It was the year 1961 when John Lewis, now a legend of the civil rights struggle in the United States, received a brutal beating in a small town called Rock Hill. His attackers, all members of the Ku Klux Klan, beat him, along with his partner, leaving them abandoned in a pool of blood. His only "crime" was being African American and entering a white waiting room in a state where segregation prevailed.
Years later, in 2009, John Lewis received an unexpected visit to his office. Elwin Wilson, a former member of the KKK and one of the men who attacked him, apologized and asked him to forgive him.
John Lewis, who years earlier, in September 1990, had written in the New York Times that it was necessary to forgive George Wallace, a former governor of Alabama in favor of racial segregation, did the only sensible thing: he forgave his attacker.
It's a media story, but many ordinary people have also forgiven their attackers. These people were aware that forgiveness frees them too, gives them the peace and serenity they need to move forward. This experience teaches us that failing to forgive does not improve our life.
Forgive what cannot be forgotten
Sometimes, in life, we have situations that are difficult to forget. Heavy offenses or humiliations, things or even loved ones that took us away, punishments we did not deserve, loyalty betrayed… The list can be very long.
In these cases it is understandable that, during the early stages, we feel enormous frustration, resentment and even anger. During those moments of deep pain, we can't even think about the possibility of forgiving what we consider unforgivable. The simple idea of forgiving will generate immediate rejection because in our mind, the person who hurt us is in "debt" to us and we expect him to pay it.
However, if we feed those feelings, we will end up hurting ourselves a lot. We can't make the mistake of thinking that when we harbor a grudge, that pain will somehow reflect on the person who hurt us. Many people think that by hating their executioner, they are hurting him in some way. Obviously, it is a belief that reflects a magical thought; that is, an illusion with no real foundation.
In fact, harboring hatred and resentment is like swallowing poison with the hope that someone else will die. It means punishing ourselves, with the secret hope that this punishment, in some way, without knowing very well how or when, affects those who hurt us. Also for this reason, not being able to forgive can only increase our discomfort.
Forgiveness as an act of self-liberation
Paul Boese said that "forgiveness does not change the past, it widens your future". In fact, forgiving implies ending a relationship that is harming us, it means regaining control of our life.
The act of forgiving changes the relationship that began with harm, insult, or loss. When a person harms us he sneaks into our life and occupies our mind. If we do not move on, we will, in a certain way, always be linked to our executioner. Forgiveness implies breaking the dynamic that fed that relationship.
Therefore, forgiving is a way out of that transactional framework that limits our lives. When we were victims they took away our power, but the act of forgiving involves recovering it. As if we were saying: “You hurt me and I suffered a lot for this, but from this moment on you don't have any influence on my life anymore”, because the negative feelings and thoughts that we were experiencing and kept us connected, have vanished.
Forgiving does not mean justifying what happened, it means leaving the victim-executioner relationship. In fact, although we are all empathic with the victims, victimization is not useful as it ends up limiting the image we have of ourselves, our life story and our personal wealth. Many people have not been able to live fully because they have always played the role of victim and refused to forgive, remaining anchored in the past, together with their executioner.
Forgive when you are ready, but be prepared to forgive
Forgiveness takes time because when there is a loss or a major injury, there is always uncertainty, we don't see clearly what to do and we can't make sense of what happened. We feel pain, suffering and we are confused.
These emotions are spontaneous and natural, but sooner or later we must accept what happened and prepare to forgive. It is important to stay tuned to the evolution of our emotional state because feelings such as anger, hatred and a thirst for revenge can block our rational mind causing us to end up identifying with them.
This negative identification has a static nature, so emotions tend to stagnate over time, the wound doesn't heal, and we can't look forward, but we keep our gaze fixed on the past. At that point, we become slaves to bad luck and anger.
Therefore, forgiveness has its own rhythm. It is not necessary to violate it. But we also need to make sure we are working to heal the emotional wound.