This answer is dedicated to my dog, Max, who taught me about forgiveness.
Forgiving is hard because the human consciousness has a hard time living in the present moment. I say human consciousness because I think it is the language part of our consciousness that has an especially hard time living in the present moment - I think most animals really do live in the present moment to a large extent because they don't have this language consciousness that humans have.
It is the language part of us that gives us the ability to roam in time from events that happened long ago to events that might happen far into the future. Our autobiographical and episodic memories of the past are based on language. Our abilities to plan far into the future are based on language. Language is our time machine that continually moves back and forth from the past to the future and almost never stops in the present moment.
Some of us try to meditate in an attempt to live in the present moment, but we find that our mind is being distracted by the language thoughts about the past (what we did in the past or what so and so said to us or did to us) or the future (what I will do when I finish this meditation or what I will say to so and so when I meet them again). I think most of our unforgiving nature comes from this language part of us.
When someone has hurt us in the past, we keep stewing about it over and over again. We may be able to not think about the person or the hurtful thing they did for awhile, but whenever we are reminded or think about the person again, the language part of us immediately latches on to that hurtful thing they did to us and stews about how unfair it was, how we wished they hadn't done that, how bad they are for having done that to us, wondering how they could have done something like that to us and on and on and on ... Sometimes, we will wonder about what we did wrong, how we could have avoided the situation, how we could have seen the warning signs ahead of time and avoided the hurt. In a sense, all of these kinds of language thoughts are attempts to "change" the past! This leads to my favorite wisdom saying about forgiveness:
- "Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past." - Jack Kornfield
I really think this is the key to forgiveness. Everyone "knows" they cannot change the past, but we keep trying to live in the past and wish it was different by thinking about it over and over again. We are essentially hanging onto the past by not forgiving and by not accepting that the past is completely unchangeable.
On top of that by continually living in the past, we are continuing to relive the pain of that past incident. When the language part of the brain brings up the incident again, the limbic part of the brain that feels emotions gets reactivated and we feel the hurt all over again. No wonder we find it so hard to forgive, we keep the pain alive by rethinking it over and over again! They may have only hurt us once in real life but when we continually rethink the event over and over again and the hurt reoccurs hundreds or thousands of times and "they" get all the blame - even though we are doing it to our self by rethinking the event.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; our memory is useful to us, but it is our trying to live in the memory which is harmful to us. Forgiveness also does not mean that our future relationship with that person can resume back to the way it was before we got hurt - the character of the relationship may have changed as a result of incidents in the past. Forgiveness is more about an inner change in us - we stop living in the past of the hurtful event and accept that it happened and that there is nothing we can do about it, and we see that our lack of forgiveness or resentment is now hurting us more as we hang onto that past event.
This leads to my other favorite wisdom saying that can lead to forgiveness:
- "Resentment is like taking poison and hoping it kills the other person."
Resentment is exactly unforgiveness. As long as we have not forgiven someone, we are only hurting ourselves with the unforgiveness. But we hold on to the resentment because we think we are getting back at them! That is why we keep nurturing and feeding our resentment by using language to think about the person and about the incident over and over again.
By the way, the healing of forgiveness not only applies to the big hurts in our life, but also to the little things. In fact it is easier to start with the little things. For example, forgive the person who cut you off in traffic - right away! Not in five minutes or even ten seconds - forgive them right away rather than reliving the incident for even ten seconds.
Finally, another form of resentment is regret - this is a resentment that we have against ourselves for some mistake we made in the past or for something we didn't do, but wish we had done in the past. We need to give up all hope of a better past and forgive ourselves for the past so we can let go of the regret.
Here is a scenario to consider: let's say that your two best friends in the world pick you up and take you to this new building where you go into a small room where a strange man you never met before comes in. This man and your friends then hold you down, and this man hurts you in a very physically painful way for several minutes. You would obviously be upset and angry while you were in pain and you would try to get away from your friends and this man. Right after the pain stops, would you continue to be angry and upset and try to get back at your friends and the stranger? If you are like me, you would! Remember, as all this happens, you have no idea why your friends and this men did this to you. How would you feel? Would you forgive your friends? Or would you have a huge resentment at your friends and would you cut them off and never see or forgive again?
Now contrast that to how our dog Max reacted in this exact situation. Max, had a swollen anal gland that our regular dog groomer was unable to "express" - to get the backed up anal fluid out so we had to take Max to the vet. My wife and I took him into a small room where the vet came in and after an examination, my wife and I held Max down while the vet used his gloved finger to try to get the anal gland expressed. This was evidently very painful for Max who was squirming, yelping, and trying to get away from us. Obviously, Max did not understand what we were doing and why we were doing it. So when the vet was done and the pain stopped, what happened? Max was just the same loving kind dog he had been before the pain started. He did not try to get back at us or the vet by trying to bite us. It was very traumatic and hurtful for me to have to submit Max to this pain, but to see his immediate forgiveness was a gift and a miracle to me. It does not mean that Max has forgotten the incident - whenever he has to go back to that vet he is reluctant when we approach the door to the building and while we are in the vet's office. So he is cautious, based on his past experience painful experience, but he is not resenting my wife and I and he still trusts us enough to go in the door to the vet's office, even if he is reluctant.
I just wish I could forgive the way my dog does. I am convinced that his easy ability to forgive comes from living in the present, which is something my language thinking ability makes very difficult for me. That is why I am convinced that unforgiveness comes from our language based consciousness.
More questions on Psychology:
- Why are Asian men perceived as less confident than white men by some people in the U.S.?
- What does it feel like to have no human contact for a lengthy period of time?
- What is the logic behind why military bootcamps are so intensive?