5 Things to Do to Forgive Someone Who Has Wounded You
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.
– Mark Twain
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid ofthe power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
Victoria Ruvolo was driving home in November 2004 from a concert in which her niece had performed. As she neared her house, her windshield was suddenly smashed in by a twenty- pound frozen turkey, which had been thrown from a car traveling in the opposite direction on the two-lane road. The turkey shattered the glass in the windshield and bent the steering wheel before “crushing the bones in her cheeks and jaw, fracturing the socket of her left eye, causing her esophagus to cave in and leaving her with brain trauma.”1 Her friend in the passenger seat managed to stop the car and cradled her head until the ambulance arrived. Victoria didn’t wake up until weeks later in a rehabilitation hospital.
She learned that “her attacker was Ryan Cushing, an 18-year-old college freshman.”2 With Ryan facing a potential sentence of twenty-five years in prison,3 Victoria decided to reach out to Ryan’s lawyer to figure out a way for a more lenient sentence. Victoria said:
On the day we went to court… [Ryan] walked in with his head hung down and looked so upset with himself. When I saw him there, my heart went out to him. To me he looked like a lost soul.
Once the case was over and it was time for him to walk out, he started veering over towards where I was sitting, and every court officer was ready to jump on him. They had no idea why he was coming towards me, but as he walked over to where I was sitting and stood in front of me, I saw that all he was doing was crying, crying profusely. He looked at me and said, “I never meant this to happen to you. I prayed for you every day. I’m so glad you’re doing well.” . . . All I could do was take him and cuddle him like a child and tell him, “Just do something good with your life. Take this experience and do something good with your life.”4
After Ryan’s release from serving six months in prison, he taught school children about empathy and forgiveness. Aunt Vicky—as Victoria was known to her family—extended her love to Ryan, her attacker, in a similar way that she shared her love with her own nieces and nephews.5 I see in Kirk Richards’s image the light of Aunt Vicky’s forgiveness just beginning to penetrate the distraught haze around Ryan.
Victoria later said, “Some people couldn’t understand why I’d done this, but I felt God had given me a second chance, and I wanted to pass it on.”
Jeffrey R. Holland observed, “Surely each of us could cite an endless array of old scars and sorrows and painful memories that… still corrode the peace in someone’s heart or family or neighborhood. Whether we have caused that pain or been the recipient of the pain, those wounds need to be healed so that life can be as rewarding as God intended it to be.”
Forgiveness is a strong medicine for the deep wounds that fester in and scar our lives. We need to know that old wounds are common. Every family and neighborhood have them. Recognizing that we all carry wounds in our hearts can help open the door to forgiveness. There is nothing as effective as forgiveness for healing these old, sometimes unbearably deep, wounds.
We also need to know that forgiveness does not always come easily. The sting and anguish caused by the actions of others may linger indeterminately until our wounds are healed. Yet holding on to the pain of unresolved conflicts drains energy that might be otherwise directed to a happier life. Happiness is a choice. It does not depend on the actions of others, nor even on justice being served. Someone has noted, “Even though we may be a victim once, we need not be a victim over and over again by carrying the burden of bitterness and resentment.” Forgiveness frees us from the pain that goes on and on.
There is no simple formula for doing the hard work of forgiveness. It is a process that proceeds at a variable pace, sometimes moving quickly and sometimes moving slowly, in a non-linear fashion. Having dealt over the past four decades personally and professionally with the turmoil and agony caused by betrayal or abuse or bullying or ridicule or assault or any number of other grievous hurts that disrupts our inner world, we cannot hand you a simple “step-by-step” map to follow. We can, however, outline some helpful tips and tactics.
1. Learn what forgiveness really is and what it is not. Forgiving someone who has hurt you is about your own goodness. This means the basis of your forgiving is not whether or not the other person deserves to be forgiven; rather, it is that you deserve peace.
Forgiveness is about healing, about applying a bandage of love that overcomes grief and the balm of peace that transcends the pain.
