I suspect it has happened to all of us, and probably a good deal more
than once: It's three o'clock in the morning . . . you are lying in bed,
and for absolutely no good reason you're wide awake. After you have lain
there for a while, the tapes start playing. It's like being in a movie
theater and the doors are locked. You can't get out and you may as well
watch what's on the screen. You really don't like it because you've seen
it all before, but still it comes back. You remember things from not
long ago and from way back when.
You remember the person who started a false rumor about you and how
long it took to get over the damage that caused. You remember the time a
friend violated a trust and left you feeling exposed and vulnerable and
alone, confused. You remember the time, many years ago now, when your
brother, in order to cover up his own misbehavior, lied through his teeth
to your parents. Not only that, he lied about you and what you had done,
and you got in all kinds of hot water for it, and that took a long time
to untangle. You remember the time when you turned to someone for help
and support and maybe some guidance in a struggle you were dealing with,
and that person responded by beating you over the head with dogma,
doctrine, and meaningless platitudes. Then there was the time just last
week when you could have said something that would have spared somebody
else a really nasty experience, but you stayed silent for fear of being
laughed at. Sure enough, because of your silence, they went through that
experience. They didn't deserve it, and more than you deserved all those
other things, but they got it.
I think we've all got those tapes, and the list could go on. They
are the undigestible lumps of our experience. They live with us and they
haunt us and, more than that, they generate a kind of acid within us that
eats and gnaws and corrodes. They are the times when somebody has done
something to us that we didn't deserve-we didn't earn it, we weren't
responsible for it-but they did it, and we're the ones who got hurt by
it. Or they are the times when we perceive we've done something to
somebody else that we really shouldn't have done, or perhaps failed to do
something for them that we could (and probably should) have done. What
it comes down to is that a wrong has been done by somebody to somebody,
and we're one of those somebodies, and we can't let it go. Sometimes it
feels like it won't let us go.
There is a way out of this bondage, a way of setting ourselves free,
and it costs no money at all. It's called
forgiving. But even though
it's free, it's not particularly easy to use. It's not always easy to
forgive. For one thing, it seems to violate a sense of fairness that's
deep within us. It just doesn't seem right that we should forgive
someone for this gross injustice that was done to us, never mind forgive
ourselves for doing something. But think about what's going on here:
every time that tape plays again in our heads we get beat over the head
with that injustice. We get clobbered with it time and time and time and
time again. The person who originally did it has long since forgotten it
(and may not have ever known that they did do it), but we haven't
forgotten it. If we're going to talk about fairness, shouldn't we also
be fair to ourselves and release ourselves from that kind of endless
Another thing that makes it hard to forgive is that there's a lot of
baggage that has been loaded onto forgiving. We expect more of it than
it really is, or else we just plain misunderstand it. You've heard the
to forgive is to forget . . .
forgive and forget. Aesop
used the phrase in about the 6th century BCE, Cervantes used it in Don
Quixote, Shakespeare used it in King Lear. But in spite of such an
illustrious pedigree, the phrase is really nonsense. You see, we can't
choose to forget. We can all forget quite well when we don't intend to.
(As I've said before, I've reached an age where I sometimes have to look
up my own phone number.) But let's do a short experiment. Picture in
your mind, in as much detail as you can, a white elephant. See it, in
your mind's eye, as clearly as you can. Now, within the next ten
seconds, forget the white elephant. . . . How many actually completely
forgot the white elephant? . . . We simply don't have the option of
choosing to forget. To say to somebody,
Forgive and forget, is
nonsense, on the order of saying,
Take off and fly around the
building. And, maybe more importantly, forgetting would just allow the
same thing to happen again, and there's no progress there.
