I never understood what forgiveness meant, despite believing I needed to practice it. News programs carried heartwarming stories about parents of slain teens who had forgiven their child’s murderer and testified to their benefit at the trial. I admired these people, thought I should be like them, but I didn’t really get it. What did forgiveness mean in my far less dramatic daily life?
I found especially disconcerting the Priest in Les Miserables, not only forgiving Jean Valjean when he stole the silver, but giving it to him. I’m supposed to live up to that? I missed the Priest telling Valjean, however, “It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” Maybe I could forgive too if I could tell the person that I had bought their soul. Oh what fun that could be.
I thought forgiveness meant I needed to let everything go and not let it bother me. That I should allow someone to injure me again and again and still forgive. But that felt unfair. I now realize that I can only forgive when I’ve loved me first.
Discovering Forgiveness: I Need Quiet, the Bar Owner Wants Music
Recently, the owner of a neighboring bar decided to open a pizza place in his adjoining building. I drooled thinking about pizza so close I could practically reach out my window and grab it. Then I saw him install four large speakers on the outdoor patio and I sprouted claws, anticipating the battle over noise I imagined was soon to come.
I had lately started doing meditations on forgiveness,** trying to understand how it played into management of my anger. But my worries about the noise distracted me. My anger was premature, but I had spent three years complaining and negotiating with the same owner over music from his other outdoor patio and we had just finally had one mostly quiet summer. Did I have to start a new battle now?
Am I the Problem?
I need silence when I sleep. Despite living in the middle of a city, the night around my house for years was mostly free of man-made noises. While my curtains are closed to the view of my alley, a giant Cedar tree fills my view from another window. Listening to the birds playing in that tree, I pretend I’m living in the mountains as I drift off to sleep and slowly wake up to face the day. Music blaring from a bar patio ruins the mood.
I believed, incorrectly, that I was the only person complaining about the noise. Was I being too sensitive? Why couldn’t I wear ear plugs? I hate ear plugs. They’re uncomfortable and I worry that they aren’t healthy. Don’t the ear holes need to breath? Can my earwax escape? I tried a white noise machine, but the metallic nature noises were worse than the music from the bar.
I was also embarrassed to admit that I went to bed at 10 pm. I worried that the owner would think I was an uptight loser. In addition, I suspected that dealing with the music was karma for my younger years when I went out and didn’t care about neighbors’ peace and quiet. Now it was young hipsters on the patio and I imagined them living in tiny apartments with no outdoor space. Who was I to keep them from enjoying this patio just because I had my own yard and wanted to go to bed so early?
I Want to Be Reasonable
I used to take my dog to a park where most people let their dogs run around off-leash. A couple years in, a woman started walking the perimeter of the park with her dog on leash. If any dog got near hers, she complained and said it was illegal for dogs to be off-leash. She was correct, but we’d been using this park for years so who was she to come in with her law? I tried asking her what hours she walked her dog so we could avoid her, but she’d say, it doesn’t matter, this isn’t a dog park. So I stopped going to the park out of fear of running into her. I disliked her so much that whenever I would see her walking her dog, I’d turn or cross the street.
I didn’t want to be that woman. I knew I could call the city to complain about the music, but I didn’t want to just pull out the law and not be open to compromise. I wanted to be the person who could have a rational discussion about it.
So I complained only to the owner for three years. The owner, with his genuine, friendly smile that made me want to trust him, always said he cared about the neighbors, but blamed his employees or the customers, as if it was out of his control. It would get better and then get bad again. Until year four when he disconnected the speakers and it seemed we had solved the problem.
It’s Not Just Me. We’re Both Doing Our Best. Now What?
When I saw the new speakers installed, however, I was not having that battle again. I accepted the reality that while the owner probably does care about the neighbors, and even cares what I think about him, he cares more about having music on his patio or about not disciplining his workers, or losing his customers, or whatever. I let go of believing this time would be different.
In accepting reality, I saw that he was doing his best. By which I mean, given our experiences, our skills, underlying stresses, and whatever else contributes to who we are in any given situation, in that moment we are doing our best. It doesn’t mean that we won’t behave differently under different circumstances or after gaining new tools. It doesn’t mean that I or the other person is behaving the way I want us to. It is simply accepting the reality of who we are in that moment, but also being able to see that we are worthy even when we might be perceived to be behaving badly. In recognizing the bar owner was doing his best, I let go of thinking that he was a jerk. It was up to me to protect my need for quiet.
