Traditional wisdom as shared by our parents and grandparents taught us to “forgive & forget“.
Decades of experience and opportunity to contemplate forgiveness (the giving and receiving of it) have taught me a few things about forgiving and forgetting. Lately I’ve added a question to my meditations when I’m working on forgiveness issues: “what can I learn from this?”
In some situations it’s a challenge to forgive. We see blatant bad behavior in people whose credentials and titles tell us they have convinced someone (and often quite a few someones!) that they were respectable, trustworthy and qualified to be held in high esteem. For me these are the hardest cases to process (e.g. move past), because there is evidence that they indeed knew better, but decided that the rules didn’t apply to them. In working hard to move past some of these tough cases I have found immense value in asking that simple question: what can I learn from this?
Sometimes I learn to trust my instincts more fully when they are standing up and screaming at me to walk away or “just say no!”
Other times I learn that people – even good people – are susceptible to less-than-stellar behavior. In these instances I take the opportunity to look hard at myself and ask “could I ever allow myself to get to the point where I would _____________?” (whatever behavior I am questioning)
Still other questions may focus more on decision points: determining if there was a juncture in someone’s downward trajectory where a different decision or intervention may have made a positive difference.
As I work with this simple but effective process, I have sometimes been able to see HOW someone may have gotten there; identifying the frailties that unite us as a human family. I have also been able to recognize similar or potentially-related seedlings of behavior in myself that have caused me to ask, “where could this lead if left unchecked?”
And yes, there are also times when it become painfully obvious that, despite all our attempts to excuse someone’s behavior, upon reflection we realize that they had every opportunity to do the right thing but made a different choice. In these instances I am reminded that I have the power to make choices in my life, and that I own those choices as well as the consequences.
Perhaps the most beneficial aspect to asking myself the question (what can I learn from this?) is that it shifts my focus away from my anger or frustration with the person(s), and redirects my attention inward so I can ponder, evaluate and consider MY life, since I really only have responsibility and control over me. A simple shift to asking a question neutralizes the negative emotions embedded in painful memories.
I taught at a University for 10 years and was a Dean for a number of years before that at a community college. I have built upon that familiar terrain to create a visual that I use when I need to move beyond the anger and on to the lesson; to forgiveness and the ability to release it from my conscious experience.
In the academic setting, it was not unusual to be sitting in my office and have a forlorn student appear at my door without an appointment to answer for some inappropriate behavior or other poor choice. In my visualization I place the person(s) I need to forgive in that doorway, and see myself sitting behind my desk with a folder in my hand. I glance up from the folder, see the person(s) in the doorway, and then notice my secretary hurry over. She moves the appointment-less student(s) out of the way, shuts my door and escorts them from the department. Then I return my attention to the information in the folder, which is a metaphor for my new understanding, The secretary moving them along means I no longer need to focus my attention on the person/people that have irritated, aggravated or otherwise wronged me or someone I love, and the closed door means this is my work to do on myself and my consciousness.
The academic visualization works for me because I spent many years in that environment, but you can use any scenario or circumstance that has meaning for you.
If you try this technique you’ll quickly find that your interest in “them” and their “bad deeds” is replaced with much more meaningful inner dialogue about you; what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown. Forgiveness removes the intensity of the anger; asking what we can learn helps us see the situation as a data point which is an emotion-less perspective and “shutting that door” facilitates the release that is so important to moving on.
If you work on this in your own life, you will notice that the person(s) at the center of your forgiveness work will become translucent and 2-dimensional in your memory- like paper dolls – and will fade from your repetitive, conscious thoughts. You’ll be able to keep the precious lessons they taught and therefore retain something good from your time and experience with them which is important, though it may not seem so at this time. As they continue to fade from your regular thoughts and consciousness, bless them; wish them well and know that you were given an opportunity to grow spiritually through this circumstance or situation.
Forgiveness work is some of the toughest spiritual work out there, but the benefits are all ours if we are willing to try.