A friend asked me the other day if I could help her in forgiving the unforgivable. She wanted to begin the journey to letting go. She was clearly wrestling with angst about what happened and felt the need to forgive. She felt the torment of a past injustice and wanted to let it go and forward without its burden. She was willing to forgive, but she was still holding on to her frustration and wanted to be free of the whole situation. What do you do when you experience something that you just feel is unforgivable? You experience an injustice so abhorrent that you feel there is no recourse, no coming back from the incident. Where does forgiveness fit into this knotty situation? Can we ever forgive, or is it a hopeless pursuit?
My experience moving from ‘it’s unforgivable’ to ‘I forgive’
I didn’t feel I would be doing my friend any good at all by passing to her a few well-known quotes on forgiveness, though there are many wise and helpful quotes on the subject. My friend was looking for some grounded action steps she could take to shift her position to a forgiving one. I stopped and recalled my own experience of finding forgiveness of injustice. I pondered what it was that I had done to move from a strong position of ‘this act is not forgivable’ to one of forgiveness. Here, in a nutshell, is my experience of finding forgiveness for something I held onto as unforgivable for many years.
Years ago, someone threatened my life in a fit of rage. At first, I was in shock, traumatized by the event. All I wanted to do was return to a sense of feeling normal. I had to go through a process of healing just to recapture the ordinary. What ‘ordinary’ looked like to me after this event was forever changed because I now carried the memory and the charge I felt around it into every moment, even if unconsciously. I couldn’t forget what had happened, no matter how hard I tried. I felt that I had been violated and held myself in the defensive posture of righteous indignation. I held onto this posture for years.
One day I realized I was carrying a grudge and that it was weighing me down. Further, it wasn’t helping to resolve the situation I had with this person. Rather, my inability to release my feelings about it held the whole experience in a sort of limbo and hence it only partially healed. I wanted to forgive, but I could only begin: with willingness. The act of becoming willing gave me the impetus to move towards full recovery.
Next, I assessed where I was in this journey to forgive. I realized that I wanted to forgive, but didn’t know how. It was like there was a button inside of me waiting to be pushed to release all that I was holding around the person who perpetrated the incident, but I had no idea where it was. Further, I noticed that I was judging myself for not being able to forgive this person. I could feel the tension in my body as I became aware of these things. I sat for a moment in self-compassion, allowing myself to just be who I was in that moment. It was a place of honest self-assessment. I felt a certain amount of relief just in getting truthful with myself without judging myself. I sent a prayer up to my Higher Power to help me find and activate the heretofore invisible ‘button’ inside of me that would allow me to release the burden of this grudge.
I looked a little closer at myself and felt the physical and psychic energy I had amassed in my righteousness. I had taken the offending incident personally. I had wrapped myself up in quite a ball of tension. The clarity of finding willingness to forgive and taking responsibility for carrying the energy of not forgiving gave me some more momentum toward forgiveness. I couldn’t imagine what I could possibly gain from using my energy like this. I was in reaction to an action in the past and it was blocking energy I needed for the present. Even though by now the offending person had died, I had continued to hold my contempt. Well, no more. There must be a way to let this all go. I worked in a modality called Ancestral Clearing , a powerful practice to help us release things we carry from the past. It was so powerful that I eventually became a trained ancestral clearing practitioner. This procedure had helped me release layers built up from the past, much like peeling an onion, yet a charge like a ball of tension remained in me. I had more layers to let go and healing to do.
Let’s look more closely at compassion. It may seem obvious to you, but it eluded me for years that I needed to develop a deep and sincere level of compassion for the person who transgressed against me. It is one thing for me to say that I have compassion for this person; it is quite another to feel it landing as truth in my body. I learned to amplify my compassion by first giving it to myself, for not being able to have compassion for this person for all this long time. Just to be clear, I did not condone the act of this person. I found compassion for the pain I perceived this person must have been experiencing while committing the offending act. Because I had finally gotten honest with myself about where I stood on the whole issue of what had happened years ago with this person and had found compassion for myself, I finally found full, down-into-the-tissues compassion for the other person. I saw and felt the intense and powerful attachment to the anger around this incident that I had been feeling. When I decided to let go, I was amazed at how light I felt. From a place of deep compassion, I felt a great surge of energy arise within me and release straight out the crown of my head. I realized that I had been carrying it for so long that I had gotten used to it. I experienced the felt sense of moving from the unforgivable holding onto my self-righteousness to the freedom of forgiving. What a relief. I felt a great peace well up inside me and it ripened into a lasting sense of contentment.
