Letting Go and Letting God
about this article
This article explores the notion that forgiveness can restore a sense of balance within ourselves and our world. The five stages of forgiveness that are given would make for interesting discussion with students, as well as the rituals for letting go of anger.
*last name has been changed for this article
Bernie Fenton* never minded that his office overlooked a cemetery. In fact, he kind of liked it. He'd glance up from his desk now and then catching glimpses of friends and family members visiting their loved ones, planting flowers, saying prayers. There was a quiet, faith-filled rhythm to each day that he enjoyed.
At least that's how it was until that warm summer evening when his 18-year-old daughter was bludgeoned to death by her older sister's husband. After that, Bernie would sit for hours, staring out of the oversized window, looking down at his daughter's grave. Day after day, year after year, consumed by grief and rage, he sat and stared, no longer seeing the gentle actions of loving people, no longer sensing the faith or renewal of this pastoral setting. When Bernie died, friends said it was from a broken heart. And it probably was.
Unrelenting grief, a heart burdened with anger and revenge--these can place a terrible toll on our body, and on our psyche.
Thankfully, most of us will never face the kind of tragedy Bernie experienced. Still, one day we may find ourselves consumed by the depression or rage that often accompanies hurt and betrayal--from things in our past we're still holding onto or, in the years ahead, from accidents and events we believe today we could never, ever forgive.
"We never know what we can, or can't, forgive until we're faced with the actual experience," says Mercy Sister Beth Fischer. "Could I forgive someone who knocks me down and steals my purse? Maybe. I think so. I hope so. Could I forgive a deliberate or malicious breach of my confidence? I don't know. It's all very personal. Nobody can tell another person that they should forgive or presume to judge for someone else what's a forgivable act and what's not."
Some people harbor small grudges for a lifetime; others find a way to let go of the most horrific hurts and, in time, actually come to forgive the offender. Forgiveness means releasing the mind and heart from past hurts--from resentments to which we have a right--in order to move our own lives forward. Sister Beth sees the decision to forgive as an attitude of the heart, a restorative experience of grace and letting go. "Forgiveness asks us to see God in the other person, to open ourselves up to their humanness and to our own."
In many ways, how and why we forgive remains a mystery, more spiritual than science; more a leap of faith than one of logic. Theimportance of forgiving, however, is no mystery at all. In fact, the act of forgiveness is essential to our emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing. It restores our sense of balance and harmony, within ourselves and in the world.
Judy Robbins, MA, LPC is a licensed professional counselor who works as a holistic psychotherapist in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Many clients seek her out because they feel stuck in their lives. They want to move forward yet they can't. Something is in the way. More often than not, that something is a hurtful event that keeps calling attention to itself, throwing off their sense of balance and wellbeing. It may have happened last year, or 20 years ago; the person who committed the offense may not admit to any wrongdoing; that person may no longer be alive--none of that matters. What matters is the emotional charge still associated with the experience.
"So often," Judy explains, we equate letting go of these hurts with giving in, with losing. We think the other person has somehow won and gained control. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Holding on is what holds us back; it keeps us hostage. Forgive others and we are free of them."
When we refuse to let go of an abuse or hurt, we remain a victim of the experience. Our bodies are in a constant stateof tension. We feel slightly uneasy most of the time, with ourselves and with others. We may feel raw and vulnerable, unable to trust. We may become emotionally paralyzed, unable to make decisions or move our life forward. When resentment fills our heart, there's no room for anything else, we close ourselves off to all kinds of feelings and to potentially healthy relationships. Often we become ill. Our held-in resentment can result in depression, ulcers, high blood pressure and even bouts of rage. Letting go-- forgiving what we may have once thought was the unforgivable--is the first step toward our own wholeness and healing.
Judy and Sister Beth agree that when we begin the process of forgiveness it's for ourselves, not for our offender. The person we're forgiving may never even know--or care--that we're attempting to let go of our anger and feelings of revenge. It's also important to recognize that forgiving someone doesn't mean we have to invite them back into our lives. In fact, you may never want to see that person again. That's okay.
"Forgiveness," Judy explains, "is the finishing up of old business so we are free to experience the present without contamination from the past. From a psychological standpoint, forgiveness is a profound state of letting go. It doesn't mean we're condoning irresponsible, hurtful behavior or saying what the other person did is okay." Forgiveness doesn't require us to have a relationship with the person. And it doesn't ask us to forget what has happened.
