Forgiveness comes on many levels. The first is to forgive others for causing us harm. That’s
the kind of forgiveness most of us think of first. Some people have trouble with that. When
they’ve been wronged they hold resentments, or believe that the other person has to make
some gesture of attrition or regret before they can forgive. Moreover, in most disputes both
sides interpret themselves to have been wronged more than the other, so with each waiting
for the other to show regret and remorse, nobody gets forgiven.
The secret is to let go and forgive anyway. If one takes the first step and reaches out the
other person is more likely to respond and return the gesture. In some cases the other person
can’t let go of resentment. There forgiveness is powerful in that it frees one from the
emotions of the conflict. If the other person wants to wallow in anger and resentment, that’s
his or her problem. That’s the power of forgiveness. Once you forgive you cease to allow
others to have power over your emotional state.
How often do we spend time frustrated, angry and upset about things others have done?
People can give up hours of time each day to feelings of anger and resentment. Yet what is
gained? That simply gives others power over our state of mind and turns what could have
been a productive and contented day into one of frustration and irritation. Forgiveness allows
us to deny others that power. We can let go of anger and resentment and engage in positive
pursuits. Simply, forgiving others, even those who don’t deserve forgiveness, is in our own
The second type of forgiveness is to forgive mistakes. When someone unintentionally does
something wrong or does harm the natural inclination is to be upset. “He should have known
better,” or “if she’s holding a cup of hot coffee she should make sure it doesn’t spill.” Yet if
it’s a mistake, even a stupid one that should have been avoided, there is absolutely no reason
to be angry. If something is unintentional, then anger is misplaced. Forgive mistakes.
To be sure, if you’re a boss you may have to fire or discipline an employee who makes too
many mistakes. Forgiveness is a personal act, it doesn’t mean erasing proper consequences
for mistakes. I can forgive a student for not studying before an exam and not think less of the
student as a person, but the student still gets the grade he or she earns.
Most importantly, one has to forgive oneself for mistakes, misjudgments, and misdeeds. This
is the perhaps the hardest form of forgiveness for people to learn. People beat themselves
up over things that they did or did not do, and cannot let go and focus on the future.
Mistakes, though, are the way people learn. Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, and
see repeated mistakes as a sign of what to focus on improving. One also has to forgive oneself
for engaging in malicious misdeeds done out of anger and spite. I believe it’s only possible to
accept the forgiveness of others if one has forgiven oneself. That is the first step. Moreover,
most people rationalize misdeeds if they cannot forgive themselves for them. The inability to
forgive oneself leads to people feeling victimized and justified in doing whatever they do.
They don’t see that they are drawing such “persecution” onto themselves by their own
unresolved inner conflicts. Self-forgiveness is essential for happiness.
Some people treat forgiveness as some kind of difficult and hard to achieve ideal. How often
have you heard people say they want to forgive but can’t let go of a resentment or of anger?
How many people refuse to forgive until the other person makes amends? How any people
engage in self-loathing rather than self-forgiveness?
Yet it is easy. To forgive one simply has to let go of the past, recognizing that since the past
cannot be changed, dwelling on it serves no useful purpose. Learn from it, but don’t let it add
emotional weight to your life burden. Forgiveness is an embrace of the present and
acceptance of the past. The past cannot be changed, the present is our point of power to
make change. We tie ourselves down and waste energy if our emotions are fixated on the
past — we become unable to use our present power to improve ourselves and the world.
Forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts a person can engage in. So while I don’t believe
the theology and story line of the Christian faith, I celebrate their emphasis on forgiveness as
the core of Jesus’ teachings.