“By taking care of the present, we can even transform the past.” Thich Nhat Hahn
What is the past? What is history? I would suggest that the past is only what we choose to remember, whether that’s what someone’s recorded in a history text or whether it’s our personal recollection of an event. The memory begins with a present experience after all and what we choose to remember about it is up to us, when we do that consciously. We also have a choice about how we use any memory to affect us in the present.
Of course there are some memories that become embedded in our subconscious and, where these are painful, for example as a result of trauma, that may require specialist intervention to bring them into consciousness in a form that can be dealt with. However, this is not what I’m addressing in this article.
The Case for Forgiveness
When someone has upset us or done something that has harmed us, what is the best course of action for the benefit of our emotional wellbeing?
We can choose to distinguish between what we choose to remember about the facts and what we believe were the intentions of those involved. Rather than following the traditional route of seeking revenge, we can focus instead on transforming our approach to what happened and the consequences that resulted. How do we do that? By connecting compassionately with the perpetrator, whether that’s someone else or ourselves, we can begin to ease the tension around the situation. By understanding the needs in them that triggered the response that resulted in harm, we can begin to soften in our attitude and our perspective on our grievance.
What I’m suggesting is that forgiveness is a non-violent alternative to the more traditional, aggressive response of revenge. Forgiveness, whether directed towards ourselves or towards others, generates love and understanding rather than anger and resentment, feelings that only serve to prolong the suffering caused. So, forgiveness has to be more beneficial for our emotional wellbeing than seeking revenge or harbouring grievances.
What forgiveness is not.
A common misconception concerning forgiveness is that it “let’s us off”. In other words, that it somehow condones the harm that was done. This is not the case. Rather than deny or justify the suffering and wrong-doing, forgiveness is a way to understand what happened and to heal any negative consequences that still persist through feelings of resentment or grievance.
Forgiveness simply allows us to:
• Accept that what happened, happened.
• Have compassion for the perpetrator, whether that’s ourselves or someone else.
• Understand what triggered the misdeed, the feelings and unmet needs behind it.
• Choose to have an alternative perspective on it.
• Transform our pain.
“Only in an open, nonjudgmental space can we acknowledge what we are feeling. Only in an open space where we’re not all caught up in our own version of reality can we see and hear and feel who others really are, which allows us to be with them and communicate with them properly.” Pema Chodron.
In coaching, holding a grievance against somebody can often show up as a block, stuckness or resistance to taking action. A grievance takes energy to hold onto and to feed those kinds of feelings, energy which can be put to much more constructive use elsewhere. So, it’s important to forgive from an energetic standpoint too.
Transforming the Pain
Although it can seem counter-intuitive, it is perfectly possible to forgive someone else without needing to talk with them about the incident that resulted in harm. However, if we do feel ready to chat it through with them, it can be beneficial in helping to understand both points of views. Another advantage is that it allows us to openly and honestly reach closure on the event with the other person involved and to dispel the charged feelings associated with it.
Forgiveness is a process of transformation and some patience may be required. Whilst the need to forgive can present us with many challenges, the benefits are many and include: strengthening of character, release of energy and improved physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.
Suggested Further Reading