Learning how to forgive yourself and others is a big step towards finding inner peace. Holding resentment and feelings of revenge will hold you back and hurt you more. And it will only have the desired effect if we can do it sincerely. That means that we truly forgive ourselves and others for what has happened. Forgiveness is under our control because it is an action we need to take. It stems from an opinion or value judgment we have set on a past event. This doesn’t mean that it is easy, but with practice, it will get better.
As you continue to read, we will examine what forgiveness is and how we can have the strength to practice it. It is also important to look at the consequences of not being able to forgive. And then we need to look at what it means when we do. To release the past and be more at peace in the present, we need to learn to let go. Letting go of things that we are ashamed of, are angry about, or any other emotion that is not productive. As we go through these steps, we need to remind ourselves that a part of forgiving is accepting and embracing what has happened. Only then can we be at peace with ourselves.
What forgiveness means
To get to the bottom of this, we need to understand what forgiveness means. Let’s look up a definition and start from there. So what is forgiveness?
“Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.”Greater Good Magazine
Using this explanation from the Berkeley Greater Good Magazine, we can see the words of Epictetus echoing here. He talks to us about what we can control and what is outside of our control. You can read more about that in my post; On What We Control. He divides it into two parts. The dichotomy of control looks at our thoughts, opinions, desires, and in short our actions. These are under our control. All the rest are externals and thus things we can’t control. When they say that forgiveness is a conscious and deliberate decision, we can see that this falls under our control. It is up to us to forgive and to make that choice.
Be kind to yourself
That doesn’t mean that it is something we can do like that. When we read the Stoics, they refer to the sage, the wise person. That’s not us, at least not me, as it takes practice and a lot of effort to learn to forgive. But we can look at certain steps to help us with the process. Instead of starting with the fact that we should know ourselves, which is important and we will get to. I want to start with kindness. We must keep this in mind as we continue to examine this subject.
Being able to be kind to oneself is the starting point of forgiveness. Sometimes we need to cut ourselves some slack. And this isn’t a free pass to skip over our past actions. No, we need to examine them. This is a reminder that we are human beings and that we make mistakes. It will also help our Ego to process the difficult things we encounter. Marcus Aurelius tells us something similar.
“That kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere—not ironic or an act.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 11.18 IX
Sincere forgiveness is key
He also focuses on the word sincere. If it is not sincere, there is no value to it. Then we are lying to ourselves and that causes even more harm. But if we learn to do it the way Marcus reminds himself, then we can become invincible. We can transfer the same thoughts from kindness to forgiveness. Without sincerity, we are fooling ourselves. True forgiveness is an act of making sure the Ego can release the opinions it holds on certain events and free itself.
This can be a scary process. It requires us to dig deep and deal with parts of ourselves that we have been avoiding for a long time. That’s when we need the virtue of Courage. To step into the cave and learn to feel our way to the core. To trust that we are strong enough to deal with the obstacles we will encounter. The longer we avoid these aspects of our past, the deeper they go into the hole. But then when we encounter them, we can see that they aren’t as bad as we thought. And if we keep in mind that we are human beings who make mistakes, we can learn to accept them. The power we get from confronting our past will make us grow as a person.
We’re not perfect
Once we learn to forgive ourselves, it will be easier to forgive those around us as well. When we see them as humans and recognize that we aren’t perfect, how can we expect that of others?
“Besides: do you think that I fall into evil voluntarily, and miss the good? Heaven forbid. What, then, is the cause of my going wrong? Ignorance.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1.26
Epictetus is showing us that people don’t do wrong out of want. It’s caused by ignorance and not knowing what the good action is. It’s not a deliberate action, although it might seem that way sometimes. The actions that can cause hurt and resentment, come from a place of false impressions. We must have compassion and show them the way.
Virtue is not a given
“But virtue only comes to a character which has been thoroughly schooled and trained and brought to a pitch of perfection by unremitting practice. We are born for it, but not with it. And even in the best of people, until you cultivate it there is only the material for virtue, not virtue itself.”Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter XC
Marcus Aurelius has shown us in his Meditations that we exist for one another and should instruct or endure, book 8.59. Seneca reveals something similar to Lucilius, with whom he had many correspondences. A virtuous life isn’t something that we get; it’s work. We need to study and get the proper instruction to cultivate it and put it into practice. We should remember this when we are being wronged or harmed by others. They lack the instructions to know how to act in accordance with Nature and lack the compass to be good. And if they aren’t willing to learn, then it’s up to us to endure them. Going back to the definition before where it said; “regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.”
They deserve our compassion and thus for us to forgive them. By doing so, we are playing our part and we are releasing ourselves from their burden. It’s up to them to realize that a life of resentment is not the way. And that the good life is theirs as well. When we can’t be their teacher, we can at least do our best to model the virtuous life. As not everyone deals with being told what to do in the same way. That’s why it’s important to remember how to instruct others and how to set the right example. This post, How to be an Example, will help you be better at it.
How to practice forgiveness
There are many ways to practice forgiveness. But it starts with deep introspection. To learn to see what it is that we need to forgive ourselves for. Where are these opinions coming from and what are the actions that have gone against our nature? If we remain ignorant of our errors, then growth is out of the question. The Ego needs to first accept that we are capable of making mistakes. Then we can examine them without judgment and apply reason to the situation. By turning them into a learning opportunity, we can take the sting out of the hurt we have felt.
Once we know the source, we will be able to look at what it is. First of all, it is a past event. Which means that it is gone. We are clinging to it because we haven’t processed it. We haven’t learned from it and are thus not able to move on. It’s there when we see whether we need to forgive ourselves or someone else. There are different techniques to help you with this. We can use journaling, meditation, talking to someone, or use exercises to help ourselves. I read about an interesting one called the empty chair. You can read this blog post by UnWanted Life to learn more about it, here. In the end it is up to you to experiment and find the method that works best for you.
Inward out, that’s the flow of the process of forgiveness. If we do it the other way around, then it will not be long-lasting. The resentment will only come back because we haven’t located the source. We need to let go of the victim mentality of asking why this has happened to us. Things happen to us because they do. It’s up to us how we deal with them. Accepting that events happen and that others might want to harm us, will help us see it in a different light. We should look at the hurt again. We decide whether we are hurt and by trying to harm us they are in fact harming themselves. Here we have Marcus Aurelius explaining it to us.
“Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 4.7
“If they’ve injured you, then they’re the ones who suffer for it. But have they?”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 9.38
Have they injured us? That’s up to us. Are they suffering for it? That’s not up to us. We don’t wish that on them, because it would mean we wish them to feel bad. That’s not showing sincere forgiveness and it isn’t how we should treat others.
To forgive is to love the self
In the end, forgiveness is about self-love. Showing kindness to what has happened in the past and how we see ourselves. If we can look at life with reason, let go of the past, and live in the present, then we can find peace. That’s what it’s all about. To live in accordance with nature and to be content with who we are. And remember, that forgiveness needs to be sincere. That’s why it is work and not a simple process. Examine the hurt, find its source, and let it go. But before you do the last step, you need to know why it injured you. We can’t remain ignorant. That is what keeps us from living the good life.