Now it’s your turn.
Forgiveness begins with self-reflection and self-honesty
Let’s start right where you are. You have had an experience that is shocking and unconscionable. You have drawn a red line as it were and this experience is far beyond your limit of decency. Let’s get clear. You have decided where that red line is and what is on either side of it. You have made this meaning. The first step in beginning the inquiry to forgiveness is in identifying and understanding your standards. By pinpointing your beliefs and the limits you place on them, you can clearly see where you stand on this unpardonable act.
Then look at how strongly you hold to these principles. What is your commitment to the beliefs that you carry about the incident? Are you determined to stand fast to your position, or is there room for a softening in your stance?
The next step to understand that you hold the energy of your reaction to the incident. You are responsible for carrying the energy you have around this issue. Previously, you may not have been aware of this, but now you can see it for what it is. There is no judgment here, just an awareness of the dynamic at play. In considering forgiveness, you can then ask yourself if you are ready to release this energy, or if you prefer to carry it. In some instances, it may serve you in the moment to hold the injustice you feel about what happened. In that holding, do you notice the tension you are experiencing in your body when you think about the unforgivable incident? You might even notice that you have difficulty relaxing whenever you think about the situation. Do you want to lighten the load, or is it serving you in some way to carry it? Do you feel a sense of attachment to it? The point here is to be clear and conscious about your posture, whatever it is. There is a certain quiet inner knowing and acknowledgment when you admit honestly to yourself what you are up to. Make sure you have self-compassion for whatever you discover in this self-reflection, no matter where you are in the process.
What are you getting out of not forgiving? In the long range is it giving you the life you want? The short-term experience is a false form of power, but it is certainly a potent one. The ego is filled with the energy of being righteous. You may feel a sense of “I feel this and I have a right to a righteously indignant”. You don’t want to forgive. Are you willing to let go? Again, there is no judgment here about what your position is, just an understanding of it. Allow yourself to be where you are and continue doing the work of moving through this experience. Is it adding to your life force or pulling you down?
Further, you may feel that in this moment you are not ready to even consider forgiving. That’s fine, of course, as long as you are clear and honest with yourself.
It’s your choice, and your process – don’t judge the moment
Be at ease with where you stand on the issue in the present moment. If you are angry at the person who committed the unforgivable act you, then recognize your anger. Accept that this is what you are experiencing. If you resist how you feel, perhaps judging yourself for being angry, or wishing you weren’t angry, you will suffer. If you are judging yourself for not being able to find forgiveness, try and just accept that you haven’t found it yet. Recognize that you are resisting. Are you willing to stay here in suffering or are you willing to explore an alternative, such as letting go of your resistance to letting go of the unforgivable act? Let go of self-abasement.
We experience something we feel is unforgivable. We bear the hardship of our unforgivable experience as part of our identity. We feel victimized and powerless over what happened. We take back our power when we realize that the only power we truly have is the choice to forgive.
No matter how much you might want to find forgiveness for what happened, you might find you just cannot find it within yourself to do forgive. It may even feel like you have a hidden “forgive” switch inside that you just can’t locate. You may notice a sense of solid, stalwart, unbending presence inside yourself. Forgive yourself for not being to able to let go: “I forgive myself for not forgiving the other”. Until you can find acceptance with how you feel about what happened, you will suffer.
Willingness and finding compassion
Willingness is the push that gives us the momentum to begin forgiving. It is a choice. Sometimes willingness is all the force we need to let go of our resentment. Sometimes you may find that it is a process. The righteous indignation that we feel is our ego hanging on and making judgments about what happened. When you can recognize the ego and its attachment here, you may find yourself more easily to move to a neutral position, and so come one step closer to forgiveness. Whereas you cannot condone what happened, you can have compassion and forgive the person who took the action, realizing how tortured they were and how much they were suffering. Forgiveness is being able to release the feeling of anger toward someone who has wronged you.
The distance from the unforgivable to forgiveness can seem daunting and perhaps even impossible viewed in the moment. As we accept our present experience and leave open the possibility that something else may be possible in the next moment, we begin the journey to change. After hanging onto a piece of the past for so long, and finally being able to let it go, we find contentment at last in forgiveness.