They say to forgive others, if not for them for you. This is so you won’t have to bear resentment into the future. The secondary benefit of letting someone off the hook is just a bonus. It’s higher-self stuff.
Whatever anger or frustration or disappointment a situation causes, failing to get past it maintains those feelings indefinitely. There they lurk in the shadows of our minds, influencing us in ways we cannot tell. It’s hard to measure the effect your lack of forgiveness has on others; its effect on you is assured.
We are born with a sense of justice; however, it is imprecise and fallible, having been personalized as we live. My sense of justice and yours might be significantly different, though we probably embrace morality themes somewhat similarly.
Under threat we look around for allies. If we find none, our defense systems will dump cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream. Eventually, if the menace is unresolved, we may collapse into powerlessness.
When our sense of justice is transgressed, it is natural to use anger as a punisher to correct things. Anger will raise your shoulders, bring your facial muscles taut, tighten the spine and abdominals and leave you in an elevated state of readiness.
Powerlessness is a cousin of depression. Hopelessness is its permanent form.
Fritz Perls of Gestalt fame asked why carry around a gunny-sack of anger? If you allow it in general, he said, soon your sack will become heavy and unwieldly.
Anger takes a toll on your beliefs, your body and your happiness; meanwhile, your list of perpetrators may feel nothing. Or at least, nothing you can be sure of.
It’s too easy to trap ourselves into a never ending loop of unfinished business.
I have not yet encountered a situation for which forgiveness did not help or was unwarranted. I have seen plenty of harm in my days. I have sinned and been sinned against.
A time may arrive when I will not be able to forgive. Intentional harm of my loved ones would be a hard one to shake. For all concerned, I hope it never happens.
There is great relief to be had in forgiveness. It can feel like a 180 degree turn, from anger to resolution in one key decision.
The body, once tense, relaxes; the mind, once pre-occupied, is freed; the knots in the belly dissipate; fear is replaced by courage; where there was darkness now shines with the light of love.
But what if you are not called to forgive but instead, to seek forgiveness?
What if you are willing to prostrate yourself on the altar of truth and admit your wrongdoing? Abandoning an untenable position—and its thoughts and feelings—is itself a great relief.
They say Canadians apologize as a matter of course, as a matter of pride even. I’m not sure if this is truly our culture. If it encourages people to apologize more, I’m all for it. Count me in.
I resisted for a long time how much to apologize and when. Now, if there’s a possibility of my being in some kind of error, I say sorry, albeit, maybe imperfectly.
Apologies are like insurance you take out on friendships: from little ones oft said to big ones where we were really out of sync, contrition is a key skill.
It’s free to be nice, I like to say. It’s also free to apologize: freeing for us both.
Letting an opportunity to apologize pass you by can be tragic. Tragic I say.
Then it is not so much anger that uses up your energy, rather regret.
Who are these people who profess to live life without regret?
Is it wishful thinking or I am I doing it all wrong? (which is quite possible). I don’t regret waking up in the morning, each day is an opportunity to learn and serve.
But regrets? I’ve had a few. So goes the song.
How could I not? I have some lasting most of my lifetime. Too numerous to list here, I’ll save you the tediousness of my confession. Undoubtedly, you have your own to consider, or try and forget.
AA’s Big Book has been around a while. I have an old beat up copy gained when I attended Spofford Hall in New Hampshire in the 1980s for heroin and cocaine addiction. Its pages are filled with handwritten encouragement from my fellow travelers. Reading it now, I realize they saw in me potential when I saw little in myself.
I’m not an AA member and don’t attend meetings. I may never drink again because I realize I don’t drink socially in any regular way. I may drink tomorrow. The inclination to over-drink is instilled in me deeply, like never forgetting how to ride a bicycle.
Say what you like about the “program,” as it is known. It has helped a lot of people turn from a spiral of self-destruction to leading fulfilling lives.
Its message is straightforward: give up booze, face the facts about yourself, ask for help, make amends to those you have harmed, admit when wrong and repeat as necessary, and serve others as a path to spiritual enlightenment.
Steps numbers 8 and 9 are key endeavours: 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. 9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Long before Gestalt Therapy and the popularized version of unfinished business, Dr. Bob, Bill W. and cohorts realized how critical addressing old stuff we carry around was, as a building block to effective living.
I think attachment is our greatest psychological need. Our emotions are set carefully in youth by the quality of our connection to others. As we age, patterns from those early years can really screw things up.
And if not right away, maturity and personal growth can eventually sober one’s perspectives. Sometimes that means living with more than a little regret.
The idea of reaching out to someone and taking responsibility without expectations is a powerful way to empower your sense of self. As simple as saying, “I realize I was wrong, you were good to me and I fucked it up. Sorry. ”
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible. People move away, we lose touch, they die. Even if alive, they may not be interested in opening old wounds.
It’s good to remember that we forgive first for ourselves.
In the same way, making amends is done to clear our own side of the street first. Should it benefit someone else, great. That’s ideal. But it’s not always necessary, nor is it possible or even likely.
Successfully forgiving yourself cannot be predicated on the acceptance of another. That’s too shaky a ground upon which to build your new construct. But keeping this idea of redressing past wrongs as a guiding principle, every once in a while it’ll pay off.
