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How to Allow Forgiveness to Enter Into Your Stone-Cold Heart

“Unlike clairvoyance or intuition or the ability to grow blond hair instead of brown,” said the American author Brett Lott in Take My Advice, “compassion is a learned trait, a behavior that incorporates others into our own consciousness: We are in this together.”

Indeed, the fact that we’re all stumbling, flawed, and figuring it out as we lead our lives should come as a humbling realization that encourages us to be less harsh to each other—to allow compassion to facilitate the acceptance of differences and to remove any sense of superiority.

Alas, this realization is difficult to keep at the forefront of our thoughts because empathy is not relentlessly taught and competition is at that heart of human nature.

But we must learn to empathize to build compassion so that we can not only forgive someone who we once deemed as unforgivable, but to make it a daily practice in which it benefits the community and how we lead our lives. Holding grudges is toxic and tiring, and it doesn’t help anyone, not even yourself.

In Small Victories, Anne Lamott’s essay on forgiveness is one that made me reflect and wonder, “Who haven’t I forgiven?” Not in a sense that they owe me an apology, but who is someone that I failed to empathize with and have compassion? My parents, a few teachers in school, and the a guy at the DMV, to name a few.

Lamott’s wisdom on forgiveness is worth internalizing:

“Forgiveness is the hardest work we do. When, against all odds, over time, your heart softens toward truly heinous behavior on the part of parents, children, siblings, and everyone’s exes, you almost have to believe that something not of this earth snuck into your stone-cold heart.

Left to my own devices, I’m a forgiveness denier—I’ll start to think that there are hurts so deep that nothing can heal them. Time alone won’t necessarily do the trick. Our best thinking isn’t enough, or we could all be fine, instead of in our current condition. A lack of forgiveness is like leprosy of the insides, and left untreated, it can take out tissue, equilibrium, soul, sense of self. I have sometimes considered writing a book called All the People I Still Hate: A Christian Perspective, but readers would recoil. Also, getting older means that without meaning to, you accidentally forgive almost everyone—almost—so the book would not be long.”

Resentment is self-serving and it is more fulfilling when others share the feeling with you. As Lamott reflected on a time when she was hurt, “Resentments make even the best of us feel superior. I’ve always found a kind of comfort in them, as if they were wire monkey moms, a place to hold on that is better than nothing.”

Better than nothing… indeed, it’s within our nature to tell stories to create meaning. We are hardwired to seek stability of behavior, and stories are a way for us to avoid the pain and confusion of nothingness.

Sometimes, though, even being surrounded by wisdom and practicing empathy, it’s seemingly impossible to forgive. “Forgive but don’t forget” is a phrase that I used to love but nowadays question its authority. The first word states a virtue but the rest of it is condescending. Don’t forget what, exactly? The pain that a person caused? For what reason, exactly? So that we can use it sometime in the future? We’ll never grow if we live by this principle.

Lamott talks about exhaustion and how it can lead to forgiveness, simply because that’s the end:

“The beginning of forgiveness is often exhaustion. You’re pooped; thank God.

You don’t get there by willpower. The readiness comes from the movement of wisdom and good will, or what maybe in a crazy moment of abandon I’d call grace. To take far loftier examples than our own, people told Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, “If you stop now, all those lives will have been in vain.” But he said, “Enough. It’s over.” After 1945, instead of people saying, “Let’s pound the Germans into the ground,” the Marshall Plan came to be. Let’s rebuild. Let’s help our enemies rebuild, and see what happens.

Something deeply mysterious jiggles loose in us that finally says, I’m going to let it go, instead of breathing the hot little flame into a conflagration. …

Horribly, when all you want is relief from the pain, you instead need to tune in to it, right in to the lonely clench. You need to know how much the toxic has invaded you.”

And to tune into that pain, without a sense of entitlement or a desire to reciprocate it, but to seek to understand and to build compassion, we need self-awareness (and philosophy).

As the theologian and author Lewis Smede said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

Small Victories is a compendium of essays baked with wisdom, humility, and guidance. A must-read.


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