December 2015

Forgiveness: Discover a life-changing resolution

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

After all the New Year’s glass clinking, off-key singing and midnight kisses, our thoughts typically turn to self-improvement. When the ball drops on December 31 (or the next day when the hangover wears off), most of us wipe the slate clean and start fresh with a brand-spanking new intention to revise a few habits or do better in some regard. Unfortunately, throughout history, the most common annual resolutions lose their allure faster than a sleepover date you don’t recognize at dawn. If you have a record of failed resolutions (or fuzzy one-night-stands), it may be time to stop disappointing yourself.

What if, this year, instead of vowing to shrink your body, bulk up your muscles, tighten your financial belt or clean out your closet, you could keep one resolution that is guaranteed to shape up your soul? Believe it or not, the key to better health and greater happiness lies in the simple (or not so simple) act of forgiveness.

A personal power surge
Much like Ben Franklin with his kite and key, I discovered the power of forgiveness in the midst of a storm. Although I didn’t set out to prove a theory, God or the universe set me stumbling down the path of necessity, which is where I’ve learned most of my most valuable life lessons. It began when I checked into an outpatient surgery center for a relatively commonplace foot surgery and came out with a painful and permanent nerve injury. I didn’t know the extent of the problem right away, and my first reaction to the diagnosis was denial. Despite being told by numerous physicians and therapists that there was no cure or “fix,” I was sure I would defy the odds and get well.

About six months later, reality came bolting out of the sky, and a torrent of anger, bitterness and despair drowned my hopes. I consulted medical specialists and attorneys from coast to coast, looking, I thought, for justice. But schlepping all over the country only to hear the same bad news, “There’s nothing we can do,” and “We know something went wrong, but we can’t prove what or why” left me feeling worthless and dismissed.

And then I met a doctor in Napa, California, a renowned pain management specialist. Peering at me from behind a surgical mask and poised over my foot with a syringe, he said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could just say, ‘I’m sorry’?”

In a display of kindness rarely experienced in a clinical setting, this brilliant physician had done what no one else dared to do: He acknowledged my pain—not only the physical kind, but the kind that rumbles in your heart like thunder and sits on your chest like an anvil. What he offered was a soothing balm far more potent than the medicine his needle delivered—a megadose of validation and compassion.
With a wink and a nod to my bravery (apparently, not everyone can take a shot between the toes without coming off the table!), he went on to suggest that I invest my time and energy into researching newer, more innovative therapies instead of seeking the apology I would never get. He armed me with information and referrals and sent me home with a new attitude.

That was the day I held court in my heart. Instead of pursuing a long, complicated lawsuit, I decided to forgive my doctors, even if they were not willing to admit their mistakes. And so I began crafting a letter. When I finished it, several months later, I concluded that it no longer mattered exactly what went wrong or whose fault it was. I reminded myself that the physicians and nurses did not arrive at work that day with any intention to do harm. I won’t lie and say that this closure came easily or quickly. Letting go took months of deep reflection and many tears over the shattered pieces of my life. But what has emerged is a gradual acceptance and genuine sense of peace.

In the end, I didn’t need an envelope or a stamp; the letter has lived on my desktop for the past three years. Today, I deleted it. You see, forgiveness is a choice to move on.

Who are you mad at today?
Has someone angered or hurt you? It doesn’t matter if it happened 50 years ago or five minutes ago, if you’re still holding a grudge or walking around with a bee in your bonnet, you are not living your best life.

In his book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom wrote, “Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from the inside. We think that hating is a weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do, we do to ourselves.” He also points out that “in order to move on, you must understand why you felt what you did, and why you no longer need to feel it.”

The antidote to the poison, of course, is forgiveness, which isn’t always easy to swallow. When it comes to forgiving others, one of the most humbling thought processes is a review of our own mistakes and failures. Start by untangling your personal web of regret, acknowledging imperfection, poor judgment and hurtful words or deeds of the past. Self-forgiveness doesn’t mean you are free from the consequences of your actions, but the consequences don’t have to include a lifetime of guilt and shame.

In a similar way, forgiveness of others does not mean denying the pain or dismissing the consequences of someone else’s actions. It simply means you are no longer willing to carry the burden. In some cases, you may want to set boundaries or put some distance in the relationship to help prevent the person from abusing you further. And in certain situations, you may need to completely cut ties with the other party. However, some relationships are worth saving; many times, a gesture of forgiveness can open the door of communication and possibly mend and even strengthen the bond.

Motivational author Louise Hay explains how it works: “Forgiveness has nothing to do with condoning behavior. It’s just letting the whole thing go. We do not have to know how to forgive. All we need to do is be willing to forgive. The universe will take care of the rest.” 

How to Write a Forgiveness Letter
Putting your thoughts in writing may be just the therapy you need to air out festering wounds and bring healing and closure. Here’s how:

Let it fly
Spew out all the venom. If you are angry or resentful, say so. Take your time. Get down to the nitty gritty and don’t hold anything back. When you are finished, shred or burn this copy and bury the remains as a symbol of release. The healing has already begun.

Start over
Begin by accepting responsibility for any role you may have played in the misunderstanding or whatever has happened to damage the relationship. Resist the temptation to play the victim or lay all the blame on the other person. Express any smidgeon of regret or remorse you can muster and ask for forgiveness. It could be as simple as “I’m sorry I raised my voice” or “Please forgive me for my silence.” Be sure to put a period at the end of those statements and refrain from the “but….”

Next, forgive the other person using specific terms. “I forgive you for _______ (name what you are willing to forgive). Stay sincere and avoid sarcasm. This is the meat of the letter and where the deeper healing happens. You cannot rush. It may take days, weeks, months or even years to purge your anger and replace it with love, compassion, understanding or, at the very least, acceptance. End on a positive note with a wish for the best.

Revise and wait
Save your work for a minimum of seven days, allowing your thoughts to marinate. Go back and revise as needed, softening the words until they reflect full and genuine forgiveness. Your letter is now finished. Mail it, tuck it away or destroy it—your choice. The release is in the process, and you should be feeling much lighter already.

Forgiveness is what we do for ourselves….

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