Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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The Secret Called Forgiveness

The Secret Called Forgiveness… for the new year and the rest of your life


This article is my 2009 gift to everyone who's felt the bitterness and resentment of injustice, cruelty or maltreatment.  The "secret" is that forgiveness is for you, not for the offender.  The point of this article is not to condone the misdeeds of mean people, bullies or criminals.  The point of this article is to free you from your pain so that you can enjoy the rest of your life.   


Consider what Nelson Mandela said, age 72, after being released from 26 years of hard labor in prison confinement.  Resentment, he said, is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy!  Mandela didn't drink that poison, and he went on to assume a leadership role even when dealing with individuals who had imprisoned him unfairly.  You may want to emulate Mandela in your own life, rising above the confinement of your hurt and pain, rising to take a leadership role in improving your present and future life.


Consider another thoughtful quotation from Catherine Ponder: "When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel.  Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free."  Therapists call this kind of relationship between victim and victimizer an anger bond or trauma bond.  Even though your thoughts about the offender are angry or bitter, you still are wasting valuable time which could be spent on achieving happiness and enjoyment.  Forgiveness is a powerful assertion: "I will not be chained and enslaved by past injustice.  I will free myself from the bonds of pain and anger to enjoy happiness and peace in my life."


Now you may be thinking that a positive life sounds great, but "forgiveness"?  Your mind fills up immediately with confused or revengeful thoughts.  You mean you I should let the offender off

scot-free?  I should just forget this ever happened?  I should excuse cruel and abusive behavior?  I should just stuff my anger and hurt?  I should reconcile with the offender?  The answers are all No: No Way.  The offender has perpetrated unkind, abusive or criminal acts toward you.  Your attitudes or actions toward the offender will never change that reality.  You should speak the truth, "call a spade a spade," and stand up for the rights of victims.  You shouldn't remain in an abusive situation.  You must put the offense into your past and unburden your present and future from the oppressive stigma of victimization.


I wish our language had more than one word to exemplify the many faces of "forgiveness."  Most people believe forgiveness means condoning, minimizing or forgetting the injustice and victimization.  The core forgiveness concept I am advocating, however, is "letting go" or "transcending," rising above injustice, letting go of your preoccupation with the past, breaking your relationship with the offender in order to nourish and take care of yourself.  Most people feel that forgiveness is weak, even wimpy, not realizing that the forgiveness described in this article is an act of strength and courage, a declaration of independence from your role as victim and an investment in your future health and well-being. Yes, forgiveness is taking back your power, healing your hurts and moving on with your life.  Forgiving is gaining freedom from victimhood, rediscovering or finding a place of peace and comfort in your life.


You don't need anything from the offender, not even an apology.  While your sense of justice may feel satisfied with a punishment or apology, reality may not cooperate with your desires, especially not in a timely fashion.  When you wait for an apology, you give control of your feelings over to the offender, someone who wasn't or isn't kind or conciliatory or worthy of your respect.  When you wait for the justice system to mete out punishment, you often encounter long delays while you wait in frustration and despair.  Sometimes we fantasize that forgiveness will change the offender and perhaps will inspire gratitude and even reconciliation.  This is factually unlikely and again puts your future in the hands of the offender.


You've doubtless heard that "revenge is sweet."  Wouldn't it be wonderful if your offender got a "taste of his own medicine"?  Thoughts about the offender being humiliated or punished certainly cause a form of pleasure.  Aside from the fact that retaliation rarely occurs as fantasized, revenge preoccupations actually perpetuate the trauma bond.  Your thoughts will focus on your relationship with the offender instead of reconstructing your life.  Revenge is a poison that can destroy your  emotional freedom.


Forgiveness is actually pragmatic, a realization that you don't want to remain trapped in the past.  There is true wisdom in the "serenity prayer": to have courage to change what you can (yourself) and accept what you can't change (the past and the offender).  In my next article I'll continue my discussion of this concept with additional information and advice about achieving the condition I call forgiveness.


I usually end my columns with a joke.  While I couldn't find an appropriate forgiveness joke, there is some humor in the following: "Those who say they will forgive but can't forget simply bury the hatchet but leave the handle out for immediate use.”