“When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free, but discover that the real prisoner was you!” Lewis Smedes
On Valentine’s Day, 1993, my wife Ruth and I led a well-attended Denver program on the thorny topic of Forgiveness. Denver Mayor Wellington Webb honored the community with a certificate proclaiming February 14th, 1993 as Forgiveness Day. Two days before Valentine’s Day this year, Ruth and I joyfully co-facilitated a couple’s enrichment seminar, during which we revisited key characteristics of forgiveness. I’d like to share some of those key features.
Let’s start with some disclaimers regarding common misconceptions about forgiveness. Firstly, the act of forgiveness cannot be mandated, anymore than it works to exclaim to someone, “Be spontaneous!” or to “Just relax!” when one is encountering a lot of anxiety. Forgiveness usually involves a gradual process, especially when a person has felt egregiously wronged or violated. Secondly, forgiving does not require forgetting that a disturbing act occurred—that rarely happens. Furthermore, negative feelings and judgments aren’t fully relinquished.
Rather, forgiveness entails a heart-based choice or decision to release a debilitating grudge. Notice that the word forgive is comprised of two simple words: “for” and “give.” Effectively, what transpires is a decision to give space for, i.e. to allow fresh energy and a new relationship to replace a rigidified posture (mindset and heartset) about the perpetrator. Such a choice requires at least a measure of letting go, vulnerability, openness, generosity and compassion. As a result, the forgiver empathically accepts the humanness of the perpetrator, acknowledging that we all sometimes make (big) mistakes. Some sense of internal peace ensues and at least a little of the tension in the relationship dissipates.
As psychotherapists and seminar leaders, Ruth and I employ a number of processes, in addition to talking to facilitate the forgiveness process. Some of the practices or exercises we suggest include:
- a state-of-the-art approach to clearing barriers to forgiveness
- energetically opening the heart via guided breathing and/or imagery
- catalyzing cognitive/attitudinal shifts
- introducing spiritualperspectives.
“Forgiveness is the fragrance of the violet that clings fast to the heel that crushed it.” George Roemisch