As part of my anger management work, I visualized the moment when I’d hear music coming from that patio, I practiced relaxing, calling the alcohol control board, putting in my ear plugs, letting my anger go, and then going to sleep. And that’s what I did the next time I heard music from the bar.
Forgiveness Is Not Just Letting Go
In the process of no longer seeing the owner as a jerk, but as someone doing his best, I discovered, for me, that forgiveness is a step beyond just letting go of my anger. Forgiveness includes the ability to see the other person as worthy of love despite my annoyance. I also realized that forgiveness for me allowed for consequences to actions while foregoing a need “to teach that asshole a lesson.” I didn’t want the bar owner to be punished for playing his music, but if he chooses to play it, I will call the authorities to stop it. He knows that consequence and it’s his choice. Despite my reporting him, I’ve found that we’re still friendly and I’m happy to see his business thriving.
My friend thinks this situation isn’t forgiveness, but just taking care of myself. For me, though, forgiveness extends not just to close relationships, but to everyday situations.
Discovering Forgiveness: Loving and Letting Go of a Friend
The lesson has been similar for close relationships, however. As I worked through the forgiveness meditations, I devoted one session to a friend with whom I’d parted ways several years earlier. The last couple years of our friendship had been rocky. I regularly felt hurt by her words and actions even though I couldn’t always identify why I felt hurt. And I was hurting her too. We tried talking about our difficulties a number of times. Although I believed we both felt like we were bending over backwards to maintain our friendship, I still found myself resenting her. I couldn’t let go of her as a friend though. We were both going through hard times in our lives and I thought I needed to be more understanding. She was also a key person in my social life and I wondered how lonely my life might become without her.
One night, though, our pain came to a head as we screamed recriminations at each other about what was an otherwise inconsequential event except that it came to represent, at least for me, every hurt and resentment I carried. After, I cried. Angry and hurt, I vented to non-mutual friends. I blamed her for what happened. A couple days later she reached out to talk, but her e-mail reignited my anger and self-righteousness. I told her that while I truly wished the best for her that I had to wait until I could speak without so much anger.
Years passed and I still felt the hurt and anger. I wanted to be free of it. I wanted to reconcile. Doing the forgiveness work, though, I could see that we had both been doing our best, but our best was not, for me at least, going to result in a healthy friendship. I still thought she was a caring and compassionate person and I wished I could be the friend to her that she needed. Realizing how we had both tried, but that it hadn’t worked, I was able to love me and her and let go of the hurt, allowing the friendship to end in peace. For me, the love transformed the letting go into forgiveness and it extended to both of us.
Conclusions on Forgiveness
I’m still a work in progress. I’m almost never able to forgive anyone right away. Most often I need to let go multiple times before it sticks and even more times before I start to feel loving toward the person. And there are some people, I am still working to forgive.
I’m finally finding who I really am amidst the rubble of letting go of my supposed to’s and should’s. The lessons I’ve been learning build on each other and have brought me from a place of anger to a place of starting to understand what it means to love myself and others more.
I’m seeing that loving myself is learning to be “selfish” and compassionate for all the parts of me, including the difficult parts. And I’m learning that I can only love and forgive when I’ve loved me enough to stand up for what I need and believe. Sometimes I need to realize that what I want isn’t really important under the circumstances and let it go, but I don’t need to diminish my needs or become someone else to be able to love and forgive. In fact, I can only love and forgive others when I stop expecting them and me to be someone other than who we are.
How do you understand forgiveness?
** The book I used was Forgiveness: 21 days to Forgive Everyone for Everything by Iyanla Vanzant. While I cannot say that it lived up to its lofty title – I still have a lot of forgiveness to work on – it definitely helped me to understand forgiveness better and moved me forward. It combined concepts from the Course in Miracles with EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) Tapping to help release old wounds. Her method helped me to see how often my reaction was based on perceptions of events that may or may not be real, and to let go of them in love even if I didn’t condone, or even like what had happened. Her method taught me to better accept the events rather than viewing them through a lens of what should have happened.
Also published on Medium.