“But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. ~Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
This little gem in the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale is profound beyond words. As I sit with it, I scan my heart and soul for places I may be withholding forgiveness from someone.
As it relates to trauma and PTSD, I believe forgiveness is one of the most critical steps in our healing. It’s not a single act, either, but a process. Whether you are forgiving yourself or someone else, it rarely happens in one moment of mercy.
I began the process of forgiving the person who assaulted me soon after the attack. I’m not sure what led me to start working on forgiveness. I think it was a deep knowing that I would never heal completely if I didn’t get myself to forgiveness. I began to wonder what must have happened in this person’s life to lead them to a life of robbing and attacking others. I imagined the worst, and knew it was probably worse than I could imagine. It doesn’t excuse behavior, but it does explain it, and it got me started on forgiveness.
Since then, it’s been an ongoing process. I find that I can only forgive as much as I can in a given moment in my life. I have often felt “done” with forgiving. (There! Yay! All done!) Only to have something trigger my fear or anger again, which leads to bitter feelings, which leads back to another level of forgiveness to work on. I’m not consciously withholding forgiveness. I want to be complete in my forgiveness. But I can only forgive as much as I can in a given moment. And I’ve learned to trust the process and to trust that it will be complete some day. Perhaps even in another life. For there are, as in all our relationships, layers beyond our earthly understanding.
“Forgive others, not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.” – Jonathan Lockwood Hule
What is the cost of not forgiving? Besides delaying the healing of our spirits, there are physical and emotional side effects of withholding forgiveness. Valid science now affirms what spiritual paths have always taught. The only path to peace of mind is forgiveness. According to Johns Hopkins, “Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.”
We can all recognize the symptoms of harboring resentment, anger and fear. The thought that forgiveness calms our stress levels makes it not only appealing, but critical to moving forward. Haven’t we suffered enough without adding to our anxiety by harboring that ball of bilious bitterness?
To return to Margaret Atwood’s quote above, to withhold or bestow forgiveness is a great power. We can assuage someone’s guilt by forgiving them, or let them suffer, waiting for our forgiveness, wondering when it will come, if it will come. Often, when we withhold forgiveness, the person we’re not forgiving doesn’t even know we are embittered against them! So who is it hurting? Only ourselves. We bring on ourselves all those mental and physical side effects of not forgiving. And as difficult as it can be sometimes, we need to let it go. Not for them, but for us.
“All forgiveness is a gift to yourself.” ~A Course in Miracles, Lesson 62
There is great power in either bestowing or withholding forgiveness. But only one will bring us true peace.
So how do we do it? How do we forgive? We start by acknowledging that forgiveness needs to happen in order to heal. When I couldn’t think about forgiving, or felt too angry to start, I would pray for God to soften my heart. When I know I’m withholding forgiveness, I pray for God to guide my healing. Guiding my healing will inevitably lead me to forgiveness. And we must turn it over to the Divine, to the forgiveness expert! Daily, hourly if necessary. The Holy Spirit will take our hard spots and soften them, leading us to healing, gently guiding us to forgiveness – to peace. If we but ask.
“If we want there to be peace in the world, we have to be brave enough to soften what is rigid in our hearts, to find the soft spot and stay with it. We have to have that kind of courage and take that kind of responsibility. That’s the true practice of peace.” ~ Pema Chodron
You Are Still Beloved.