Forgiveness: A Gift to Others and Ourselves

Forgiveness is something that most of us acknowledge as good. Despite the common acceptance of the need for forgiveness, we struggle with understanding what forgiveness means. We also struggle to know how exactly to forgive. It can be hard to tell if we have truly forgiven someone. This is understandable. Forgiveness is a process. We often are not sure if the process has been completed.

It is possible we could have forgiven someone cognitively (with our thoughts and even verbally) but not forgiven them emotionally. Sometimes this occurs because we fear the wrong or hurt happening again and don’t let our guard down. Also, we might, due to our faith convictions, embrace the concept of forgiveness and thus readily extend it verbally, but under the surface we still harbor resentment. Sometimes we do this intentionally and sometimes we are not conscious that we are doing this. It is not necessarily wrong to do it this way. In doing it this way, at least we create peace in the relationship and more tolerable conditions for ourselves, while we continue to truly forgive. In fact, perhaps it is better to do it this way and let the emotions catch up later, rather than to say “sorry, I cannot forgive you now, maybe in time I will feel it, and then extend it to you”.  In the end, we just need to make sure we are progressing in the process of forgiveness and that we see it to fruition. There are indeed many routes to take to forgiveness.

I recall when my father was in his final days. He was in the ICU and his parish priest was away on a trip. The call came in the morning hours that he was in his final hours. So, I was the priest to minister to him on his last day and in his final hours. Before me was the man who I loved and who did love me, but struggled to express it, due to hurts he had suffered early in his life. Soon after reading the prayers for the departure of the soul, I had to utter the words of absolution including, “May all those things which proceeded from your mortal nature be consigned to oblivion”. Among those “things” were many memories and the reality of what could have been, but wasn’t; what should have been, but was not.  Though I prayed for all those faults, flaws, and all the hurtful behaviors to be consigned to oblivion and passed on absolution to him, I realized they lived on in us, his kids. So, though forgiveness was gladly given, it was but the beginning of the work I had to do to forgive him fully.

There are of course the simple offenses that are easier to get over; the minor infractions where we are readily able to forgive and forget. However, what about the ones that are more profound, hurt more, and leave more of a mark? In these instances we should not put pressure on ourselves to instantly forgive. It will likely be more a journey to get to the destination of forgiveness. The critical components often needed to forgive are: acknowledging our experience and feelings, identifying and articulating how it affected us and how it affected our beliefs and perceptions of the other or even people in general, understanding the other (perhaps their motives and life story), and doing what we need to do in order to eliminate all resentment from the memory of what occurred.

It is often said, “to forgive is to forget.” I do not believe in this saying. The reality is, when it comes to the more profound incidents, we can never forget. It becomes a memory. Unless, we subject ourselves to some kind of memory wipe (which as far as I know no such technology exists) we will always have a memory of the experience. We cannot stop a memory. However, we can change what affect the memory has upon us. When we have forgiven, the memory no longer affects us negatively when we recall it. It is as though all the emotional circuitry has been pulled out of it. It becomes a memory, stored in a past narrative, that no longer has relevancy for the present. It is no longer emotionally charged. This is quite possible, but requires work.

It certainly helps to get a deep apology accompanied with a change of behavior. This is of course the ideal yet rare situation. However, what if this does not occur? Can we still reach true forgiveness? The answer is yes. Sometimes people are unremorseful. Sometimes people just do not have the insight or self-awareness to see their behavior. Sadly, sometimes people are too narcissistic and their ego will not let them see the reality of their behavior, feel remorse, and apologize. In these instances, getting an acknowledgment of what occurred, how we were affected, and an apology may never occur. So, we will have to do all the work. While this might seem like a bitter pill to swallow, it is in our best interest. Until we forgive, there is part of us that is frozen or stuck in a past time. We lose a part of ourselves in the present. Part of forgiving is bringing that part of ourselves back to life and fully in the present.

When we have to do all the work it means we will have to find closure on our own. Of course we have the grace of God to help us. We pray for this assistance daily. In order to get closure, we will have to allow our minds and hearts to fully process what occurred (or in some instances, what did not occur, but should have).  Any negative beliefs we learned as a result of the experience need to be revised and resolved. Any emotions bottled up will need to be identified and expressed, so that we might be free of them. Finally, behaviorally, we will need to change and override any negative ways we learned to relate with others, God, and life itself. In other words, though we might not quite feel like it, we will need to challenge ourselves to live and engage as though the experience never occurred.  We learn to give others and life a second chance. Indeed, forgiveness is all about second chances.  The only alternative is to stay trapped in the shadow of pain and hurt. Forgiveness means moving out of the shadow of pain and into the light of hope, love, vulnerability, and giving life and relationships another go. Indeed, forgiveness work is healing work.

When all of this work is completed, even the most painful and traumatic memories become simply memories that no longer have any hold over us. We have an awareness of what had happened and can recall images, but there is no emotion associated with them. All has been put to rest. We also get to keep all the wisdom and resilience gained, but are free of the negative effects. This reality helps us to forgive. The act and process of forgiveness is indeed part of our own Transfiguration that should be occurring as we work through our own Theosis. It is something we repeat throughout our life.  This world we live in is a fallen one. We will be bruised and hurt, so learning this work is essential.

About Fr. Joshua Makoul

Fr. Joshua Makoul has been serving as the Dean of St. George Cathedral in Pittsburgh since 2012. Before that time, Fr. Joshua worked in the Counseling Field for 16 years. This involved work in a family-based, school-based, and an outpatient setting. Fr. Joshua received two years of training in family therapy at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center and completed a one year certificate course in Cognitive Behavior Therapy at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. During his last six years working in a small outpatient group, he was supervised by Dr. Jesus Salas who supervises at the Beck Institute in Philadelphia. Fr. Joshua received his Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia and his Bachelors in Psychology from Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. He is licensed in the state of Pennsylvania for counseling. For seminary he attended Holy Cross Seminary in Boston and received an M.Div.

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