All the things I’ve learned about forgiveness

Forgiveness is a concept with which I’ve long had a struggle. It always felt to me like I was giving someone a free pass. The whole “be the bigger person” mantra might have sounded great in practice, but where was the satisfaction? It wasn’t a matter of maintaining some kind of vendetta, but moreso that I felt taken advantage of, walked all over, and in the worst instances, horribly betrayed. Why did I have to surpass all of my valid feelings in order to grant something to another person who I felt didn’t deserve it? My forgiveness ran the gamut from the casual “Oh, it’s okay — no big deal” all the way up to the serene smile and practiced “I’ve gotten over it,” often said to someone I dated who was extraordinarily manipulative and hurtful.

The act of forgiving holds a prominent place in most religious sects. It is exemplified in our culture by the often used Alexander Pope quote, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” As if we assign this higher power to strive for all in the name of condoning someone else’s bad behavior. But as psychologist and author Elizabeth Lombardo recently pointed out, it’s important to understand what forgiveness isn’t. “Forgiveness is not forgetting. You’re not going to forget — it happened. Forgiveness is not condoning what happened. Forgiveness is not letting it happen again. Forgiveness does not require anyone else.”

The last part is what struck me. “Forgiveness does not require anyone else.” I realized that my focus in the past had always been thinking that forgiveness meant something I had to actively “do” with the other person. I no longer think this is the case. Forgiveness is something for myself. I don’t owe it to the person who hurt me or degraded me in order to confirm that I am indeed the bigger person. I already know this.

When I was treated poorly by male colleagues, I was told to “get over it.” When a man I dated for three years turned out to be bordering on sociopathic with his lies and behavior, I was still told by some when his name came up in conversation that people aren’t infallible and I should learn to let it go. That it was better for me in the long run to do so.

The implication of these statements to me was always that the onus was on me to forgive. I needed to put aside my pain and what I experienced for the sake of forgiveness and appearances. No matter what, even if you’re still hurt or the person who hurt you is continuing their bad treatment of you, because the person who gets over it first or cares less wins.

But wins what? Is there some big trophy for displaying astounding levels of maturity that I should have received eight times over by now in my life? And is it really maturity, or are we simply calling it that while we’re really just telling someone to be quiet and smile?

I used to believe that not forgiving someone meant they’d still have some kind of power over you. And the question was why give an undeserving person that kind of control? It takes away from personal peace and the goal of achieving a perfect state of zen in your life. But that was also when I believed that forgiveness meant exoneration. The thing is, it doesn’t — unless it pertains to exonerating myself. I choose to forgive myself for falling in love with a person or two who were selfish and incapable of committing to an honest, caring partnership. I choose to forgive myself for not leaving a job sooner that disrespected me and my work ethic.

I do not ever need to forgive those who made me feel small. Who had no qualms about treating me as less of a person than I am. I forgive myself for putting up with it at the time,  but they hold no power over me or my life. They’re a blip now. A lesson learned. A story told, cautionary in tone. But not for one second do they interrupt my happiness. Happiness is personal, and I know that owning my control over my decisions of how to feel and what constitutes closure for myself is all that I need. And that is how I define “getting over it.”

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