“When you forgive, you in no way change the past, but you sure do change the future.” – Bernard Meltzer
There are many great stories about forgiveness, from both everyday life as well as religious folklore. Perhaps one of the most touching stories I’ve heard on forgiveness is about a man who was wrongly accused by a woman who claimed that he had raped her. He was locked up in prison for 11 years for a crime that he did not commit, without being given a fair chance to prove his innocence.
Jennifer Thompson had mistakenly identified Ronald Cotton as the rapist in a photo lineup conducted by the police. During those years when Cotton was locked up, he endured many long and hard days of confinement, hoping and praying that his innocence would somehow be proven. That day finally came after DNA evidence ultimately proved that another man had committed the rape and Cotton was free.
Thompson was understandably filled with guilt and deeply concerned about how a man from whom she had stolen 11 years of his life would act upon the injustice that was done to him. Cotton, however, admitted that he had long since forgiven her. He said, “I couldn’t carry on serving my time in the prison system holding grudges and thinking about retaliating against a person that made an honest mistake. I had to proceed on in life regardless.”
They even joined forces to write a book and travel together to give talks about how our memory can deceive us and how the police should change the way photo lineups are conducted. I truly admire this man for finding the fortitude and grace within his heart to forgive Thompson, who had essentially made him miss out on the best days of his life because of her oversight. If he could do it, we certainly can too.
In theory, forgiveness sounds like a simple process and a virtuous goal to aspire towards, but the reality is that it can be one of the hardest things to do. I know this intimately well after having had to forgive someone I had trusted with my emotions and time, for letting me down and deceiving me.
In the early stages of healing, I was bitter, angry, and I wanted the worst for the person. I carried the grudge with me everywhere, believing that it would somehow make me feel better and fuel my quest for revenge. This continued for a couple of years until I came across this very affecting quote from the great Buddha: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
It instantly struck a chord with me because it confirmed what I was already feeling. The toxicity of the negative emotions left me feeling depleted, perpetually exhausted and drained. I was moody, irritable and critical in my interactions with others. Neither was I motivated or driven to succeed in my life. Clearly, I had lost myself and my passion for life, and it was up to me to take the initiative to shift things.
With the guidance and support of others, I soon realized that if I had to forgive this person who hurt me, I needed to get out of my head and delve into the deeper realms of my being. The mind and ego seek vengeance by keeping tabs and maintaining an illusion of control over a situation, even if it harms us, while the heart and soul wants to heal and reach wholeness through compassion and understanding.
Forgiveness requires you to walk into the pain and face any turbulent emotions head on. It’s only when you have the courage to dive into those deep, murky waters, can you release any hostility, sadness or anger that is pervading your being. These sentiments carry a dynamic form of energy that must be neutralized before you’re able to genuinely forgive and view the situation from an objective perspective.
The good news is that you don’t have to immerse yourself into this state of inquiry all on your own. Help is available in the form of a good therapist, coach and support groups. You can supplement their counsel by reflecting and writing down your thoughts in a private journal. There are so many great books and meditations out there on forgiveness, and I encourage you to seek them out during your healing journey.
Even if you have been dedicated to the process and you’ve taken the time to re-nourish yourself, you may reach a point where you wonder whether you have truly forgiven. Based on my experience, you’ll intuitively know that you’ve reached this place because you’ll sense it on an energetic level. But just to be sure, here are the 5 things that indicate whether or not you have reached a real state of forgiveness:
- You don’t get worked up while talking or thinking about it: If you can talk about the offender and the circumstance connected with the offence without feeling uneasy or upset, that is a clear sign that you have made peace and forgiven or you’re very close to it. Now this doesn’t mean that you won’t feel sad about what took place, but you’ll be strong enough to prevent it from disrupting your inner sanctity.
- You don’t have a vengeful or competitive attitude: If you still find yourself saying things like, “I’ll show them!” or, “I hope that he/she gets what she deserves!”, chances are that you are still not over it. You need to overcome the temptation to devise diabolic plans to sabotage the success of the co-worker who nabbed your promotion or the boyfriend who cheated on you. You need to unhook yourself from your thirst for revenge and allow karma (or the natural forces of the Universe) to do its thing.
- You perceive the experience as a valuable life lesson: Individuals who have truly forgiven have been able to reframe any disappointments that they have endured into empowering experiences. They consider these hurtful events to be an essential part of their soul’s growth and the building blocks of their character. When you have the ability to integrate the lessons into your own psyche and pass them on to others who may need it, you’ll know that your soul is evolving on its path towards wholeness.
- You’re able to see the humanity in the offender: This is arguably one of the toughest steps of the forgiveness process because we’re all naturally prone to seeing the people who hurt us as being evil-doers with the sociopathic tendencies of having absolutely no regard for others’ feelings. But if we can view them through the lens of compassion, we’ll see that they’re quite simply human beings who are flawed and vulnerable, who may have acted out their own fears and unhealed pain in an unconscious way. While this is certainly not an excuse for their actions, it is simply a way for us to open our minds to seeing the humanity within them so that it will be easier for us to let go of our anger and move on.
- You’ve found joy and happiness in the present: Once you’ve truly forgiven someone, you’ll instantly expand your capacity to have fun, laugh and experience joy in your life. This is because you’ve raised your personal vibration by releasing yourself from the bondage of your resentful feelings towards the offender. You’ll also find yourself more focused on your personal goals and helping others in your life.
Forgiveness is ultimately a sacred process that opens up the gateway to our hearts through our compassion and strength. It also provides us with the opportunity to seek the divinity that lies within us, overflowing with love and beauty, waiting to be expressed. Like a flower, our hearts will bloom with fragrant incense once we’re finally able to overcome our grief and forgive all those who have hurt us.
It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest gifts that we can give ourselves.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: Is there someone that you haven’t forgiven yet? How will you determine if you have truly forgiven?
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