Forgiving is not forgetting, and it's not tolerating either. In
fact, it's just the opposite. We only forgive the things that we can't
tolerate. If we could tolerate it, we wouldn't need to forgive it; we'd
just let it go. There was a woman in California several years ago whose
daughter was killed by a drunk driver. For years afterwards her life was
consumed with hatred and rage and grief at that event, and understandably
so. But she came to realize that her life was always going to be
controlled by that driver, that event, unless she chose to do something
about it. So, with help and a lot of support, she chose to work through
the process of forgiving that driver and she did, and thus set herself
free. Once freed, she established a new chapter of Mothers against Drunk
Driving. Toleration was never part of her picture, and it's not part of
There's another false sense of forgiving, and that is, that to
forgive is to excuse. Excusing only comes from a perfect and complete
understanding of what happened. If we really know everything that
happened, then we can understand it and set it aside; that's what
excusing is. Forgiving takes place in the real world, where we never
understand everything that went on. We never know everything that was
going on. Forgiving and excusing are very different processes.
The final thing that gets loaded onto forgiving is that we ask too
much of it. We sometimes think that to forgive somebody is to be
reconciled with them. But reconciliation is about rebuilding
relationships. It's not about forgiving. Forgiving is an act that an
individual does to set himself or herself free-to turn off the movies
once and for all. It is solely that person's choice. Reconciliation is
about two people getting together, so it depends on two people, not just
one. It may, or it may not, happen after forgiving. The person being
forgiven may have moved away or may, in fact, be dead by now.
Reconciliation is a separate process.
It's surprising, in some ways, that the process of forgiving-what you
actually do to forgive-is so straight forward. There are only about four
steps in it. The first step is to re-vision-adjust our image-our mental
picture of the person we're forgiving (and in some cases, this means
adjusting our image of ourselves). Usually, after we've watched that
tape a few (or a few hundred) times of the episode when so-and-so did
this to us, so-and-so has become about nine feet tall, carries an axe,
drools a little, weighs 347 pounds and is a full-blown ogre-a first-class
villain with all the trimmings. Well, how could you forgive somebody
like that? So, the first step is to pare away that larger-than-life
stuff, and realize that so-and-so is actually about 5'7" and the axe
isn't an axe, it's a cane. We adjust how we see that person, so that we
see him or her in a more human form, a more real form.
Then we begin to change our feelings about that person, and that's
not a fast process. We don't have a lot of control over our feelings.
But a funny thing happens: as we change the image we have of the person,
our feelings follow, and they change too. You can feel one way about an
ogre. It's hard to feel that same way when you realize the person is
just like us-human and fallible, strong by times, weak by times . . .
good days . . . bad days . . . occasionally just plain rotten days-and
our feelings begin to change.
Somewhere along the line, we decide (it's up to us) to surrender our
right to get even; we're just going to give it up. It's not going to be
part of the picture any more.
Finally, the last step is that we begin from deep down inside us to
genuinely, passionately wish that person well. We wish for that person
the very best that life can possibly offer. If we can be a part of that,
so much the better, but whether we are part of it or not, we genuinely
wish that person well.
That's all there is to it, but it's not quite as simple as it may
sound. There are some things that can make the process easier-some do's
and some don'ts. I'll take care of the
don't's first, just because
there are fewer of them. (1) The first is that forgiveness and its
freeing impact is really a miracle. Don't mess up a really nice miracle
by turning it into an obligation. I've never heard of anybody who has
truly, deeply forgiven somebody else because they thought they should.
Real forgiveness doesn't work that way. We can get that kind of
forgiveness down to a certain level but no deeper. Real deep-down
forgiveness starts because we choose to, not because we have to. That
means it may take time, so don't try to do it all at once. The quick,
forgive you. OK, I forgive you. It's all set, usually doesn't change
things very much. It takes time to forgive deeply, so give it time.
On the other hand, waiting for just the right time, or place, or
circumstance, is like waiting for Godot; it's just not going to happen.
We never get the right time, the right place, the right circumstance.
Forgiving always takes place in the midst of confusion, so if you decide
to do it, then start doing it.
Finally, as I mentioned before, it doesn't help to expect too
much-to expect reconciliation or healed relationships, even to expect to
wind up liking the person. That's not guaranteed with forgiveness.
Forgiveness is about healing inside, not about reconciliation outside.
