Today is Easter, a day Christians celebrate due to their belief that a Jewish spiritual teacher named Jesus was actually the son of God, was crucified and rose from the dead, thereby granting Christians a promise of eternal life.
While I am not a Christian (I do not subscribe to any organized religion, though I try to show all of them respect), the emphasis Christians put on forgiveness is very powerful. If people could learn to actively forgive the world would be a much better place. If you want happiness in life a good first step is to embrace the principle of forgiveness.
Forgiveness comes on many levels. The first is to forgive others for causing us harm. That’s the kind of forgiveness most of us think of first. Some people have trouble with that. When they’ve been wronged they hold resentments, or believe that the other person has to make some gesture of attrition or regret before they can forgive. Moreover, in most disputes both sides interpret themselves to have been wronged more than the other, so with each waiting for the other to show regret and remorse, nobody gets forgiven.
The secret is to let go and forgive anyway. If one takes the first step and reaches out the other person is more likely to respond and return the gesture. In some cases the other person can’t let go of resentment. There forgiveness is powerful in that it frees one from the emotions of the conflict. If the other person wants to wallow in anger and resentment, that’s his or her problem. That’s the power of forgiveness. Once you forgive you cease to allow others to have power over your emotional state.
How often do we spend time frustrated, angry and upset about things others have done? People can give up hours of time each day to feelings of anger and resentment. Yet what is gained? That simply gives others power over our state of mind and turns what could have been a productive and contented day into one of frustration and irritation. Forgiveness allows us to deny others that power. We can let go of anger and resentment and engage in positive pursuits. Simply, forgiving others, even those who don’t deserve forgiveness, is in our own self-interest.
The second type of forgiveness is to forgive mistakes. When someone unintentionally does something wrong or does harm the natural inclination is to be upset. “He should have known better,” or “if she’s holding a cup of hot coffee she should make sure it doesn’t spill.” Yet if it’s a mistake, even a stupid one that should have been avoided, there is absolutely no reason to be angry. If something is unintentional, then anger is misplaced. Forgive mistakes.
To be sure, if you’re a boss you may have to fire or discipline an employee who makes too many mistakes. Forgiveness is a personal act, it doesn’t mean erasing proper consequences for mistakes. I can forgive a student for not studying before an exam and not think less of the student as a person, but the student still gets the grade he or she earns.
Most importantly, one has to forgive oneself for mistakes, misjudgments, and misdeeds. This is the perhaps the hardest form of forgiveness for people to learn. People beat themselves up over things that they did or did not do, and cannot let go and focus on the future.
Mistakes, though, are the way people learn. Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, and see repeated mistakes as a sign of what to focus on improving. One also has to forgive oneself for engaging in malicious misdeeds done out of anger and spite. I believe it’s only possible to accept the forgiveness of others if one has forgiven oneself. That is the first step. Moreover, most people rationalize misdeeds if they cannot forgive themselves for them. The inability to forgive oneself leads to people feeling victimized and justified in doing whatever they do. They don’t see that they are drawing such “persecution” onto themselves by their own unresolved inner conflicts. Self-forgiveness is essential for happiness.
Some people treat forgiveness as some kind of difficult and hard to achieve ideal. How often have you heard people say they want to forgive but can’t let go of a resentment or of anger? How many people refuse to forgive until the other person makes amends? How any people engage in self-loathing rather than self-forgiveness?
Yet it is easy. To forgive one simply has to let go of the past, recognizing that since the past cannot be changed, dwelling on it serves no useful purpose. Learn from it, but don’t let it add emotional weight to your life burden. Forgiveness is an embrace of the present and acceptance of the past. The past cannot be changed, the present is our point of power to make change. We tie ourselves down and waste energy if our emotions are fixated on the past — we become unable to use our present power to improve ourselves and the world.
Forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts a person can engage in. So while I don’t believe the theology and story line of the Christian faith, I celebrate their emphasis on forgiveness as the core of Jesus’ teachings. To me Easter is a reminder of the power and good that forgiveness brings.
Don Henley’s Heart of the Matter has always been one of my favorites. I especially like the lines
“These times are so uncertain, there’s a yearning undefined, and people filled with rage.
We all need a little tenderness, how can love survive in such a graceless age
Ah, trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness
They’re the very things we kill I guess
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone, they’ve let you done, you know they’ve hurt your pride
You gotta put it all behind you because life goes on, you keep carrying that anger it will eat you up inside
Been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets week and my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness…”