How to forgive others and change yourself

Piotr Chmielinski

I will never forgive you!, shouts a woman to the man who deeply hurt her. Her hurt is so serious that it seems unforgivable. Yet, we all are called to forgive people. How to do it?
Harm is part of our human existence. If you expect that you will never get hurt in your relationships you are naive. Man, changed by the original sin, is inclined to evil and doing harm to others. Naturally, he himself gets hurt. Therefore, each of us, sooner or later, will have to face the experience of harm, the necessity to forgive and to reconcile with the wrongdoer.

Forgiveness precedes reconciliation

Forgiveness is a difficult process. Since forgiving we must lose something: what the evildoer owes to us. By harming us he is indebted to us. And as a debtor he has some obligations and we have certain advantage over him. A loss of the debt automatically means losing this advantage. However, it is worth giving up the debt and forgiving. Since the lack of forgiveness is very destructive. ‘Firstly, unless we forgive and reconcile with others our experiences of harm will be repeated and we will not get free of our pain, fear and confusion. The lack of forgiveness brings about bitterness, which leads to some illness, sometimes even a serious one’, explained Dr Wieslawa Stefan, a therapist, during one of the sessions on relationships. However, forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. ‘Forgiveness precedes reconciliation and constitutes an indispensable condition to build true unity and agreement between people. Reconciliation can only be built on mutual forgiveness – offering forgiveness should be connected with its acceptance’, writes Fr Jozef Augustyn, a Jesuit, in his book entitled ‘Bol krzywdy, radosc przebaczenia’ [Pain of Harm, Joy of Forgiveness]. Forgiveness means an inner act to which we need the second person. We simply decide to forgive all the trespasses of our wrongdoers. We should not bother what they will do with the act of forgiveness. It does not depend on us. We forgive them. Therefore, the statement that forgiveness has sense only when the second party admits his/her responsibility for the committed evil is wrong. Forgiveness always has sense, regardless of the attitude of the other party. But in order to reconcile the involvement of the other party is necessary. Without it one can hardly speak of reconciliation.

It is necessary to touch your wounds

Forgiving your wrongdoer is a process. It consists of a few stages that are very important and none can be omitted. Making some shortcuts means the danger of failure. Firstly, you should realize what your harm is. You must see it and define it precisely. What exactly harmed you, what words, gestures and behaviours? What did I feel then? It is important since we often push our deepest wounds into our unconsciousness. We continue living as if there has been no harm and nothing has happened. And actually we could not remember the harm at that moment. In the process of forgiveness we must touch these wounds, regardless how painful they are. To forgive does not mean to forget the experienced harm! It rather means to heal the wound, which we can remember all the time but if we recollect it, it does not cause pain any more and it is not a tinderbox. Secondly, you should tell someone about your feeling of harm. It would be best to tell someone you trust, someone who can hear such a confession: a psychologist, a spiritual director or a friend. Mrs Wieslawa Stefan, a family therapist from Wroclaw, advises to write letters to your wrongdoers. They should not contain any evaluation or judgement but should name the harm, define when it happened and what its consequences are. An example of such a letter directed to a mother, ‘Mother, you did not hug me, did not let me sit on your laps, did not kiss me. And today I do not feel worthy of love.’ A daughter wrote it. And a son can write, ‘You did not hug me, did not show any tenderness, love and warmth. And today I am trying to embrace every woman but I cannot stay in any relationship.’
‘Writing such a letter’, explains Wieslawa Stefan in her book ‘Uzdrawianie relacji’ [Healing Relationships], means ‘cleaning the wound’ and then we face pain. But it is good to feel this pain because when I let myself feel it I begin being healed. I must name my harm, say what its consequences were and add that I am writing this to forgive and reconcile with them. It is important that writing to your parents as wrongdoers you should also write about some good things that your father and mother have done for you.’

Each medal has two sides

The third stage of forgiveness is to have a new look at the whole situation and to see the other side. Since every medal has two sides and every stick has two ends. We should notice our responsibility in our situation of harm. Naturally, it does not concern these hurts where we were victims of some obvious evil. It is worth seeing a given situation from all angles. And to understand the other person. Why did he or she behave like that? For example, why did he/she drink and beat the family members? Or why did he/she run away, leaving family without any means? It can occur that he/she reacted just the way he/she knew. He beat because his own father beat him and he ran away since he could not bare the responsibility any longer. Of course, the things do not justify his/her behaviour. But it is easier to reconcile when we try to understand the other person’s situation. But it should be done only in this stage!
The fourth stage is the key one. You should ask yourselves ‘Do we really want to forgive?’ It can happen that we do not want to forgive and it makes no sense to force the process of forgiveness. But another situation is also possible. We can really want to forgive but we cannot do that. We go through the process, step by step, but nothing happens. This is a very valuable experience showing that forgiveness is God’s grace, the grace we should pray for. Naturally, God does not refuse this grace to anyone. But not everyone is ready to accept the grace. And if someone says that he cannot forgive it actually means that he or she is not opened to receive the grace of forgiveness. The decisive factor is your will to forgive and a request to God to give you the grace so that forgiveness becomes possible. Then you can hope that forgiveness comes sooner or later.

To forgive yourself and to forgive ... God

We all are called to forgive. But we should not only forgive other people. To make forgiveness complete you should forgive yourself and ... God. We can be astonished that we must forgive ourselves and especially forgive God. Let us begin with forgiving ourselves. Why is it so important and what exactly should we forgive ourselves? It is hard to forgive others if you do not forgive yourselves. Therefore, it is good to see what we blame ourselves for, why we are not satisfied with ourselves. Perhaps we set up our ideals on a high level and we cannot fulfil them at all, which causes continuous frustration. Perhaps we had great ambitions but we failed. We wanted to have a house with a garden and children but we have a small flat and only one child. And we cannot ensure good education for our child... Or we wanted to bring up children in a family but we bring it as single parents after being divorced. Or we dreamt of travelling all over the world but as a result of some accident we are on a wheelchair and we even cannot go shopping. And perhaps we have hurt others in some way? Now we should forgive ourselves for all these things. We should follow similar stages of forgiveness. It is also important to reconcile with God. God has not harmed us in anything. On the contrary, he is pure love; he created us out of love, saved us out of love and wants only our good. However, we blame him for various things; we express our grief, anger, wrath and even hatred. It is worth analysing, naming and expressing our feelings. Perhaps we feel anger towards God for our unsuccessful lives, serious diseases, strict parents, evil spouses, and ungrateful children... or for being unable to have children or getting married. We should express all these things before God at prayer and ask him for the grace to understand them and to reconcile with him. And it is worth writing a letter to God, ‘It is good to write to Lord God about our anger towards him even if it seems to us that today we do not feel it. We might have many a time shouted at God «Where are you, why do you let so much evil happen to me? Do you exist at all? Do I really exist for you?» Lord God can accept all things and he can accept this anger when we tell him about it. He will free us from it’, writes Wieslawa Stefan.

"Niedziela" 10/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: