Down to Earth
©Cort Curtis, Ph.D.
What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word
Some of the images that I had when I first started to explore
the nature of forgiveness were actually somewhat repulsive to
me. A forgiving person was some pious, holier than thou, mister
(or mrs.) goody two-shoes individual. Or it was some heroic act
in response to some horrible crime like the parents who forgave
the murderer of their daughter. My first response was Why?
How? How could somebody do something like that? I can't even
forgive my wife for the way she chews apples!
Yet, forgiveness is in all the major religions. At least it's in their
writings. It appears that forgiveness is something that we
should do but for the most part it's like, What for? What's in it
for me? The only benefit I could see was that it was an
opportunity to practice being "holier than thou" or it was a way
of getting some kind of external approval for being "nice", like I
was being such a "good" person for being so forgiving.
So forgiveness to me didn't make a lot of sense at least the way
I heard about it. When you are hurt, attack back! If somebody
commits an offense, punish them! That is the order of the day!
In my view, forgiveness is an oft misunderstood process that
sometimes gets lost in religious meaning. If we can look at
forgiveness in its pure and simple terms, I believe we can find a
way to accomplish forgiveness very simply, not always easy, but
Let's talk about how we typically define forgiveness. Someone
does something or commits an act that is offensive to us and
we might feel a range of certain emotions in response to that
act ranging from anger and resentment to hurt or rejection. The
person has committed a transgression or crossed a boundary
of what we might believe is right or acceptable. Or we might
even transgress our own boundaries or standard of what we
believe is right or acceptable and so we might hold a grudge
even against ourselves which may result in guilt or shame. That
amounts to an unforgiven situation. We end up holding a
grudge or negative emotions against another person or
And so to forgive means that we would no longer hold a grudge
and we think that we are somehow doing this for the other's
benefit. Like somehow I am doing this for you.
When an unforgiven situation arises I submit there are three
major obstacles to the accomplishment of forgiveness.
One, if we talk about forgiving someone else, we say in effect,
“If I forgive that person for what they did, somehow I might be
seen as approving of what they did.” And so if the other did
something terrible, I might say in so many ways that that
person doesn't deserve forgiveness. And not only do they not
deserve forgiveness but they deserve punishment and blame
and criticism and retribution and in some situations maybe even
death. So we would not want to be seen as approving of
someone's negative actions and so we don't forgive.
A second obstacle to forgiveness is that we might get hurt
again and so we say in so many ways, “What if I forgive and the
other does something to hurt me again, so I better not forgive
because I don't want to get hurt again.” And so we hold on to
our grudges or negative emotions as an unconscious way of
protecting ourselves from hurt again. “I am going to hold on to
these feelings so they won't ever do that to me again” as if
holding on is going to control another's actions. And so we
A third major obstacle is that we tell ourselves that we "should"
forgive. We might think it is the "spiritual" thing to do, our
religion might say that it is the "right" thing to do. And so when
we find it difficult or impossible to forgive because of the
reason's just mentioned, we end up in conflict either feeling
guilty because we are not forgiving or pretending to be
forgiving but all along still hanging on to the negative emotions.
And so we don't forgive.
So with that said, I would like to offer a simple definition of
forgiveness. Forgiveness is choosing to let go of, or release,
negative emotions which we have been holding for some time
and which impact our happiness and well-being. When you
forgive, you are not really forgiving anyone! You are giving up
what you have been holding onto in yourself. You are not doing
anything to anyone and you are not doing anything for anyone.
When you forgive, you are doing it all for you!
So why would we want to forgive? What do we gain by
forgiving? What do we get out of it? It's not like we are banging
on the door eager to buy a ticket to forgive. It's the very last
thing we want to do. But very simply what we get is our
happiness and well-being back because when we really look at it,
when we are angry, upset, holding a grudge or are bitter, we
are not very happy campers. We may be right in our feelings
and even self-righteous in our need to punish someone for their
wrong doing, but the simple fact is that we are not happy. How
can we be resentful and happy at the same time? I submit that
it is impossible.
So what do we get when we choose to forgive? We get our lives
back and we return to our ability to love. When we can see that
forgiveness is really for our own benefit then we have a
motivation to forgive because we want to be happy. And when
we can see that it is impossible to control another's behavior
then we can let go of our justification for hanging on to the
How many times do we need to forgive? Just about every day!
How often do we run into situations that don't turn out the way
we think it should. How often do others do things that don't fit
with the way we think they should. How often do we do things
that don't fit with the way we think we should. I could easily find
"good reasons" to beat myself up just about everyday.
So forgiveness can be simple but not always easy. The question
always arises, “How do I respond to another's trangressions?”
Do I pretend that I don't see it? Do I turn away from it? Do I
ignore it? These are questions that we can't ignore and there
are not always simple answers. But if you think you should
forgive, you probably won't. If you could forgive, you just
might. But if you choose to forgive, you guarantee it!