I moved back to Ottawa last year to be near my ailing father. Of course, I can barely drive down a street in most of the old city without being triggered in one way or another. Circumstances and faces impose themselves on my mind, often like mini-episodes played at high speed as I drive by.
I found an old business partner of mine from the early 80s through LinkedIn. We met for lunch. I apologized. All he said was “don’t worry about it; we were all fucked up back then.”
That’s it? Damn it, I carried that guilt for 35 years for fuck’s sake.
Now I see him weekly, went up to his cottage with my kids. Or I meet him and his grand kids either here at my farm or at one of those indoor playgrounds.
I’m privileged to advise him on business, a modern version of something we were working on way back. He closed me on that one by saying, “Isn’t it about time you came back and finished what you started?” He had me there.
As a teenager, at one point I lived collectively with others at 165 Laval Street in Vanier. It was a drop-in for many a runaway in the North-East end of the city. We sold hashish and other recreational drugs while attending every rock concert available. There I met a beautiful young gal who became a good friend. Through her, I met her brother.
Pat was a few years older than me and he became a stand-in for my own brothers. I did a lot of that back then, recreating my family of origin, sometimes with consequences I hadn’t thought of. Pat was good to me. And we partied like rock stars, though, unlike me, he kept a job and even had a car.
At one point, I was torn between two groups of friends, allegiance to Pat and his sister on one side, to my current peer group on another. Something went down and I was forced into a quandary. I hadn’t the finesse to negotiate the divide. We lost touch and never addressed things between us. It wasn’t even my fight.
For over 40 years I have carried the regret of having chosen wrong. It has eaten at me a bit, knowing I was weak when I should have been strong.
It’s one thing to live this way, despising the self at some level, and being able to escape identity by drinking and drugging yourself regularly into oblivion. When this option is removed by choice, what remains is wistful regret.
Pat’s a pretty masculine guy as I remembered him. I held out little hope of ever contacting him through social media. In the ten years I’ve been on Facebook, I have searched for him occasionally to no avail. Something made me try again recently by looking for his sister first. I scored a possible hit.
In 40 years people’s faces and bodies change so I fired off a message that read:
“Not sure if I’ve got the right person. Are you the Pat I once knew in Ottawa when I was a scared kid all messed up on drugs? If it’s you, I’d like to apologize. You were good to me and I was careless and more than a bit of an asshole with that precious friendship. I’ve always regretted those times. I was in a loyalty conflict and didn’t have to balls to stand up for myself or our friendship. If that’s your sister, she was also always a doll with me. I was simply too screwed up to trust anyone. I apologize to you both. Best wishes. CW”
To my surprise, after a few days he answered right on my wall.
“Hey well never thought I’d hear from you again Chris. I hope your well. We will be in Ottawa soon for the big party. Hope we are able to talk. Nice to hear from you.”
Well that was too easy. Decades of self-loathing at stake and he says nice to hear from you? Where are the recriminations? What about at least agreeing I was an asshole? How many ways can I help you tell me off?
Instead, nothing. Just forgiveness.
Later he explained the bit about never hearing from me again. Sister had informed her brother decades ago I had been killed in the 1980s. Not surprising given circumstances, and, lucky for me, an understandable exaggeration. For all Pat knew, I was gone. He’d made his peace with that episode of his life long ago. So my reaching out must have freaked him out a bit.
And they were coming to town in a week or two for Canada’s 150th. Turns out the festivities in the capital kept everyone busy but on the day before Pat left town, I was able to pick him up at his hotel near the airport and drag him out to the acreage where I live with my missus and children.
Mel kindly made us a wonderful steak dinner which we ate out back while watching the kids and animals gamboling about. And Pat and I caught up on close to 40 years of life until well past dark.
It was wonderful. It was truly something I’ll never forget. More so because I realize those opportunities are fleeting. We can be filled with good intentions one day about fixing past wrongs, and then rationalize it away the next.
In the end, I believe it’s best to take a shot.
I have advised others to do the same over the years. You just never know what can come of it. It could come to nothing, in which case you have done your best.
But it can also re-open old friendships as if they were never gone. What goes on in your head is only the half of it. You see, the other people grow up too. Not always, but mostly they do.
Perhaps good things do come in threes (omni trium perfectum). Not long after I made my first overtures to my old business partner, I received a message from my brother one evening.
He’d moved into a place in the Byward Market and upon meeting a neighbour, was recognized as a Wallace “by the eyes” I’m told. Turns out it was a friend of mine of more than 40 years. In fact, he knew our whole family back in the day, had met my parents and the rest of it.
When we eventually met up, it was he who apologized to me. It doesn’t matter for what, just that I was able to offer him forgiveness. We both won.
It’s our expectations that drive disappointment. Therefore, it’s best to have none. In my case, I reached out because I thought it was the right thing to do. How my attempt is taken is mostly none of my business. I felt I owed an apology regardless, and I would have felt at least a bit better no matter how it was received.
I was fortunate. In fact, almost every time I’ve done this kind of thing, it’s turned out reasonably well. These last two apologies, better than ever. Here I am with two good men my age nearby as friends again, and one to stay in touch with and visit on the west coast.
If you have people in your life you feel indebted to in some way, why not drop them a line and tell them so, without any expectations.
You will feel better at the very least. And you could get lucky too.
It’s apology’s gift.
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