“Forgiveness is not always easy. Sometimes it feels more painful than forgiving the wound we’ve suffered for whoever inflicted it. And yet there is no peace without forgiveness.” ~Marianne Williamson
The topic of forgiveness comes up a lot in conversation, but I find that when it comes to the details of what it really means, what that process feels like isn’t really talked about.
Over the years, the most common statements I’ve heard people make when the topic of forgiveness comes up in discussions are:
1. “What they did is just wrong! I can never forgive them for that.”
2. “You don’t deserve my forgiveness. There is no reason for me to forgive them.”
3. “Oh, I’ve already forgiven them and let it go. I didn’t tell them because we don’t talk. Why should I be the one to reach out first?”
In 2006 I attended a long weekend workshop with the late Dr. Lee Gibson where he gave us one of his brilliant Leeisms: “Forgiveness is erasing a debt you feel someone owes you.” That’s why forgiveness can feel like it costs you something.”
I got blown away
Yes! I began to understand why I had such a hard time forgiving my parents. I was stuck in the same mentality of “why should I?”, “you were clearly wrong!” and “you didn’t deserve it!”.
Late one night when I was nineteen I was attacked by my father who lost his temper and self-control. I thought I was going to die that night because it really felt like he was trying to kill me. My younger brother eventually pulled him off me and held him off long enough for us all to calm down.
I was scared and didn’t sleep for three nights. I also told myself that this was the last time I would let that happen. I started packing at night and moved out in three days. My parents and I didn’t have a relationship for the next ten years as my mother stood by my father.
During Lee’s long weekend workshop with a group of just six participants, we delved into the topic of family dysfunction and forgiveness. It immediately hit a pain point for me, right to the core.
I wrestled with him for about forty minutes (I was later told by someone in the same class) what felt like ten minutes – I had immersed myself passionately in that moment to prove what I meant and how wrong I was at the time. I was at a standstill.
I asked him about fairness and justice and why do I have to be the bigger person here when they are the parents? Lee asked calmly, “How does it feel for you to be the bigger person? Is that okay?” Well, I thought, it might be, but why do I always have to be that person?
Then he proposed an even more outlandish concept – thanking the people who had wronged us for all the things they had done right.
I was a little more excited but for some reason I was curious to hear more. I needed to understand why he thought it was a good idea and how exactly it would help me live in peace.
To be honest I don’t remember all the deep wisdom he shared on why. I just remember that if we were open and brave enough to try it, it would bring about a change in us, and he encouraged us to share our experiences with him afterwards.
No way, I thought. Never. Will not happen. Forgiveness is one thing, but thanking them was way beyond what I wanted to consider.
I was still pondering all this for a week after the workshop. But my adventurous heart wanted to know how it would feel if I put aside everything my parents had done wrong and thanked them for all the things they had done right.
I started making a list of some of the things I think they got right, like struggling through the difficulties of being first-generation immigrants and working day and night to get food on the table and to bring a roof over your head.
After much deliberation, with a racing heart and a trembling voice, I did the unthinkable – I called my parents out of the blue one night to conduct this “social experiment”. I went through my list and thanked them for all the things they did right without mentioning anything they did wrong. They responded surprisingly well and admitted that they could have done a lot better.
I’ll admit I tried not to have any expectations, but part of me hoped they would apologize for what they did wrong and they didn’t. I felt surprisingly good about it after we hung up.
I was proud of myself that I had made it. I felt bigger. I felt more grown up. I felt more empowered to be the bigger person. That was my first taste of offering compassion and gratitude from a place of empowerment rather than martyrdom.
I’ve definitely experienced a shift.
It probably took me another five years to fully understand and let go of the night of the attack and all the things I thought could have been done better. In hindsight, giving thanks was the first step in making her feel more like an adult and less like a helpless child. Being able to pat my own parents on the back put me on the same level.
I no longer feel the need to hope that they will treat me a certain way, give me the attention I feel I need, or make up for what they did wrong. I felt more able to see them for who they are – other people who are also struggling with their own suffering.
Every year I get to know my parents as people and not just as my parents.
I have gradually taken her out of the parenting role as I no longer need her and am treating her like any other adult. I set boundaries with them and when I got to know their boundaries, I began to respect their boundaries as well. And I break away whenever I feel our interactions are turning into an unhealthy dynamic.
I understood very well that it was my decision whether or not to have a relationship with my parents as an adult. And if I wanted to, I would also play a part in what kind of relationship we would have. I wanted to have a good relationship with them and the only way to do that was to forgive.
At some point in my life I realized that forgiveness is really for my own benefit. Here’s why:
The best deal is always amicable. How many relationships have left us feeling abandoned, confused, heartbroken and questioning our self worth? We often didn’t have a choice with these types of endings. But what if we could actively choose a better way to end a relationship with someone? (Or, like my parents, start a new relationship with them.)
While this is not a one-way street, we are in control of our site. This allows each of us to move on to better future relationships and the next chapter of our lives without guilt or attachment. A bond with another created through anger, guilt, or bitterness is an energetic constraint on our own heart and soul.
Personal growth and transformation
Whenever we hold on to the victim mentality, we keep ourselves small. When we refuse to forgive, we are holding on to the fact that we have been wronged and that we are the victim in this scenario. It’s hard to move beyond this mindset when we hold onto what hurts us and continue to hold it over those we believe have wronged us.
It may not feel like it right now (I know I’ve certainly struggled with this for a long time), but the first step to feeling empowered is to recognize that we are able to forgive, and that’s big. Similar to expressing gratitude, spreading forgiveness comes from a higher place. A place where we have the knowledge that we are in a leadership position to forgive and break through the cage we built for ourselves.
freedom of the soul
In a way, we help their hearts and souls move on. We are only here on earth for a short time. As cliche as it may sound, the only things we will think about in our final hours are how much we have given, loved and lived, and what will haunt us is how much we have not done.
I want to make sure I’m free from such torments. And if I could liberate others from such torment in the process, it would really be a win-win situation on a soul level.
Forgiveness not only frees us from being permanently bound to those we believe have wronged us; it also releases them from a debt we think they owe us – a karmic bond I don’t want to hold on to. Only then will we all feel a deep sigh of relief, with the freedom to move on to what awaits our souls next.
I sent my dad a care package last year with a card to let him know that I wish him happiness and health and that he is loved and forgiven. And now I’m at peace.
**I’m not suggesting that anyone else should thank their abuser. Personally I have found this helpful and healing, but everyone must make their own choices based on what is best for them.
About Liv W
Olivia (Liv) Wu is a writer, meditation teacher, and perennial student of the mind, body, and spirit connections. She is the creator of Soulove – a mindfulness community focused on authenticity, emotional mastery and personal development. Liv hopes to inspire a more heart-based society through her work. She believes who we are at our core, defines our capacity for joy and purpose, and who we are collectively determines the destiny of our planet and the future of humanity.
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