Having said all that, there are some things we can do to make the
process easier. The first is very basic. It's to decide to do it-to
decide to forgive, to decide to give up the feelings that we may be
harboring that involve hate and anger and jealousy. Deep down, sometimes
it's not easy to give those up. They have a kind of sweet taste to them
that we relish when nobody is looking, so we have to decide to give those
We have to be very, very specific about what it is that we're
forgiving. It doesn't work to say,
Well, I forgive so-and-so. If
we're forgiving a person, we're in effect saying,
I forgive you for who
you are, which is not going to take us anywhere. Who that person is is
simply who they are, just like you and me. We can't forgive them for
being who they are, only for something they have done, or have not done.
We need to write it down very specifically, and it must have a verb in
I will forgive him for the time when he said this . . . did this . .
. what have you. It's a specific act that we offer forgiveness for, not
a person. We forgive the person for doing the act.
As I said, take your time. It doesn't happen in one shot. I had a
music teacher in grade eight, named Jean Dewey. She told me in grade
You can't sing, so you won't sing, and please don't sing. She
was quite succinct, quite clear, and quite forceful. It took me a lot
of years to realize even how much that hurt-a whole lot of years. It
took me a good many more years to start to work through the process of
forgiving her, because I spent a long time being really quite thoroughly
angry at the good Mrs Dewey. But I finally decided that was absurd, and
so I worked through the process of forgiving; I did, and I felt much
better. Sometime after that (under circumstances I don't remember)
something came up that brought it to mind and I realized there was some
anger still down there. So I said,
Well, I guess I didn't get deep
enough, so I forgave her again. I've forgiven her for those words a lot
of times, and I'm not altogether sure I'm done yet.
I think that's part of the wisdom Jesus brought to the process of
forgiving. He was once asked,
How many times do I have to forgive my
brother when he sins against me, seven whole times? Jesus looked at his
questioner and said,
Seven? Try seventy-seven, or seventy times
seven. It doesn't happen all at once. We will probably have to do it
several times. That's alright. We've got a lifetime.
We'll forgive in the midst of confusion. We'll never know exactly
what went on, but we don't have to. We're talking about healing what's
inside of us. That's where forgiving works, so we don't have to have
perfect understanding or perfect knowledge. We just start right in the
middle of the confusion. We may have to settle for incomplete
forgiving. Ideally, when the process is done, I can say to that person,
I forgive you, and that person says,
Thank you. I'm glad to hear
that. But it may not work out that way. For one thing, that person may
live on the other side of the country by now. That person may have died
by now. And maybe it really wouldn't help. This event may have been
gnawing at me for years, but that person has probably forgotten it long
since; maybe it was a casual remark they weren't even aware of at the
time. Maybe no good would be served by bringing it up. Maybe it's just
something I need to do solely to set myself free, and that's OK. That
still brings the healing.
Sometimes we get stuck in the process of forgiving, and can't figure
out where to go. It's at those times that priming the pump is really
useful. We haven't gotten to the point of forgiving. But we're working
on it and we want to, so sometimes it helps to just act like we have.
You know, you go through the day and, thinking about this person, you
I wish him well. I wish him well. I wish him well. Deep down
you may still wish to see him boiling in oil, but just act like you
really do wish him well. Say it to yourself, over and over again.
There's a reason for that. C. S. Lewis pointed out in the Screw Tape
these humans tend to become the thing they are
imitating. It's very true. We say through gritted teeth,
I wish him
well. I wish him well. I really do. I wish him well, and, low and
behold, after a while we actually do. It's quite amazing, but it
happens. We wish that person well, in whatever form that might take, and
the wish works on that person, but it also works on us. It works very
powerfully on us.
I sometimes think of forgiving as
Love's Tender Violence. I call
violence because it explodes the walls of pain and hurt that we
build around ourselves, and fills us with a peace that we just can't help
but share with the people around us. It's forgiving that breaks through
the endless and hopeless rounds of getting even. It takes the notion
that justice means
an eye for an eye and explodes it once and for all.
It's forgiving that really opens us to the possibility of a world
reconciled and made new, because it allows us to be reconciled and made
new. It is the way we set ourselves free.