A wise mentor once sat patiently while I told him about someone who offended me, and how that person refused to own up and apologize. I have no memory of the offender or their offense so many years ago, but I do remember feeling indignant. Instead of sympathy, the mentor showed little interest while I ranted. After a while, I stopped to ask whether he was interested in my story.
The mentor assured me he was interested, but not in my story. He said he was interested in my stance, however. He explained, "What I find so interesting is how many of your days, months or years you are ready to stand still waiting for an apology that may not come."
The mentor, sensing my annoyance at his suggestion for me to forgive and move on, became quiet to let the wisdom hunt for an opening in my mind. My mind was not making it easy. I did not want to forgive but I knew better than to argue with a wise man, so I resumed my rant.
Anyone who likes a good rant knows a sympathetic audience makes the rant feel righteous. Without sympathy from my mentor, my rant felt unsatisfying. I began to think how the person who wronged me pays nothing, yet I pay twice - once for absorbing the injustice they did to me, and I again for my time and energy to feed my indignation.
My mind started to open as I realized my campaign of indignation made no difference to the person who wronged me. Writer Anne Lamotte explains, "To wait in anger for someone to make things right would be like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die."
According to author and forgiveness guru Lewis B. Smedes, "to forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you." Although it is not the same as excusing an injustice or tolerating it, he says after the initial jolt and pain, "you will know forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well."
Forgiving a wrong might hurt like ripping a hook from our skin. Attached to the hook is a line, the other end of which is a place we do not want to go. If we unhook ourselves from things we cannot control, we can start to heal and go where we want to go.
Forgiveness has a powerful affect on our well-being. Psychology researchers find that forgiveness promotes mental wellness by increasing self-esteem, hopefulness, positive regard for other people and a greater sense of self-control. Forgiveness can also reduce levels of depression, anxiety and drug use. Interventions that promote forgiveness (of self and others) even may help reduce suicidal behaviors.
Forgiveness is an approach to others. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude. The freedom to move forward is a powerful experience worth the forgiveness it may require us to practice."
Editor's note: Brian D. Rendel, MA, LLP, LPC, NCC, is a professional counselor with the Copper Country Mental Health Institute in Houghton.