Forgiveness is about acknowledging your brokenness, that being broken means you are human and vulnerable, that everyone around you has been at one time or another hurt and broken, and that your shared experience of brokenness nurtures and sustains your capacity for compassion.
Forgiveness is not finding excuses for the offending person’s behavior or pretending it did not happen.
Forgiveness is not denial or burying the wound deeper inside. You are allowed to feel true pain and real sorrow from the shattering experiences you have had at the hand of others.
Forgiveness is not absorbing falsely placed shame or guilt for acts of others that were never your responsibility. Taking on you that counterfeit burden will only impair your healing.
2. Forgiveness is different than trust. Once you forgive someone, it may take a long time before you can trust them again. That is okay. Nor do you have to reenter a toxic relationship. Sometimes forgiveness means loving at a safe distance. You may have godly love for the person who has hurt you while not allowing them to be close to you or your family. Forgiveness in some cases is not trust or closeness, but an absence of malice that brings you peace of mind. You can move on with your healing. You are not responsible for the actions of others. You do not have to linger and hold hands with the offending person. Forgive. Let go. Leave it alone and move on.
3. Forgiveness is being curious but not furious. While not actually necessary to forgive another, it helps to understand what was behind another person’s motive for the actions they took to wound you. Understanding requires empathy. Empathy and forgiveness are connected. Scientists have discovered increased activity in the brain’s neural circuits responsible for empathy when subjects imagine forgiving someone. If you examine some of the details of the life of the person who harmed you, you may be able to see some of the wounds he or she carries and start to develop empathy—not tolerance for the damaging behavior, but empathy for why the person may engage in that behavior. Empathy without excusing can help open to you the door to forgiveness. Such empathy in relation to the person that has inflicted harm can result in insights to the person’s thoughts, feelings and actions that motivated him or her to cause you suffering. Again, understanding does not condone or excuse the behavior.
4. Become a student in your suffering: what do you learn from the things you have gone through? When we suffer tremendously, it is important that you find purpose and meaning in the experience. Without recognizing opportunities for growth, you could lose a sense of purpose which becomes the petri dish for despondency, hopelessness and depression. Can you think of how your suffering has altered your perspective and given you a new view on what is true and important about your life? Can you identify how to use your pain to develop stronger coping muscles, how you have become more courageous to speak out, to step up and be more resilient? Can you empathize and be of service to others who have been wounded and are carrying hurts from their own experiences, helping them to learn how to forgive? Without diminishing your pain or minimizing the damage done to you (brushing it off with the common “I’ll just make the best of it” attitude), can you address the depth of healing you need to overcome the injustice of the situation? Can you find enough meaning in the experience that your forgiveness is neither unduly delayed nor shallow?
5. Resentment recovery: becoming human again. Forgiveness is an act of higher virtue. It is a process that involves transforming from bitter to sweet, from anger to compassion, from broken to beauty. Revenge is a cancer that spreads, destroying the structure of humanity at its cellular level. The impulse to strike back is something you can learn to manage; it is a skill, however, that is nurtured in the fields of forgiveness, fertilized by the compost of your pain and grief. There is not always a quick harvest in growing this skill. Forgiveness is not a modern- day light switch that can be switched on or off at will. Forgiveness is not a “pancake skill,” just flipping your feelings over until both sides are done. The skill of rooting out the bitter weeds of resentment and sowing the fragrant flower of forgiveness takes skill and practice.
One additional thought. There is a poignant and ultimate example of forgiveness we can look to as we increase our skill to forgive. In Christian literature, there is an account of Jesus being nailed to a cross on a hill at Calvary. Even in the agonizing torture of his weight bearing down on the nails pounded into his hands and feet, he cried out to God, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Faith in his supreme act of grace means we can not only be forgiven, but we can also have the strength to forgive others.
May you develop the skill to forgive, because you deserve the peace it brings.
Because…being better is better than simply feeling better.