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The hidden key to forgiveness

The purpose of this article is not to convince you to forgive. You already know you should. One Gallup study found that 94% of respondents believed it was important to forgive others, but 85% said they needed outside help to do so.1 So today we will focus on how.

Forgiveness on the parkway

In Boston, locals refer to the Fresh Pond Parkway as “the Fresh Pond parking lot.” I took this road to and from work every day. Five miles to the office in about 40 minutes of driving. As I crawled along, brave cyclists would speed past me within a few inches of the curb and my car.  

The traffic tends to make Boston drivers… assertive. There is one stretch where drivers try to merge with the line of cars inching their way to the city. They can join the line immediately or race past them for half a mile and then merge at the last possible moment.

As a general rule, Bostonians do not take kindly to last-minute mergers. They pull their cars right up to the bumper ahead of them and avoid eye contact with the merging driver. A painfully slow game of chicken ensues as the merging and defending drivers attempt to force each other to yield. The one most worried about his paint job and the feelings of the other driver loses.

One Saturday afternoon, I was sitting in the passenger seat while my wife drove our family along this stretch of road. A truck sped past the other cars and signaled his intention to turn into our lane. I braced myself for a battle of steel and will, but my wife eased onto the brake, left ample space ahead us and just let him merge. More surprisingly, she kept talking cheerily as though nothing had happened.

I stared at her for a long while. “How can you not be enraged at that driver?!” I said in disbelief. “He just cut in front of us and all those other cars! There’s no excuse for that.”

Her response has stayed with me for over a decade. “I let that person in because he may be like me. Maybe he is not paying attention because he is trying to feed cheerios to a screaming kid behind him, and he forgot to merge when he should have. I hope someone will let me in next time I make a mistake.”

The secret to forgiveness

Here is the key. If you do not condemn your offender then you have no need to forgive in the first place. If you let go of damning thoughts then any existing resentment will melt away. Forgiveness is the suspension of judgement.

This is easier said than done. When someone hurts you or a loved one, it is tempting to label the offender as some kind of monster who deserves punishment. The resulting verdict carries a grave penalty. It fills you with bitterness – bitterness toward the offender and bitterness toward the world. And this resentment corrodes for as long as the underlying judgment persists.

Forgiving does not resolve the pain caused by the initial offense. It wipes away the layers of resentment you add on top. Without a lingering desire for justice, you can focus clearly on resolving the underlying pain.

Many have been subjected to situations and monsters that I cannot imagine. And I do not blame anyone for condemning a wrongdoer or struggling to let go. Wrestling with the forgiveness process is part of the human experience we all share. After we successfully forgive one enemy, we are soon confronted with new sources of pain. With practice though, we can learn to forgive more quickly and thoroughly.2

Forgiveness is particularly difficult with close family members. So much time is spent with family that offenses can pile up. You are also intimately familiar with family members’ sins, and you might think you know them well enough to be an impartial judge. This combination of offense frequency and familiarity is why family can be a breeding ground for resentment and a training ground for forgiveness.

I want to be clear that forgiveness is not weakness. For example, I support a non-judgmental honk at an aggressive driver to let him know that his actions are inappropriate. And I advocate for restructuring the Parkway to make it more difficult to engage in bad driving behavior. I might even be so late for a commitment that I prevent a driver from merging. I will not condemn him though. 

Easing the way to forgiveness

For those willing to sacrifice judgment, here are a few tips to help forgive the unforgiveable:

  1. Learn more about your offender. You may just find a perspective that you had not considered or that the wrong was committed out of weakness instead of malice.3
  2. Consider leaving final judgment to the qualified. Allowing God, a Human Resources professional, natural consequences or a court judge to determine guilt and punishment can free you for greater things.4
  3. Remember that forgiving others will make it easier to forgive yourself. The process of self-forgiveness is the same as it is for forgiving others.5
  4. Talk to someone you trust about your desire to forgive. This could be a friend, a spouse or a professional therapist who can help you explore fresh perspectives.
  5. Pray or meditate about how to suspend judgment. Meditative prayer has been shown to help with the forgiveness process.6 Go to a quiet place, explain the situation to God and then listen.

For those harboring damning thoughts about others, consider the freedom and peace available from letting go. I have learned the joy of forgiveness through hard experience, and my sense of liberation is as great as was my bitterness. And you can find the joy of forgiveness too if you relinquish judgment.

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