How can you forgive?
But what I haven’t done is provide practical strategies for forgiveness.
To do that, I’ll turn back to the advice of my Yale colleague, the theologian and author Miroslav Volf. He’s thought deeply about forgiveness across time and across cultures – but he also has a powerful personal experience of what it takes to forgive a wrong.
Miroslav’s five-year-old brother died in an accident while riding as a passenger on a horse-drawn carriage. A friendly child, the boy was a favorite of the soldiers stationed in Miroslav’s hometown. They had taken him for a ride without the permission of his parents.
The child’s death was devastating for Miroslav’s family. “For my mother especially, there was a sense of rage.”
But Miroslav’s parents were both deeply steeped in the Christian tradition of forgiveness and felt that they had to somehow apply this to the terrible loss of their son.
The accident wasn’t an act of malice and the carriage driver was intensely remorseful for his part in the child’s death – but Miroslav’s mother still struggled to put aside her anger and her desire for revenge. But with a lot of effort and work, she was eventually able to forgive the driver.
“It was the most difficult things she’d ever done,” says Miroslav.
Miroslav thinks of forgiveness as a gift we can give to someone who has hurt or wronged us (“So we can say: ‘I don’t count it against you. I relate to you as if you had not done that particular wrong.’”). But in many ways, forgiveness is also a gift to ourselves – it can help us to detach from the bad thing that we experienced.
“There is a sense of release," say Miroslav. "We are fascinated, we’re captured, we’re held captive by what has happened in the past. We don’t look ahead, but in the rear-view mirror. What forgiveness does is allow us to look into a future not filtered through the past.”
It might be worth quickly considering what forgiveness isn’t:
Forgiveness isn’t pretending that the bad deed didn’t happen. For Miroslav, the act of forgiving is “an implicit affirmation that the wrongdoing has occurred”.
Nor is forgiveness an expression that the wrongdoing was inconsequential. “Someone bumps into you and you say: ‘Ok, there’s nothing to forgive.’ Forgiveness comes into play when the injury is more significant.”
Forgiving someone also doesn’t mean that they get to avoid the consequences of their deeds, such as legal punishments or other sanctions.
After talking with Miroslav, here are a few tips I picked up about how to forgive most effectively:
Forgiveness is not an act, but a practice. We should offer forgiveness whenever it is appropriate – and not pick and choose when to forgive.
Offering forgiveness can be done irrespective of the other person – it’s great if they make the first move and try to apologize, but it’s still possible to forgive an unrepentant wrongdoer.
Don’t seek “purity”. Miroslav says we often want an ideal situation where both parties agree what was wrong and who was at fault. “That agreement seldom happens,” says Miroslav, so accept that forgiveness is “messy”.
Unstick the deed from the doer. Miroslav says this is the key to forgiveness. We can accept that the deed was unpleasant or hurtful – but not hold it against the person.
The final tip is perhaps the most important, since it relates to the happiness that social connection and social interaction can bring us.
Forgiveness is ultimately not about the deed, but about your relationship with the person who wronged you. By forgiving you are taking a step towards repairing a relationship with another person (often someone you loved or were close to). If you forgive someone then you are allowing for the chance of a shared future together.
I find this reframing of forgiveness really inspiring. Being the victim of a hurtful act is horrible, but we can compound that harm by allowing it to overshadow our present and our future. By forgiving, we open up new possibilities not only for the person who wronged us, but for ourselves too.
As Miroslav says: “When forgiveness happens, it’s not a zero-sum game. Life becomes better when we forgive.”
Stay well and stay happy,
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