"In fact," Judy explains, "We hear so much about forgive and forget, but I don't like the forget part. It takes away the lesson. Look at it this way: every moment that is not now is in the past. It's history. But we remember it. And isn't it important? Otherwise, we wouldn't know how to make ourselves an egg in the morning. So we don't want to forget what happened. We just don't want it to weigh us down."
Like any kind of healing, forgiveness is a process. It takes time. And patience. When we're ready, the first step is acknowledging that we've been wronged: yes, I am a victim. I have been hurt. I have been abused or stolen from or lied to. My child was hit by a drunk driver. My best friend has let me down. Ask yourself: what am I gaining by holding on? Does my resentment make me feel right or superior or somehow special? Does my pain serve as an excuse for my actions, or inactions? Then ask: what am I losing by holding on? My health? My relationships? My sense of peace and wellbeing?
The next step calls for discharging our deepest feelings of resentment and revenge. Get it all out; express the anger over and over again--how could she do that to me...she's a horrible mother...she was never there for me… I hate her...I'll show her...l'm a good person...I didn't deserve that kind of treatment. Every now and then stop and ask: is there more? Is there more? If there's more, keep discharging. Eventually, there will be no more. You will only be saying the same things over and over again. Some people accomplish this through rituals such as journaling, prayer or meditation. Some write letters that will never be mailed. Others talk out their feeling with a trusted friend or seek help from a therapist or spiritual director. Deliberate walking is another technique. With every step, you pound another piece of anger into the ground until your body finally begins to relax. Judy shares a ritual used by a young man who was terribly angry over things in his life: "He took this large length of twine and wound it around and around, all the time saying out loud exactly what he felt. He ended up with this big ball that he then took and threw into a nearby lake."
There's a saying, Letting Go and Letting God. This suggests that the actions of others--no matter how vile they may be--are not ours to judge. That job belongs to God. Our job is to find our way toward forgiveness. Once we've discharged the anger, or at least large chunks of it, the next step is finding room in our hearts for empathy. Without empathy, there can probably be no true forgiveness.
Sister Beth believes in the innate goodness of every human being. So does Judy. They say that embracing such a belief helps us understand and ultimately forgive the person who has hurt us. Let's take the example of a teenage boy mugging you in the park and stealing your money. You think: All people are good. So then you ask yourself: what could have possibly happened to this youth to make him attack me? Then you think, look where he lives. And how he lives. Maybe he thinks that was the only way to get what he needs. Maybe you decide to do some reading on troubled youths or watch a television program on the subject. Maybe this leads you to some type of volunteer work. As time passes, you begin experiencing a shred of empathy for this body. You'll never condone the action, and you don't want him in your life, but the anger has begun to leave. There's a piece of you that understands what brought him to this point in his life. Your empathy allows you to forgive his humanness and to let go of the anger that keeps you victimized.
If we really want to understand empathy, we have only to remember Jesus on the cross, looking out at his persecutors and taking us to the heart of their humanness with the words forgive them for they know not what they do.
"Forgiveness is never easy. But it's the best thing we can do for ourselves," Sister Beth says. "It brings healing and inner peace and allows us to experience renewed feelings of faith and gratitude. It takes a lot of courage and it brings us to a deeper place in our relationship with God and with one another."
Forgiveness means releasing the mind and heart from past hurts--from resentments to which we have a right--in order to move our own lives forward.
The Stages of Forgiveness:
- Feeling like a victim: When bad things happen, we feel like a victim; the incident makes us feel vulnerable and exposed. When we stay in this stage, we risk damage to our physical, spiritual and emotional wellbeing.
- Acknowledging and releasing anger: Holding in anger keeps us from moving forward in our lives. We can never truly forgive as long as we're harboring resentment.
- Deciding to forgive: The decision is always ours. Forgiveness is a process that takes time and patience and does not follow a linear path.
- Discovering empathy: Once we discharge anger, we can often find compassion for the people who have hurt us, even though we can never condone their actions.
- Letting go of the hurt and moving on: Ultimately, this is what forgiveness is all about. It is an experience filled with grace and courage. When the hurt finally has no power over us, we will feel a deeper connection with God.
Forgiveness by Sheila Cassidy
Lord teach me to forgive
to look deep into the hearts
of those who wound me,
so that I may glimpse,
in that dark, still water,
not just the reflection
of my own face
but yours as well.
Rituals for Letting Go of Anger:
acknowledgementsThis article was originally published in Mercy magazine, which is produced by the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. To subscribe ot to find out more about the Sisters of Mercy, visit their home page at http://www.sistersofmercy.org.
Published August 1, 1999.