Forgiveness – a self-centred act?
One of my first lessons in forgiveness happened over 20 years ago. I lived in Bondi at the time and walking past a kebab store, a young man stuck his head out and hurled a racist insult at me. I remember boiling up inside and gave him the meanest look I could muster. Physiologically, my body was hot, my lips felt dry and I had a hard feeling in the pit of my stomach. The dominant emotion was that of humiliation and feeling powerless to act or say something appropriate in the moment. I walked away and with each step my feeling of powerlessness grew and eventually transformed into fury. The anger felt better than the powerlessness as its fire emboldened me and gave me a sense of power that I had previously lacked.
For months after this initial encounter, I walked by that shop and dug deep within myself to pull up this anger and I would look into the store and imagine that I could beam a death stare deep into his soul. I enjoyed the fear in his eyes and the way he seemed to diminish every time he saw me. So I had won! I would walk past that kebab shop on days I was really happy and would have to switch moods just as I passed the store to play out our little charade. You see, my resentment and holding onto this grudge had locked us both into a role neither of us knew how to get out of, and even when I had stopped being pissed off with this man, I didn’t know how to cross the bridge to forgiveness.
A wise person once said: "Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die". There is a tonne of research to illustrate the negative effect that holding a grudge has on our physical and emotional body. In his article, The Deadly Consequences of Unforgiveness, Lorie Johnson states:
"Unforgiveness is classified in medical books as a disease. According to Dr. Steven Standiford, chief of surgery at the Cancer Treatment Centres of America, refusing to forgive makes people sick and keeps them that way."
Dr Michael Barry, author of The Forgiveness Project claims: “Of all cancer patients, 61 percent have forgiveness issues, and of those, more than half are severe. Harbouring these negative emotions, this anger and hatred, creates a state of chronic anxiety, which produces excess adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn depletes the production of natural killer cells, which is your body’s foot soldier in the fight against cancer.”
So what is forgiveness and how do we begin this monumental journey? Well, according to Wikipedia, forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offence, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.
Many people are concerned that forgiveness means condoning the action, excusing the wrong doing or forgetting that the wrong ever took place. In my experience, forgiveness is none of the above. Firstly, I need to acknowledge and accept that there was a wrong done and this is easier if I can separate the behaviour from the person. I need time to process how the behaviour has affected me. This can take an hour, a few days or months, or in extreme cases, years. I acknowledge how consumed I am about this situation; asking myself, does it dominate a large part of my thinking, pulling my attention from more productive and more pleasurable aspects of my life? Is my holding onto this grudge affecting the other person? Usually the answer is no, and in some cases the other may not even be aware that I’m hating on them. Which leaves me with only one cause of action: I forgive and let go, not for them, not because I care about how my feelings are affecting them but because not forgiving them is robbing me of my physical and emotional wellbeing.
In many traditions Easter signifies letting go of the past and moving forward with renewed hope and an open heart. Join me on Easter Sunday in a beautiful heart centred forgiveness process where we gently discard anything we have out grown emotionally to set ourselves free and make way for more love!