We tell people all the time that we have forgiven them, but the truth is, in most cases, we haven't really done so. If we say we have forgiven people but we harbor any resentment, any thought of how badly they treated us, then we are hanging onto a harsh judgement about them, we are bringing the past into the present, we are reinvesting in our victimhood, and, therefore, we have not really forgiven them. -- Dr. Walter E. Jacobson, "Forgive To Win"
Last night when I was lying on the floor working out with my 10-pound hand weights, unbeknownst to me, my dog Mac walked up behind me and stood directly in the path of an ascending weight and got whacked on the head. He stood there dazed for a moment as I apologized profusely. Then he looked at me with those amazing big brown puppy-dog eyes, wagged his tail, licked me on the face, laid down and took a nap. He didn't spend even one moment off in another room pouting or trying to lay a guilt trip on me. My human nature interpreted that as his way of saying "I forgive you" because a half-hour later we were out in the yard playing with Mr. Frisbee as if nothing had ever happened. I believe that is because, in his mind, nothing did happen -- he had totally forgotten the experience of being bonked in the head because he was busy exploring the possibilities to play which the current moment held.
There is a great lesson here for those of us who do tend to hold onto resentment from past hurtful experiences, be them five minutes or five years ago. Dealing effectively with the negative energy of resentment seems to be a skill at which most humans are still working to get a handle on. Medical studies have proven that long held resentment is toxic and damaging to our physical and emotional well-being. In other words, the energy of resentment eats away at our minds, our bodies and the body of our relationships. Given this knowledge, why would anyone want to hold on to resentment regardless of how justified it may be?
This is not to diminish the fact that many of us may have legitimate reasons to be angry toward another person ... and this is also not to say that we can't be victimized by other people. However, remaining a victim by clinging to past resentment is a choice we make. No doubt, people do thoughtless, harmful and even cruel things to each other. However, stop and think about it: Does holding onto resentment serve you in a positive, life-affirming way if it is slowly poisoning you? In many cases, the people we hold in resentment don't even know or care, or worse yet, some of them have long been in the grave but we are still allowing them to hold us hostage to the past.
Here is a litmus test to determine if you have really forgiven someone or not:
- Think of the person or incident you believe you have forgiven and do a quick scan of your emotions and just sit with the thought of them for a moment.
- Is there any residue of resentment lingering in your mind and heart as you hold an image of that person?
- Does the memory drag you out of the present moment and into the past where you then relive the experience with the negative emotions playing in an endless loop?
If you answered is yes to the above questions, you are not yet complete in your forgiveness and there is more work to be done.
Begin by realizing that forgiving doesn't mean we are condoning the actions that evoked our resentment -- it means we are willing to set ourselves free from the past by not "resending" future toxins of resentment through our mind and body. As I have often said, forgiveness doesn't necessarily mean forgetting: We may always have memories attached to some of our emotional wounds in much the same way we have scar tissue from a physical wound that happened long ago. The practice is to sever the emotional strings that bind us to the past memory by remembering that a memory is just a thought until we assign a feeling to it. Severing the emotional tie to a past experience does not discount the impact of the experience -- it simply sets us free from being a victim of it in the future.
If there is anything I have learned from teacher Mac this week it is this: Things happen to all of us that cause pain, often by accident, sometimes by thoughtless people with malevolent intent. In either case, holding onto resentment about what has happened only keeps us stuck in the past where we are powerless to create anything new in the present. "Stuff happens" that we may or may not have control over, but the one thing we do have absolute control over is the choice to remain a victim of it or move on to where a life of infinite possibilities awaits us in the present moment. Forgiveness is the key that opens the door and you hold that key in your hand in this and every holy instant.