I’ve been dealing for quite a few years now with someone in my life that in the past caused me pain and dampened my self-confidence. For a long time, I’ve told people that I’ve “forgiven” that person. And in my mind, I had. I decided to let bygones be bygones. For a while, I was able to see the person and speak with them with little negative feeling. I felt that I had moved on, and that this person would no longer cause me any suffering.
And with that, I “forgot.” I moved on. I decided that by making sure I didn’t have to see this person, speak with them, or have any contact whatsoever, that the forgiving and forgetting would be easy. Out of sight, out of mind.
This turned out to be a less-than-efficient strategy. I found that as the months of “forgetting” went by, no forgetting was happening. It was just making the remembering ten times harder. As hard as I tried to forget, remnants of this person lingered. If I’d effectively “forgiven and forgotten,” these reminders wouldn’t bother me. I found, however, that these reminders were almost worse than the original transgressions. Every time I even heard mention of the person, I was filled with negative feelings of insecurity, frustration, and sadness. Even though I felt that I had a life worth being extremely content with, the old feelings of inadequacy given to me by this person would quickly creep back in. The slightest mentions of the person would quickly send me into a negative frame of mind.
Recently, after having another bout of mis-forgetting, I decided to do a little introspection. Why wasn’t my “forgive and forget ” strategy working? It was, after all, the adage of countless generations past.
I’m slowly realizing that the key to true forgiveness and happiness isn’t to “forgive and forget,” it’s to “forgive and remember.” I compare this to the PTSD treatment used by some psychotherapists. Instead of allowing the patient with PTSD to bury their feelings about the incident deep down, they ask the patient to relive the experience repeatedly, sometimes tens of times, until the experience no longer causes them pain and they’ve learned to develop neutral or positive feelings about the event that caused the PTSD.
While I’m not advocating that the key to forgetting is to make yourself painfully relive the event, the basic idea is the same: sweeping things under the rug doesn’t help you forgive or forget. I’ve found that not allowing myself to remember and cope has caused me to actually go backward in the forgiving process.
I’m still struggling with how to forgive, but I’m realizing that forgiving is active. It’s not something we can allow to happen by just saying the magic words “I forgive!” It’s like the episode of The Office where Michael Scott, after hearing that he may have to declare bankruptcy, stands up in the office and loudly shouts, “I… DECLARE…BANKRUPTCY!” Just like Michael didn’t actually declare bankruptcy, I can’t forgive just by saying I have done so.
I’m finding that forgiveness requires constantly catching ourselves in the act of non-forgiving behavior, and allowing ourselves to be exposed to the source of our struggles, whether it’s a person or a situation. Only by constantly facing that which we struggle with can we adapt and overcome.
I haven’t overcome yet, but I’m working on adapting. In the words of Bernard Meltzer, “When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future.”