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Forgiveness Can Be Bittersweet

I see forgiveness as a difficult and noble action — not a weak one, not a surrender or a capitulation. Of course, we can confuse it with giving in, with giving up our standards or principles, as tantamount to forcing amnesia. That kind of coercive denial could never be healing.

Forgiveness is not a single action, but a process. By forgiving those who harmed us, we do not pretend that what harm they caused did not happen, or that it did not hurt. We can see that chronic resentment stands in the way of love. The bitterness that arises from a long-held wrong, gone over and over, encases the heart, making it difficult for love to get through.

Fixing onto the memory of the harms we have suffered generates anger and sadness, and may cause us to withdraw from other love that comes our way. We may become so consumed by these feelings that we cannot enjoy the pleasures that are right in front of us. Forgiveness is the way we break the grip resentment has on our hearts.

This is not to say that forgiveness is easy. It cannot be rushed or engineered, but it may arrive over time. The spike of defensiveness we feel when someone advises us to “forgive and forget” shows how deep our pain has burrowed. Although the people who advise us to do this may have the best of intentions, forgiveness cannot be done on command. That does not work and it is not at all fair to us. In hearing we should stop feeling our very genuine bitter feelings, we may find ourselves defending our pain and our right to continue to feel it.

For those who still acutely feel an injury, it isn’t in the past. The wounds still sting. When our mind glances across that memory, we feel it in our body. Not as just a stab to the heart but sometimes as a rip through the soul. Releasing the bitterness begins with accepting that things are as they are, and grieving, as if we were conducting our own truth and reconciliation commission.

Painful things happened, some of which were accidents, some of which were intentional. Whatever the cause, we start by acknowledging that and grieving what was lost to us then. To forgive we may need to open our minds to a fuller exploration of the context in which the events happened, and find compassion for the circumstances and everyone involved, starting with ourselves. The grief helps us relinquish the illusion that the past could be different than what we know to be true. We are in charge of our own forgiveness.

One reflection that has helped me is recognizing that my work towards forgiving someone doesn’t mandate a certain action: sharing Thanksgiving dinner with them or praising them to others or allowing them into my house. What happens in my heart is the field of my freedom.

Image by Dario-Jacopo Lagana'/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

Marjorie attended one of my talks. Afterwards she described to me how lovingkindness and compassion had helped her forgive a friend who had sent her a brutal letter. A decade before, Marjorie’s daughter had attempted suicide, been rushed to a hospital and placed in a mental institution.

The friend, someone who had been Marjorie’s close confidant for decades, had been an important person to Marjorie’s children as well. She wrote that Marjorie was to blame for her daughter’s suicide attempt. She criticized Marjorie’s child rearing, her performance at her job, her friendship skills, everything about Marjorie, including the way she hugged. At this moment when the yogi deserved every kindness in the world, her friend only deepened her pain. After the letter, Marjorie and her friend did not speak for years.

Six years later, when her daughter was much better and doing well in college, the friend emailed her asking to reconcile. Even the sight of her friend’s name in the email queue caused Marjorie’s blood pressure to spike. She opened the message bristling for a fight, expecting it would contain more hurtful remarks, so Marjorie’s defenses were at the ready. Marjorie was surprised when she read how much her friend missed her and how sorry she was for what she had said.

Marjorie was still so angry that she was not moved by this sincere apology. She was furious that her friend would ask for a reconciliation. It provoked her to relive her outrage, her sorrow, they way she had doubted herself then, and all the tears she had shed. Yet she was drawn to the email.

Gradually Marjorie thought of how close her friend had been to her daughter and all the special times they’d spent together: hiking when she was young, sleepovers, afternoons at the movies, and the friend’s help at her daughter’s birthday parties. She appreciated that her friend, who had no children of her own, had experienced her daughter’s crisis almost as profoundly as Marjorie had. As she allowed more and more space for the fullness of this event to unfold in her mind, she felt less ill will toward her friend and made her the focus of her lovingkindness meditation. Marjorie understood that now she could wish her friend well, and hope that she would prosper.

That said, she recognized that she did not want to reconcile with her friend in day-to-day life, at least not at that time. Marjorie had forgiven her, but she felt she couldn’t again trust her friend with the intimate secrets that they had effortlessly exchanged before the first letter arrived. After thinking this through, Marjorie wrote back thanking her former friend for her note, acknowledging that she still thought about her, concluding:

“Know that I forgive you completely and hold no bad feelings for you. I wish you well. Forgiveness leaves us both free to move on.”

This is happiness that forgiveness brings us — the ability to move on without bitterness. Marjorie no longer had to get caught in the grip of this painful story and all the ways it caused her to conjecture, plot, and despair.

Forgiveness is a way of loosening the grip of fixation, but I’ve seen over and over again that it is a process. It is not decision, and it does not come about by force of will. We may decide after exploring forgiveness that we, like Marjorie, do not want to see that person again. For some, forgiving and understanding the relationship is over may be the viable path. People can really hurt other people and there is no need to think: Well, I’ve got to get over this so you can be my best friend again. If we can find a way to forgive and free our hearts, we are saying life is bigger, we are bigger, we are stronger than the hurt and the feelings around it.

In this way forgiveness can be bittersweet. It contains the sweetness of the release of a memory that has caused you so much suffering, but it is also a poignant recognition that relationships shift so much in the course of our lives that perhaps we cannot reclaim the way we were to each other in the past. Whatever decision we come to about action in daily life, in the end, forgiveness is a path to peace and a powerful and important component of love.

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