I’ve been thinking lately about the act of forgiving.
When I was about 10 years old, my father was in business in San Francisco. Like many immigrants at the time, he was not an educated man, having left school after the sixth grade, but he worked hard, and he accumulated a little money running an arcade during World War II. After the war, he invested his money in starting a new business as a wholesale distributor of electrical appliances. The timing was good, and he did reasonably well. Then he met someone whom he decided to take in as a partner, a sophisticated salesman with big ideas about how to expand the enterprise. My father was a bit in awe of him. For a while, things went very well, and the business was riding high. Then, his partner convinced him to engage in a business deal that turned out to be disaster. The losses piled up, and when the company that my father had built was about to collapse, the partner disappeared with the remaining assets of the company.
My father was devastated. Not only had he lost everything, but he felt completely betrayed by someone he had trusted. He had a family to support and he didn’t know what he was going to do. He developed a bleeding ulcer and was hospitalized.
He eventually recovered, and he started a new more modest business. However, he burned with hatred for the man whom he perceived had financially destroyed him. It took very little to trigger him into talking about what had happened, and when he did, you could see the rage come back.
He talked about finding him and getting his revenge, with his fists if in no other way. Once, when we were driving on a busy street, he abruptly pulled the car to the curb and raced out to confront someone on the sidewalk. He thought this person was the man, but he wasn’t. My father never forgave him, and he carried that anger for the rest of his life.
So, what would it mean to forgive someone who had clearly wronged you? Part of what is confusing about “forgiving” someone is that it sounds like you have to accept what he or she did as okay, when it clearly was not. But forgiveness should not be understood as condoning, agreeing with, approving, or making light of what has happened. Nor is it a statement that you want an ongoing relationship with the person who wronged you, although it may clear the air for a renewed relationship.
Forgiveness is an acceptance of what has happened. It is freeing yourself from the anger and the resentment that occupies part of your heart. Forgiveness benefits the forgiver by getting rid of the deleterious effects of holding onto anger and resentment. As my daughter said to me, resentment is a poison that you take in the hopes that someone else will die. My father had swallowed the poison, and his nemesis didn’t even know he was supposed to die.
How do I go about forgiving when all I can feel is that someone has wronged me, sometimes excruciatingly, and things didn’t turn out as I thought they should? I’ve found Fred Luskin’s book Forgive for Good useful. Healthy forgiveness begins by squarely acknowledging what happened and the anger and disappointment that are always part of the reaction. I can’t let it go until I acknowledge that it is there. Telling a trusted friend about it would be helpful, or even better, telling the person who wronged me. There was some hope that I had for the situation that was thwarted. In my father’s case, he was hoping to get rich by partnering with someone he thought was brilliant, and so he not only lost money, but his hope was crushed.
Then comes something more difficult, accepting that the hope I may have had for a situation was not a right. Luskin calls it not trying to enforce unenforceable rules. If I do this, then I should be entitled to that. Life isn’t predictable, and people are imperfect. We take personally the failings of people’s character or their clumsiness, or insensitivity or cluelessness. Maybe I wanted a good relationship that would last forever, but the other person didn’t have the same ideas about what that means. It doesn’t make a wrong okay, but often it isn’t personally directed to hurt me.
Even more difficult is accepting my part in what went wrong. Forgiving is very difficult if I contributed to the problem. In my father’s case, he trusted someone he barely knew, because he wanted to believe that this person was the doorway to big success. He had no controls to prevent someone from embezzling from him. Surely that doesn’t excuse what his partner did, but it contributed to what went wrong. It was much easier for him to see the problem as being entirely with the other person.
Next comes looking at what holding onto the continuing anger costs me. Carrying around anger, resentment, or sadness is bad for health. Do I want what someone else did or did not do to have that kind of power over me? Forgiving means acknowledging what happened, realizing that we can’t go back and change it, and moving on. It allows me to accept what has happened as finished and to focus my attention on the things that are more important to me.
It may mean accepting a relationship as imperfect but still important to me, or it could mean that I will not put myself in the same position again. However, I am not going to hang onto the pain of replaying the memory and stir up the feelings of anguish in the future. It is letting go of a weight that gets in the way of the good things in my life. It means taking charge of what I choose to pay attention to.
I realize that it is easier to talk about forgiving than to do it, particularly if someone has caused real damage, or if what has happened is a random event that deprived me of something that I value. However, the fact is that once some time has passed, the person who needs to forgive is probably paying a much higher price than the one that needs to be forgiven. That should be the motivation to determine that we are not going to let the resentment take up our lives.
Forgiveness has special importance for us over 65ers in at least two ways. First, it’s a “normal” part of aging to reflect on the past. This may involve reflecting on disappointments and wounds accumulated during a lifetime. Resentment about these injuries can poison the last phases of life. Second, if we vent our resentment on family members or friends, we can leave behind a legacy of hate. That’s not a good way to cap off a life.
Al Martin, M.D., 75, is a former associate professor of medicine at University of California San Francisco Medical Center and Chief Medical Officer of Blue Shield of California. He writes a blog, Age with Spirit.