions on this. Some think it’s about acting as though nothing has happened, not letting events colour who you are and how you see things; I think that’s not only folly, it’s impossible. We’re not automatons, our world-view is shaped by experience; experience we are supposed to learn from. Some say it’s about accepting what happened and letting go of the pain it made you feel. That’s all very well, but what if it’s the pain that keeps laying claim to you and not the other way around? Mental illness isn’t a choice. Some say just turn the other cheek, but there are those who will continue to abuse you as long as you give them the opportunity or the benefit of the doubt. At what point do you stop being a doormat?

I think genuine forgiveness is the result of a process, not just something you can decide to be. It takes a period of adjustment and considerable soul-searching to attain it. Someone put this up on Facebook the other day and it helped to encapsulate what I had never been able to explain to myself…

the meaning of forgiveness

How do you define forgiveness? Has anything happened to you that’s made you change your view? 


13 thoughts on “What is forgiveness?

  1. forgiveness is a rare gift – that you give yourself. i am sure that you experienced some disappointment when the closure you were looking for did not happen. but as you have indirectly stated, when talking things over does not give the desired result, then there is still the option of forgiving the other party – in your mind – even if they have forgotten or denied that such forgiveness is warranted.
    i like that quote you found on FB. forgiving is not so much about focussing on forgetting as it is to choose to move on, even when memories want to rear their ugly heads, and to intentionally disallow them from bogging you down. it is the exit sign that allows you to escape into freedom and live the life you had always wanted, and to be a different kind of person to those with whom you rub shoulders now.
    i heard the story of a man who was crippled with regret that he had not lived up to the expectations of his father. no matter what he did, his father always told him it was not good enough. in the meantime he was 70 years old, and he still felt that he was a disappointment to his father. his father, however, had long since passed away, and still no matter what he did, he sensed it was not good enough. how tragic. and yet even at 70, he had the option of forgiving what his father had done, forgiving himself for all the years lost in disappointment, and to enjoy the rest of his days purposefully, rather than continue on in regret.
    one of my favourite things about forgiveness that i have discovered is – it is not so much a feeling as it is a choice.
    thank you for sharing your story. you have a very readable writing style, and your honesty is heartening. may the times you remember with regret become increasingly less as you enjoy the days that are before you now, and as you spend time with your family, building memories together that your kids that they will always treasure.

    • Thanks for your comment and your thoughts.It’s a tough question and, to some degree, everyone’s answer will be different. But you’re right – it IS a gift you give to yourself.

  2. There is an element of guilt, I have found – this was quite a large part of the bad experience that scarred me thirty-odd years ago. So forgiving yourself IS important. And I have just accepted that pain is a part of life – a part of my own experience – and I am so thankful that you (and I) have come out on the other side! As for those who inflicted that pain, I often think that they suffered in many ways more than me, and probably continue to do so…

  3. Tough one for me. I have a hard time letting go of things. If I feel you have wronged me or generally acted in a shitty way towards me I used to have a really hard time getting over it. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at not caring as much when someone does or doesn’t do what I expected of them. I am much much better than I used to be though. So I guess for me forgiveness is a process but also is easier to do with maturity.

    • Very true. Maturity brings a wider “world-view” which helps us to see things in perspective – but you’re absolutely right; it is a process. It’s as much about personal growth and development as it is about our attitudes to others.

  4. Another thought provoking post.

    We are human, and as such we can be consumed by hate which grows like a cancer within us. If we learn to let go, we may be able to forgive, but I doubt ever forget. Forgiveness comes from strength. However, who offers the first olive branch and will it be accepted? If your parents asked for your forgiveness would you forgive them and move on with your life?
    What if you asked for theirs? Would they forgive or would it just open up old wounds?


    • Ponderous… LOVE that word! Picturing you with your chin on your hand and a furrowed brow!

      Before we came to Canada, I met with my parents and tried to discuss events from the past with them. I wasn’t looking for an apology from them, but I was hoping that they would listen and acknowledge the impact those events had on me. I apologized for anything I did that hurt them, and they apologized also, but made excuses or claimed not to remember much of what I mentioned, so the acknowledgement I sought eluded me.
      I don’t wish them any ill and I’m not after revenge. I write about my past for myself and anyone it might help, and because I realised there’s no reason for me to keep secrets on my parent’s behalf, especially as they maintain nothing untoward happened. But we will never be close. They’re not interested in getting to know me beyond a surface relationship – that’s just how it is. I’ve accepted them for what they are, but sometimes, when I see other families together, or read about other peoples interactions with their parents, I feel very sad that I missed out on that.
      You are right though, when you say we may learn to forgive, but we don’t forget. That caused me difficulty for a long time – the idea that, to forgive, one had to forget what had happened. I spent years trying to blot it out of my consciousness only for it to re-emerge in different forms: anxiety, bad dreams, agoraphobia, etc. It was like a rip tide; unseen from the surface but able to drag you down unexpectedly. Forgiving and forgetting do NOT go hand in hand.

  5. I agree that it’s a process, and it can take quite a bit of time. There were a few times I thought I had really forgiven someone, only to have it all come back again. I think that explanation from Facebook is a good one. I once heard a saying that holding a grudge is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die. You feel the pain and often the other person doesn’t even know or care how you feel.

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