From Pain to Forgiveness

“Do you have a list of people who you feel anger towards?” This was the question that my conflict resolution instructor asked, as we started the day’s class. I had been in a bit of a professional rut, so deciding to take career growth into my own hands, I signed up for a leadership certification program and this was a required course.

Despite my initial hesitance to take this class – recovering people pleasers generally do not embrace conflict or attempts to resolve it – I found myself intrigued, and humoured, by the question. To be fair, it may have just been that the notion of such a list conjured up images of Billy Madison, where Adam Sandler is removed from his former bullying victim’s list of “people to get even with”, and ultimately gets saved from a gun-wielding madman because of such mercy. But, after I came out of fantasy land and took the question seriously, I started to wonder, “do I have list of grudges?”

From the murmurs around me, it was clear that my classmates certainly did! From the sound of it, some had many names filling their lists. On my end, I thought of only two. Yet, rather than pat myself on the back for not having too lengthy a trail of traitors behind me, I felt immediate sadness. I found myself re-living what each “offender” had done, even though the incidents had occurred years earlier. I began dwelling on how they hurt me; how unfair they had been to me; how they had scarred me. In a nutshell, I had a self-pity party where I embraced victimhood.

With some prompting from our teacher, I began to interrogate this list a little further. I began to ask, “what would it take to remove someone from the list?”, and “what am I gaining from keeping it in the first place?”

I realized that while my inventory may have been comparatively short to my peers’, it was still unnecessary. The reality of the situation was that I had been keeping those names there as if it was some sort of purgatory for them. Except, the one who was suffering and unable to move forward was me. I mean, those people had (seemingly) moved on and very likely weren’t giving the past a second thought. Yet, here I was, keeping a small mental checklist of their past infractions, telling myself that they were horrible people.

With the realization that I was not gaining anything productive from this, I felt compelled to confront that question around what it would take to remove their names. The answer appeared simple: I had to forgive. The problem was that my mind didn’t want to let me forgive. Because somehow, I told myself that if I forgave, I would be condoning what they had done; I would be putting myself last; I’d be a doormat. And hey, why should I forgive them when they didn’t even apologize and give me the closure that I deserved in the first place? They clearly didn’t want to be forgiven.

Despite my justifications, I only felt more anxious with the weight of my two-person list. I tried listening to my inner voice – not from my mind; but from my body, heart, and soul. What I came to understand was that as cliche as it sounds, the act of forgiveness was truly an act of self-care. It would be a way of releasing myself as a hostage to the painful memories of my past. Contemplating forgiveness also re-affirmed my core belief that “closure” itself is just an illusion – at least in the way we’ve come to understand it… You can’t gain closure just from hearing someone utter “I’m sorry,” or offer an explanation as to why they hurt you. Those things may help, but true closure comes from within. It comes when you’re able to say: “I don’t need their words” and “I don’t need to understand why it happened.” Once you can accept that it happened, regardless, you can start the process of healing…

After coming to terms with the occurrence and the effect it had on you, it may even be possible to start extending grace and compassion to the “wrongdoer.”  Maybe the person you have resentment towards was fighting their own battle – and while that doesn’t necessarily justify their actions, it can serve as a reminder that they were likely not acting out of malice. Or, as a separate possibility, you may come to realize that your own reaction was unwarranted. Maybe you acted too quickly in categorizing them as a “toxic” person. You might even find yourself asking where you have hurt other people, – and questioning how many lists you’ve made your way onto, as well.

All in all, this reflective process can be a transformative experience if you’re open to questioning your grudges instead of just holding onto them. Letting go – by way of forgiving – becomes easier once you realize the humanity in yourself and others….  So, at this time, I invite you to think of your list. Do you have one? How many people are on it? How many people have to stay there? Are you prepared to stay there with them?

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