Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go

Learning to forgive takes effort. But here are two reasons why it is worth the bother.

First, forgiveness is an act of self-care. If you are bitter over the past, then the damage continues. Hatred festering in your heart harms you, physically, emotionally and spiritually. By choosing to let go of resentment, you no longer hold yourself hostage to the past. When you forgive, you choose to be free and cut the cords that bind you to the hurtful party, cords of hate, anger and bitterness.

Second, the Torah tells us, “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17). The Sages teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of hatred among our people, and that the redemption will come when we remove this poison from our midst. During a period called The Three Weeks, which culminates with Tisha B’Av, we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. We have to mourn, we have to pray; we also have to remove hatred from our hearts, ensuring that we are not holding up the redemption.

Forgiveness is not all or nothing; it exists on a spectrum. At one end is full forgiveness, where we release a person from our claim against them (excluding any money owed) and let go of resentment. At the other end, we reduce – even if only slightly – the animosity and bitterness we feel.

If the perpetrator is evil, it may not be appropriate to extend full forgiveness. Wicked people have brought themselves to a level lower than that of an animal. Sometimes, the best approach is to think of them as rabid dogs, protecting ourselves from them, and feeling neither bitterness nor forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean excusing the hurt or forgetting the past. We have to learn from our experiences and when necessary, keep a polite but safe distance from those who may hurt us again. For others, even after forgiving them, we have to be assertive and let them know how we would like to be treated and which behaviors are unacceptable.

Utilize the following three strategies to help you forgive:

1) Tap into your faith. Remind yourself that while people are responsible for their actions, no one can harm us without our Creator giving permission. As Jeremiah said (Lamentations 3:37), “Whose decree was ever fulfilled, if the Lord did not will it?” When we have this mindset, we no longer blame others for our pain and difficulties. They were only messengers; our challenges come from God for our eternal benefit. (For more on this topic, see, “Who Caused This Crisis?”)

In addition, our faith addresses a hesitation many have to forgiving. They think, “If I forgive this person, they are getting off scot-free.” This is not true. Every violation against another person is also a violation against God’s Torah; He prohibits harming His children. Even when we extend forgiveness and release our claim against the offender, unless the person repents, God still holds that person accountable for transgressing the Torah. With faith, we trust God and rely on Him to ensure that justice is done; there is no need to hold on to our personal claim against the offender and certainly no benefit in holding on to bitterness.

2) Do not assume people were intentionally hurtful. A large degree of the anger and hurt we feel toward others is fueled by mistaken assumptions of malevolent intent – we think people were out to get us. Ethics of the Fathers teaches (1:6; 2:5), “Judge every person favorably” and, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.” Most hurtful acts are not done to harm others; people usually think they did nothing wrong. Hurtful acts are often committed out of ignorance or due to misguided notions of what is appropriate. Factors leading to lapses in good judgment include being blinded by self-interest and sinful impulses, and failing to overcome difficult life circumstances and emotional issues.

Think about people who have wronged you and ask, “Is it possible they think they did nothing wrong? Do I sometimes make mistakes in judgment? Can I guarantee I would have acted differently had I been in their situation?”

3) Speak to the person who hurt you (when appropriate), or use imagery. Often, when people wrong us, instead of approaching them to discuss the issue, we give them the cold shoulder or cut off all contact. Here are three reasons why this is frequently a misguided approach.

(1) Has this person ever helped us in some way? Just because they did something hurtful, is it fair to ignore all the good they have done for us?

(2) Just because someone did something bad, does not make them a bad person. There is a lot more to each of us than one act or behavior. Do we ever make mistakes? Is it fair to expect perfection from others, when we have failings ourselves?

(3) Many times, people do not even realize we were hurt by them. Or, they feel badly about what they did and would like to ask for forgiveness, but are too embarrassed or afraid they will be rebuffed. When we bring up the issue with them, we give them the opportunity to either explain their behavior or apologize. Giving people this opportunity is a mitzvah, as Maimonides writes (The Laws of Moral Conduct 6:6), “When one person wrongs another, he (the wronged party) should not remain silent and despise him… Rather, it is a mitzvah for him to inform him and say, ‘Why did you do such and such to me? Why did you wrong me regarding this matter?’ As it states (Leviticus 19:17), ‘You shall surely admonish your fellow.’”

Speak to the person privately and when you are both calm. Be factual and do not make accusations. Focus on your side of the story, without passing judgment on their actions. Tell them what they did, how it made you feel and the ways in which you were affected. When done tactfully and respectfully, most decent people will apologize when they hear about the pain they caused. A sincere apology goes a long way toward helping us forgive.

Depending on how the above interaction goes, you may want to spell out exactly what you would like from them, e.g., “I would like an apology,” or, “I would appreciate if you did the following…(to make amends or prevent a recurrence).” Even if they refuse, you have done your part and aired the issue. Alternatively, instead of confronting them in person, you can write a note. This has cathartic benefits even if you decide not to send it.

An effective way to induce the other party to apologize is to take responsibility for the part, however small, that you did wrong (if applicable). When you ask for forgiveness for your part, the other party will frequently ask for forgiveness for theirs. Not only do you clean your slate and receive the apology you deserve, you also do an act of kindness by helping them apologize.

Use imagery

If you decide that it is not appropriate or practical to approach the person, you can still use the power of imagery. Close your eyes, relax your body and visualize telling the person who hurt you what he did, how it made you feel and how you were affected. After expressing your hurt, you can end the imagery there, by imagining the person receding into the distance and you moving on with your life. Or, you can continue the exercise by imagining him expressing remorse and sincerely asking for forgiveness (as he would likely do if you approached him in this way). Then, either tell him that you forgive him or that you will think about it, and then repeat this exercise at a later date.

Putting the strategies to work

Make a list of the people who wronged you in some way; include even close friends and family members, who we may harbor resentment toward, even though we love them. Start with the mildest hurt and ask yourself, “Do I want to forgive them?” If you do not, move on to the next person on your list; perhaps at a later date you will choose to forgive them.

For the ones you would like to forgive, before trying to forgive them, ask God to help you forgive them and remove the bitterness from your heart. Then, use any or all of the above three strategies. Afterward, if you are ready, picture the person’s face and say out loud, “___(his/her name), I forgive you.” You might find it helpful to look at a picture of them. After doing this, you may feel a perceptible shift or a feeling of release. Even if you do not, over the next couple of days, you may notice that you feel lighter and less bothered by the incident or person.

Now move on to the next person on your list that you would like to forgive. You can always return to an earlier hurt to see if you can let go of even more resentment and bitterness.

Learning to forgive takes practice. In the beginning, you may find the process challenging, but over time you will be able to let go of resentment with greater ease. Then, if someone says or does something hurtful, you can either discuss the issue with them, or picture the person’s face and say, “___(his/her name), I forgive you.” (If neither approach is appropriate, you can always try the other strategies.)

By making forgiving others a priority, we eventually free ourselves from the poison of hatred, leaving more room in our hearts for love and joy. Then we will say to God, “Father, we’ve stopped fighting; we’ve removed the hatred from our hearts. Can we please come home now?”

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