Can you forgive on your own or does it take two people for forgiveness to happen?
A dear friend of mine recently asked me this beautiful question. It suggests that we forgive to mend a broken relationship, some fissure that cleaved the connection in two. If so, it follows, logically and emotionally, that both sides would be involved in repairing the relationship. After all, you can’t fix a relationship if one person does not want to.
But forgiveness is not, at its core, about reconciliation or reconnection. Forgiveness is a one-person job, because it involves healing the part of you that is wounded by what occurred — some word or action by the other person that harmed you, and by extension, the relationship. As Mark Nepo writes, “What it comes down to is the clearness of heart to stop defining who I am by those who have hurt me and to take up the risk to love myself, to validate my own existence, pain and all, from the center out.”(1)
Forgiveness begins with acknowledging the pain you feel so that you can release the other person as the source of that wound. When another person hurts us, we ascribe that pain to them. They often become a source of blame. And we almost always want someone to recognize the pain inflicted by their words and actions with an apology.
I believe in the power of apology. We should take responsibility for how our choice of words or actions impacts another person. But forgiveness is not a substitute for apology. When we treat it as such, we’re secretly hoping the other person will acknowledge our pain because we think that’s how healing can happen. If the other person isn’t willing or able to do that, we’ve relinquished the power of our healing to the other person.
Nor does apology always result in forgiveness. Even when we’ve received an apology, we don’t always forgive — we can still bear a grudge. That is because forgiveness is an internal practice. It is about letting go of the pain and resentment by recognizing, initially, that we were hurt. We begin with compassion for our own pain, acknowledging that it’s there, it’s real, and, yes, it really hurts. We delve into that pain and embrace it. That wounded part of us is craving love. And the more we open to it, the more pain we’ll feel because the depth of the wound is making itself known.
Once we’re able to hold that pain and feel its depth, with loving compassion, we can start to explore how that pain came to be. Ultimately, our pain was born from a set of thoughts and beliefs about the meaning of this interaction or event. This is where the other person’s presence can be a great aid, because that person can help to explain why they acted or spoke in a way that was unskillful or harmful. In every case, they were speaking from their own wounds, and by understanding their wound, you can release your pain by realizing that it didn’t mean what you thought it did.
In my own life, for years I harbored incredible resentment toward my father, who after my parents divorced seemed incapable of real connection. My siblings and I spent time sitting in fast-food joints, sipping on sodas, with our father rambling on about electronics, mathematics, optics, etc. He would later work for Panasonic doing some sort of electronics work, but at the time was supposedly working on a Master’s thesis of some kind involving light and optics. I was around 11 years old, and my siblings were, respectively, around 8 and 7 years old. So, as you can imagine, we had a lot to contribute on those topics.
It was not until years later, after he passed away and I reconnected with his sister (my aunt) that I learned how much my grandfather had belittled him throughout his life, telling my father that he was not smart and would never make much of himself. I then realized why he talked to us the way he did: that was his language of love, his currency for affection. The only way he knew how to love and be loved, thanks to his father, was to be smart. In his own sincere if misguided way, my father was trying to love me by engaging me intellectually.
Knowing the source of his wound made my ability to forgive him easier. I was able to release the painful belief that my father didn’t love me because his version of love didn’t resemble my own. He really didn’t know how to love any other way. But knowing that about him, while helpful, was not essential to the process. The simple fact is that forgiveness is about relinquishing the belief that what someone said or did to you actually had anything to do with you, your worth, your lovability or any other aspect of who you are. The only truth that was revealed was their own wound.
The exploration part of forgiveness is about releasing the story of why you felt so hurt and why you need to forgive this person. That may involve coming to understand this person more deeply, or it may happen as a result of simply knowing that this person must have experienced incredible pain in their own life and that was the source of the conflict. That process can take time, looking at the belief system in your life that keeps causing you pain until you ultimately recognize how false and empty that story is.
So forgiveness is, ultimately, always a dual act of forgiving ourselves and the other person. We forgive ourselves for believing and feeling that the pain we felt reflected some truth about ourselves, and at the same time we acknowledge that pain, give it the healing love it requires. And we forgive the other person for not knowing any better how to handle and heal their own wounds. In so doing, we release this other person from our mental grievances, and understand that the relationship was lost to pain that was left unhealed.
In some cases, forgiveness can lead to reconciliation. In others, it means letting go of the person altogether. But you do so with a sense of completion, knowing that the part of you that was wounded can be released as well. After all, the pain was never telling you the truth of who you are.
(1) Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want By Being Present to the Life You Have, pp. 317–18.