A Brief Guide to Understanding Forgiveness

When we have been hurt by someone else’s wrong, sometimes forgiveness is the ultimate thing we want to offer the person who has caused us torment. The negative feelings may run deep, we want them to know the suffering they have caused us and wish them no happiness because they have taken happiness from our lives.

Over time the burden of anger, resentment, or hard feelings towards another, does not bring any sort of healing or wellbeing into our bodies or minds. Instead, it pollutes us and proves to us that we must eliminate it to protect ourselves and restore happiness into our life.

The Path of Forgiveness

Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Frequently cited as coming from Nelson Mandela, Carrie Fisher, or Buddha, this quote is truly brilliant, it uses just a few words to express a message of profound wisdom.

Naturally, forgiveness is not as simple as thinking or saying, “I forgive him/her for whatever wrong they have done”. We wish it were that easy, simply because it is so beneficial for us to do this, but it is a process. And like any process it takes a lot of work, planning, and persistent effort to succeed.

The Simplest Illustration

Most of us are familiar with the famous book by Dr. Seuss “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”. Focusing on the toxic anger of the Grinch, who so despises the happy people of Whoville, the story shows how easily we can become slaves to anger or resentment.

We are never told just why the Grinch dislikes the town’s annual holiday celebrations so intensely, nor the reason he lives isolated in a cave, but we are shown these things. We see them because they are meant to emphasize the self-inflicted isolation that can come from our inability to let go of resentment, anger, or the desire for some sort of revenge.

When, at the climactic moment of the tale, the Grinch realizes that his “poison” has only harmed him and done nothing to those whom he so hates, it causes him to thoroughly reassess the entire situation.

In this moment, he is transformed by the loss of his resentment, but even more important is the total forgiveness that the entire Whoville population displays. They still celebrate, and without dramatic displays of shock or disappointment. Yes, this is hardly a realistic reaction to a town-wide robbery, but the point is that they remain within a shell of peace and tranquility because they refuse to seek vengeance. They harbor no ill will, they do not allow the Grinch’s behavior to define him, or shape their perspective of him.

Instead, they empower themselves by recognizing their loss, but moving on. They don’t cling, as the Grinch has done, to their negative feelings, and because of it, they are instantly free.

The Definition of Forgiveness

These two sets of contrasting behaviors (those of the Grinch and the Whos) are wonderful for those who are striving to understand forgiveness. After all, one expert defines forgiveness as: “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness”. (Berkely.edu, 2015)

In other words, you don’t have to forget what has happened, become best friends with those who have wronged or harmed you, or overlook any legal obligations that might arise from their behaviors. What you do have to do is become someone who chooses to practice forgiveness as quickly as possible.

This will give you the same sort of peace of mind and freedom that the Whos enjoy the morning they awoke to homes stripped of the physical manifestations of their holiday cheer. They could have embraced their deep feelings of negativity, rage, and anger. Instead, they let it go in order to begin their healing process straightaway.

The Practice of Forgiveness

It is helpful to use this story of the Grinch because we also see how the Whos put forgiveness into practice. Their forgiveness is like an act of mercy. Though their belongings are returned, they do not hold ill will. They use their compassion to begin mending fences with the one person who has wronged them.

Though experts debate whether positive feelings towards someone who has harmed or offended you are necessary for true forgiveness, the benefits that come from building positivity from negative experiences cannot be ignored.

Forgiveness begins with the conscious act of recognizing the harm of refusing to forgive. The quote mentioned at the beginning of this article may have mysterious origins, but there is a substantial truth to it. When you carry anger, it is a toxic burden for you alone, it keeps you in an icy cave far away from warmth, light and life. When you choose to toss away the poison by offering forgiveness, you are truly saving yourself.