You don’t have to forgive someone, but you gain tremendous peace of mind if you do. If you learn how forgiveness works, then you’re on the path to forgiving the world, your enemies, and yourself.
People more easily hold grudges than forgive trespasses against them. It’s cathartic and feels correct to carry malice towards someone who wronged you.
This is because most people don’t understand the process of forgiveness. They don’t know what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not:
- A truce with someone
- A friendship with the one who wronged you
- Letting the anger subside
- Getting even with someone
- Letting go
- Forgetting what someone did
What Is Forgiveness?
In the purest definition, “Forgive” means “to give completely without reservation”.
When we forgive, what exactly are we “giving”?
We’re giving up our need for vindication, our desire for retribution, and our thirst for revenge. We are, literally and figuratively, wiping our emotional ledgers clean and abandoning the idea that we’re owed anything from anyone for the pain we’ve experienced.
It’s hard to forgive because we see life a certain way
We feel like the world needs to be balanced and everything should have an equal and opposite reaction.
It doesn’t make sense that a person can wrong us and not receive a response of equal intensity. We feel like they must suffer, whether at the hands of government or street justice.
The most powerful thing you can do is give up your revenge or reconciliation and attempt to forgive the past. Not only do you have to eat your losses on the emotional balance sheet, but you cannot dwell on them.
How to forgive someone when they don’t deserve it
1) Forgiveness takes nothing personally
When you think about it, the world is a mess up place, full of pain and suffering. It’s also a beautiful place, but there are a lot of things that will hurt you.
By virtue of you existing in it, things will happen to you. Some of them will be awful.
If you can accept that last statement, then you can accept what happens if you follow it to its natural conclusion:
None of the bad things that happen to you are personal attacks. It is simply the cost that we all pay to exist in the world.
Good things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. We want the universe to behave rationally, but it does not care for balance.
We don’t know how the universe works, but we do know how it doesn’t work. We know that it does not care:
- Where you’re from
- What you’ve done
- Why you want something
There are things you can do to make the desired outcome more likely–or decrease the likelihood of an adverse outcome–but there are no guarantees. There is simply life and probability.
Sometimes the coin lands on the wrong side. Sometimes you you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and the victim of someone expressing their pain in the world.
This doesn’t make it right, but realizing that you were never a specific target is the first step to forgiveness.
(Read: “No One Gives A Shit About You”)
2) Forgiveness begs you to remember that we’re all the same
We all want the same thing.
Unfortunately, the offender went after what they were missing–approval, acceptance, love, relief, etc–in a way that caused harm to you and their surroundings.
Remember. Forgiveness isn’t a replacement for justice.
The perpetrator still must answer for their crimes, but you need a way to cope with the emotional damage you suffered from their actions. No amount of justice or revenge will undo the trauma their actions caused.
However, the next step in forgiving them is realizing that their ugliness is no different than your ugliness. You and the person you must forgive are operating on the exact same interests, drives, and desires.
I know that it’s a stretch to imagine that you have the same desires as a rapist or murderer, but humans are–despite the technology, law, and order–just one blown power grid away from returning to our true nature.
For most of human history, we have been savages towards one another.
It’s only modern convenience that allows us to transcend our base nature. Anyone who’s ever been to a dense, inner-city, low-income area can attest to the fact that people are only as evolved as their options.
This makes me think of a lot of the violence I witnessed and suffered growing up.
A lot of those kids only knew one way to relieve their frustration, feel empowered, or earn approval. For whatever reason, I got those feelings from video games and achievement.
They got it from raising hell and trying to impress other hoodlums. However, we had the exact same motivation.
This doesn’t mean I didn’t kick their ass right back, but it does make it impossible for me to take it personally and hold a grudge.
It doesn’t change the past. It doesn’t exonerate them. It just gets me to see through the illusion.
The second step for forgiveness is seeing that you and the offender are the same, but they chose a different way to express themselves. The way you interpret their actions goes back to the first step:
None of this is personal. It’s just a consequence of living in the world.
3) Forgiving someone means leaving the past behind
No matter how many times you relive the past, or how bad you feel about it, you can’t change it. This is why obsessing over it will destroy you. The past is a thing that is no more real than your imagination, but you let it control you as if it were in the same room.
People resist forgiveness because it asks them to leave the past in the past. This is highly unnatural and counter intuitive, but forgiveness only works if you’re to recognize that the past doesn’t not actually exist.
You hold a grudge because deep down, you believe that you can somehow balance the scales if you can only satisfy it. You don’t forgive because you’ve fallen for the illusion that you hold onto your grudge tight enough and long enough, you’ll actually undo what happened.
