Updated: Sep 3, 2021
We’re still working our way through your requests, and this time the request is: “I would love to hear more of your take on forgiveness.”
Thanks loads! Forgiveness is only the biggest, toughest, most bedeviling topic there is!!
But I’m genuinely happy to dive in, because it’s also just about the most important topic there is. Our social fabric—from one-on-one relationships to entire nations—is all too ready to unravel as it is. Without forgiveness we’re doomed. The possibility of forgiveness is our only hope of rising out of ashes left by our cruelty and clumsiness.
Let me share my thoughts...
Nothing is easier than forgiveness. It just happens. You can’t make it happen, anyway.
Nothing is harder than forgiveness. Many of us have tried and tried for years, and nothing happens. We’ve even said the words—“I forgive you”—and we’ve meant them, but inside ourselves, unforgiveness stubbornly clings to us.
You can’t forgive by yourself, no matter what. It’s a two-person job, like assembling a large storage unit from Ikea. If you’ve been trying to do it by yourself and failing, that’s probably why.
This might sound weird, but finding your way to forgiveness is like throwing a fun party. All you can do is put the ingredients together. Without the right ingredients, the fun won’t happen. But even with the right ingredients, sometimes the fun doesn’t happen anyway. That’s the mystery of forgiveness and fun.
Whatever you do, stop beating yourself up if you’ve been having trouble finding your way to forgiving that other person. Your job is to want to forgive. The rest is up to..., well, a certain amount of knowledge helps, but the rest is up to whatever you’d call it: God, the universe, luck, stuff, whatever. We do our best, and that’s all we can do.
But while we can’t make forgiveness happen, we can assemble the ingredients. What are they? Finally we’ve reached an area where there’s not much mystery. If you need to forgive me for something, then you need me to:
Acknowledge that I did something to you and that it was wrong. Period. No hedging or self-excusing.
Show you that I understand the full extent of what you went through as a result of what I did.
And that means my listening to you, probably for a long and uncomfortable time, probably for many times.
Work on making our relationship better. As we work on healing the hurts—getting rid of the bad stuff—we have to begin to work on making things better between us—adding in more of the good stuff.
Work at giving you what you need to trust me again. It’ll be impossible for you to forgive me if you can’t find your way to trust me.
Be patient with you. This process always takes longer than anyone would like, especially the person who’d like to flip the forgiveness switch rather than earn their way to being forgiven.
And what do you need to do? Nothing except be honest with yourself. Do you really want forgiveness? You don’t have to forgive. You have the alternative of saying goodbye to bad rubbish and washing your hands of the whole thing. Forgiveness is for the purpose of restoring a relationship or being able to welcome a person back into the community. Why bother if what you want to do, need to do, is flush them down the toilet?
What about blame? It’s always fun to blame the other person when things aren’t going well, and that includes finding forgiveness. But blame is exactly like blaming your teacher for assigning you tough homework instead of your just doing your homework. Blame is the interpersonal version of goofing off.
But even though we have to stay away from blame, we do have to face reality. Some people have trust issues, and they’ll find it harder than others to forgive. Some people have self-esteem issues, and they’ll find it hard to do the things necessary to earn forgiveness. These are just some examples of how there are parts of us that we bring to the table that can make this process harder than it need be. But it can help if, instead of blame, you acknowledge with each other that neither of you are perfect, and that all the other people who have found their way to forgiveness have had to overcome the very same imperfections that you guys are dealing with.
And by the way—good question!—what does getting to forgiveness feel like? It’s different for different people.
For some people...you know how you can never capture the moment a headache goes away? It’s just that there you are with a headache and then suddenly you’re aware that the headache has been gone. It can be like that with forgiving someone.
For some people, it’s more like a decision. You know, how like you kept telling yourself to work out and it never happened and then one day you somehow decided that now you were going to work out regularly, and you did! In the same way, for some people, it’s like, “Fuck this shit, I’m just going to forgive him,” and they do!!
And for some people there’s some sort of emotional climax or release that somehow shakes loose whatever you needed for forgiveness to happen, and it happened.
So what do you do? If you’ve read this, you know what to do. Beyond that, what you do is work at it. It’s like learning Spanish or the piano. The way to be good at it is to work it, which feels exactly like working at being bad at it but isn’t. No. It’s like a toddler learning how to walk. You have to spend a long time walking like a drunken sailor before you’re able to walk right. So it is with finding your way to forgiveness. You work at it—with the other person if at all possible—and it’s a whole lot of getting nowhere until...you arrive.
There’s a lot more on this in our book I Love You but I Don’t Trust You. If this issue is one you’re struggling with, please check that book out.