Forgiveness... When you think of that word, what comes to mind? Do you break into a cold sweat at the mere thought of it? Do you see yourself as the one doing the forgiving, or are you more comfortable on the receiving end? We live in a broken world badly in need of mercy and grace. Forgiveness is one of the roads to becoming a more compassionate person; in fact, it is a major artery to the path of lovingkindness. Without forgiveness, there can be no true connection between us, no real sense of communication. Every day, in every way, we must practice forgiveness in order to co-exist with others and to become all that we were created to be.
Have you ever met a bitter, angry person who insists that he or she will never forgive someone for what they have done? I've come across a few in my lifetime, and I can safely say that I don't envy those persons. Bitterness is like a cancer of the soul, growing and festering underneath the surface of a person's character. It too often rages out of control, poisoning relationships and preventing any sense of joy in life. Unlike cancer, however, there is a cure. It is in forgiveness that such toxic emotion is dissolved and a person is restored.
How does one go from being bitter to forgiving, especially when everything seems to point to an understandable reason for such hostile feelings? Indeed, the effort required in many cases seems supernatural. It is only in the realization that we ourselves have been forgiven many times over that we can apply this same grace to others. When we begin to see others as fallible people like ourselves, then we can patiently look beyond their faults and refuse to become wounded by them. We can stop taking things personally and start seeing the actions of others for what they are -- responses from imperfect people who oftentimes don't even think about what they are doing or the effects their actions will have.
I once read about a famous author who lived with her sister for a time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. She and her sister were tortured, deprived of food and medical help, and treated as if less than human. Ultimately, she witnessed the death of her sister at the hands of a particular prison guard. Years later, after she herself survived the camp and was rescued, she encountered the prison guard at a book signing. He extended his hand to her, but she could not find it within her to reciprocate in any such act of goodwill. It was only through the grace from above that she was able to reach out and shake this man's hand, and in doing so, make forgiveness the reality that set her free to experience peace in the midst of her painful memories.
Hopefully, up to this point, you've been able to see the value of forgiving others so that you improve your own dealings with those who are important in your life. But what about forgiving yourself? Why does this seem to be such a hard thing? We are our own worst critics, oftentimes harder on ourselves than we are on others. Feelings of guilt and shame sometimes prevent us from giving ourselves permission to be less than perfect, but the truth is that we don't always do things right. Instead of beating ourselves up for what we didn't do, we need to accept our failures, forgive ourselves, and move on.
A few years ago, we had to euthanize our beloved cat. She had been a wonderful part of our family for eight years, and her absence is still felt to this day. I was her primary caretaker and considered myself responsible for her well-being. When she got sick and was obviously suffering, I tried all I could to make her better. I took her to the vet, but the news was not good. She would probably not make it, and I began to blame myself for not taking good enough care of her. It was during the holidays, and I was busy with family plans, not paying much attention to our pet. I felt that it was my fault that she had taken ill. After all, she depended on me to see to it that she was given a healthy life, and I was too distracted by celebrating with friends and family to do a good job taking care of her. When she had to be put down, I felt like it was me who was accountable. I couldn't forgive myself for a long time, and so, I suffered as well. It was not until I finally heard what the vet and several of my close friends said to me that I began to forgive myself. They told me that it was not my fault. Things happen. Over time, I could see the wisdom of that, and quit seeing myself as my cat's executioner.
Just think of how different the world would be if everyone could get forgiveness, give forgiveness, and appreciate the love and mercy that comes in putting that into practice. This "F" word is one that everyone ought to make a permanent part of his or her vocabulary, and of which to develop a daily habit. If that happens, I can assure you that your relationships with others -- and your inner peace -- will be greatly changed for the better.