Holding a grudge is like masturbation for your emotions:
It feels good at first, but it’s only in your imagination that someone else is getting screwed. The more you do it, the more raw & numb you become. Your emotional impotence leaves you bitter, weak, and completely ineffective.
You realize that you’re only screwing yourself.
Eventually, you will act in a way towards someone that will force them to forgive you so they can move on. Grudges are the exact opposite of forgiveness and their goals are diametrically opposed.
The hardest thing for you to accept is the most obvious: you can’t do anything about what happened. Your anger will not change what happened. Your tears will not wash away the past.
The desire for revenge binds you to the event. Grudges are shackles to the past. Because you refuse to let go, your present emotional state is held hostage by memories.
The third step for forgiveness is realizing that while the past happened, it no longer exists. Any obsession over it only keeps you from being effective in the present to keep from repeating it in the future.
4) Forgiveness does not recognize “closure”
Forgiveness asks you to cancel an emotional debt that you are owed.
Whether through vengeance or the passage of time, people only feel like they can let a grievance go after the emotional debt is paid. What forgiveness asks you to do is to wipe the books clean, even when you feel like you deserve closure.
When people talk about receiving closure, what they’re really expressing is a desire to settle the debt for pennies on the dollar. At this point, they don’t want anything to do with forgiveness. They just want to feel better.
They no longer require an eye for an eye. Instead, they’ll settle for toe or a finger. However, this will never be enough. It will never be enough because no matter what they give you, it can’t undo the past and this is what you really want when you seek revenge.
This is why revenge and closure never work. An article in PsychologicalScience.org explains this well:
Behavioral scientists have observed that instead of quenching hostility, revenge can prolong the unpleasantness of the original offense and that merely bringing harm upon an offender is not enough to satisfy a person’s vengeful spirit. They have also found that instead of delivering justice, revenge often creates only a cycle of retaliation, in part because one person’s moral equilibrium rarely aligns with another’s.
Closure is always the last resort for a reason: you can never actually get back what someone owes you anymore than you can ever pay back an emotional debt. Furthermore, research has shown that the other person may not even believe they have wronged you.
In other words, you have to practice forgiveness because the other person may not even be aware that perhaps there is something they’ve done that needs to be forgiven.
The fourth step to forgiveness is to release that you can never actually be fulfilled by closure or revenge. It is a falsely satisfying dish.
Revenge is like junk food for the soul. It feels tastes great when you eat, but it only deteriorates your mind, body, and emotions.
(Read: “How to Get Over Someone”)
5) Forgiveness knows that it’s impossible for a person to ever be “even”
You can’t balance the scales. Even mortal justice–our best attempt–does a poor job at this.
For example, consider Patrick Crusius, the shooter who murdered 22 people in an El Paso mass shooting.
They’d have to not only execute him 22 times (once for each person killed). Then they’d have to hurt him to the exact degree he did for countless others who were only harmed.
We can only execute him once, and it will likely be in a far more humane manner than the way he killed his victims. Even the “prison justice” he will likely receive won’t equal the pain he’s caused the families and the fear that he’s pumped into the United States.
Balance is impossible. Getting even with someone is impossible. You have to move past the entire concept of justice, revenge, and balance for forgiveness to work.
We have justice to minimize the need for forgiveness. We have forgiveness to minimize the need for justice. Both are equally important, but justice doesn’t heal trauma.
I always tell people: I don’t believe in revenge, only discouraging future trespasses. The actions taken to accomplish this may seem like vengeance, but this is another illusion.
Forgiveness is for the self. Justice is for the world. Execute only forgiveness, and you’ll become a weakling. Execute only justice, and you’ll become someone to be fear. The goal is to remember that each has its place.
The fifth step for forgiveness is to focus on healing the self with forgiveness. Let justice do what justice does, but do not expect it to fix you. Only you and forgiveness and can do that.
A recap of how to forgive a person
- Forgiveness takes nothing personally
- Forgiveness begs you to remember that we’re all the same
- Forgiving someone means leaving the past behind
- Forgiveness does not recognize “closure”
- Forgiveness knows that it’s impossible for someone to ever be “even”
Forgiveness doesn’t change someone and it doesn’t alter the physical world.
Forgiving someone changes you and your relationship with it. It’s the only way to move beyond the desire for retribution and crushing guilt.
Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that anything in the world or the person has changed. It doesn’t even mean that your perspective on them has changed.
It just means they no longer command real estate in your mind and heart. Only a sucker would forget why a person required forgiveness in the first place.
In this way, it’s the only way we can learn from our mistakes.