Unforgiveness, resentment, and envy are all like banging one’s head against a hard surface in the hope of hurting other people while making ourselves feel better. Refusing to forgive has exactly the opposite effect in most cases, and it also hardens the hearts of those who hurt us, but who have made honest mistakes as fallible human beings. We often don’t want to forgive people, even for honest mistakes, because for some reason we think of offering forgiveness as a sign of weakness or we believe forgiving shows that we are “suckers for punishment” or we find comfort in having someone to blame for the state we’re in.
I have heard many people, for example, resent their parents who simply made mistakes in their parenting because they were fallible human beings who were expected to be perfect.
Ironically, we expect people in our lives to be perfect, but we seem to forget that being perfectly human means that we are completely fallible and will mess up at times. In other words, if we expect people to be perfect, we should not be surprised when they make mistakes – the perfect human being is fallible by default. Deliberate wrongdoing is more difficult to forgive, and it is hard not to resent those who deliberately hurt us or who deliberately do not even attempt to rectify an honest mistake.
I have seen the effects of unforgiveness and resentment in numerous people’s lives, and it never works out well for anyone. Not forgiving people has a big impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It often determines who we interact with, how we interact with them, etc. Imagine, for example, living in a small town and not forgiving someone. I have seen how that impacts where people go, who they interact with, and even how they behave every time the other person’s name is mentioned. There is the temptation to simply say that is something we should just get over and that it is ridiculous to allow unforgiveness and resentment to control us that much.
We will remain at the mercy of whatever we victimize ourselves about for as long as we continue to victimize ourselves about it. We will move in circles around whatever we anchor ourselves to.
Coping well requires us to forgive and hold no resentment and feel no envy and be aware of the times when we do so that we can stop ourselves from continuing on a path of self-limiting beliefs about someone or something else; coping well means we must realize how much unforgiveness disempowers us rather than the opposite. In the words of Bernard Meltzer: “When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future.”
The Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, was a lieutenant during World War II (1939-1945). Towards the end of World War II, he was cut off from the rest of the Japanese soldiers and found himself on Lubang Island (Philippines). He stayed there for 29 years until 1974, refusing to believe that the war had ended. Despite many attempts to convince him that the war was over, he mistrusted all these attempts and dismissed them for all sorts of reasons until his commanding officer during World War II was flown in to convince him that the can commend him for his resolute determination to follow orders until told otherwise by the man who gave the orders, but it also shows the different outcomes that can result from doing what you’re told rather than doing what is right. He was a trained intelligence officer and might have had information about the war ending, but he didn’t trust the sources. His behavior highlights what we often do: someone said something hurtful to us, or they did something that left a scar. We become stuck in the jungle (or trench), and many times we emerge only once they have apologised. We resent them until that happens.
The problem with resentment is the same as the problem we encounter when we don’t forgive others and also envy them. Resentment, unforgiveness, and envy do more damage to us than to others. They also limit our opportunities for progress. What if Hiroo Onoda had died before he was convinced to emerge from the jungle? What if his aging commanding officer had died before he could convince Hiroo that the war had ended? What if you die before the person who owes you an apology gets a chance to apologise, and what if they die before they can apologise?
We remain in the trenches, in the jungle, believing we are still at war and that everything and everyone is out to get us. We respond in a similar way to protect ourselves – even from people who don’t want to hurt us and people who would either like to help or are helping us.
We truly forgive once we develop the ability to also feel empathy for someone who or something that hurt us. One of the most remarkable exhibits of this principle was when Jesus hung on the cross after being sold out, humiliated, mocked, tortured and crucified for something He was not guilty of. While watching all of this going on and hanging on the cross, Jesus asked His Father, God, to forgive the people who were crucifying Him because, from His perspective, they weren’t aware of what they were doing. That shows exceptional empathy even for those who hurt us.
Empathy is an important concept to grasp. It means that we can imagine what someone might be experiencing, but not that we accept the way they think, feel or behave as a result.
There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy means that due to the relationship between two people or things, whatever affects one similarly affects the other. This is where the Sympathetic Nervous System gets its name – it responds to our experience in sympathy by producing the hormones and the required physiological responses we need to survive the situation. Empathy, on the other hand, is the capacity to experience another’s feelings as one’s own or to understand another’s feelings as if they were one’s own. Empathy is an important concept to grasp. It means that we can imagine what someone might be experiencing, but not that we accept the way they think, feel or behave as a result.
I have seen empathy at play several times: forgiving becomes complete once we can have empathy with someone else’s feelings that may have contributed to their behavior. It does not mean that we condone their actions. It is truly liberating to experience forgiveness to the point of empathy with whoever or whatever hurt us. Forgiveness may facilitate resilience, but empathy alongside forgiveness leads to liberation, being set free from the bondage of hurts, and starting our growth journey.
In my view, unforgiveness is simply a form of rumination. It is adding negative emotions to what other people have or haven’t done to us or for us, what they have or haven’t said to us. It is ruminating about people not meeting our expectations of them for us. Unforgiveness is ruminating about upsets in human relationships. It is not healthy and will likely have the same negative health outcomes as rumination. All people I know and have ever met want three basic things: acceptance, respect and appreciation. When we unpick almost any challenge in human relationships, it can usually be traced back to a violation of one of these three elements.
Think about the times when you were angry with someone or felt less than forgiving about something they had said or done. It is quite likely that your need for acceptance, respect or appreciation was violated. Although this might give us a reason for why we feel the way we sometimes feel, understanding the reason for our feelings does not always offer solutions. It simply offers an opportunity for understanding and closure. The solutions come when we stop ruminating and worrying, and instead detach and see things in perspective.
The solution for unforgiveness is forgiveness, the opposite of rumination is meditation, prayer, and worship. Rumination is negative meditation, and meditation is positive rumination. Unforgiveness is ruminating when we should be forgiving and moving on. Unforgiveness puts us and others in shackles; forgiveness liberates. Forgiveness is the opposite of unforgiving rumination. It opens our minds to be more productive and inhibits the negative emotional centers of the brain from taking over.