“To err is human…to forgive is divine” Alexander Pope (18th century English poet).
While it may not be that only the Divine can forgive, we know at least, that it takes a considerable amount of grace, effort and intentional will to do so. Research abounds identifying the many health benefits of forgiving. Yet, it remains a challenge for most people. Even when the desire is there, the process evades many.
Forgiveness tends to be a major issue with most couples seeking counseling assistance because it is an art seldom practiced well in our society at large, nor in many families. It is understandable, when injured, “the fight” or “flight” response kicks into place. We suffer an “amygdala hijack” – literally a primitive part of our brains is activated and under the influence of strong self- preservation brain chemistry and old patterns of neuron firing, we often react impulsively. However, we do have a front brain (the frontal lobe) that can learn new behavior and thinking to enable our cooperation with grace to develop the art of forgiving.
The frontal lobe helps us set goals and tasks for ourselves, to choose between appropriate actions, suppress unacceptable reactions and responses and determine the relationships between objects and concepts. Somehow, we need to connect to the front brain and yet many have great difficulty doing so initially…thus, it seems to forgive is divine. However, we have access to God, whose very essence is love, to aid our growth into learning this art of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a conscious decision, made for the betterment of the self, to keep one from staying stuck in the “victim” role. It also can be motivated by our genuine decision to love not only self, but also others, to cultivate virtue. We all “err” at times, and if we get close enough to anyone, we will discover this.
So, take a breath, first and really meditate on that truth. To err is human. We have different strengths and vulnerabilities. What is easy to achieve for some, is hard for others. Perhaps this is the divine design that helps us realize we are interdependent. We do need one another, and we, ourselves, need to be forgiven as well as to forgive others many times over, especially in our marriages and families and in our communities.
This understood, there is a whole and separate matter regarding reconciliation. Forgiveness does not necessarily equate with reconciliation, which may be discerned later. For example, a chronically abusive partner or parent who refuses help may be forgiven, yet a returning to the relationship in reconciliation is not feasible.
The steps to forgiveness can begin regardless of the choice of the one wounding us. Forgiveness does not equate with justifying the wrong or pretending it did not occur. It is rather, a gift one gives oneself, a freeing of the mind to be filled with what nurtures our souls versus what robs our souls.
I offer this process that has aided my own journey into learning the art of forgiveness.
We begin with calming the overactive or agitated mind, returning to our own center, Christ.
Step One – Breathe and connect
Take a literal breath and focus yourself to the fact that even in the reactive moment, you can pull aside and connect to your breathing and repeat a word or phrase (such as “Come, Holy Spirit, comfort my heart with your peace.”) to calm yourself. As you notice the breath, you can connect to the Source of that breath, your spiritual core, to God, to the One who forgives. Practice this awareness daily to loosen the hold of unforgiving thoughts that keep replaying the wound creates in the mind.
Step Two – Handle your feelings and thoughts in a safe way
When someone does something to hurt you, it is normal to experience deep, painful emotions. It is important to identify how the offense made you feel and then to express it. When the emotional intensity subsides enough even in the moment to notice what occurred, journal, draw or talk to a clergy, or other professional (preferably not a friend or family member for whom dual relationships may exist). Externalize your feelings and thoughts in a safe way. Identify them, and do not yet share with the person with whom you are having trouble forgiving. Wait until you are calmed, nonreactive and can share any challenges, (not as criticisms but rather as requests) if this is someone you will encounter again.
If you are struggling to forgive an offense that was done against you and find the deep, painful emotions are causing a negative impact on your health or other relationships, then consider counseling with a Catholic therapist to address the issues in a healthy and positive way.
Step Three – Examine your history
Determine not to retaliate overtly or covertly interacting with the person by whom you feel injured. Allow yourself enough time to examine where else in your history a similar feeling or event occurred. Identify to whom else this anger or resentment is directed. Is it possible some part, or at least the magnitude, of your feelings relate to some other old wound? If so, focus the anger where it really belongs, and even there, identify what needs to be done for you to forgive and heal, and not retaliate.
Step Four – Be honest and authentic
Make a conscious decision to be honest and authentic, but not to stay stuck dwelling on the incident over and over. Stay connected to doing what will heal you. You are not dependent on another’s response to forgive. Forgiveness is not about feelings, but choice.
- If you are fortunate enough to have someone offer to make amends, thank them and be honest about what would actually help you. Be specific and clear. Determine not to continue punishing them either directly or covertly with word or behaviors or even in your mind.
Step Five – Pray for the person!
I can’t recommend this enough. It is the key towards forgiveness. Practice daily praying for the person you are choosing to forgive. (Scripture, Compassion Meditation prayer, rosary, Jesus prayer, Divine Mercy.)
Step Six – Seek God’s Grace to Forgive
Ask daily, and sometimes moment by moment, for grace from God to forgive and how to cooperate with that grace. Make use of the Sacraments. Read daily Scripture or say a Catholic daily prayer, listen or watch Christian/Catholic music CDs and videos. Feed your soul with whatever provides spiritual food toward nurturing forgiveness. What we dwell on expands.
Step Seven – Reflect on Lessons Learned
Reflect on what you might have learned from the experience, to carry forward. What lesson is there to be learned for yourself? Or, as a couple? What else if anything, can you do to increase the likelihood of relational healing? God brings good even out of our failures.
“What should you say about them (your enemies) in your mind?
‘Lord be merciful to them, forgive them their sins, put the fear of God in them, change them!’
You are loving in them not what they are, but what you would have them to become.”
— St. Augustine
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