What True Forgiveness Looks Like in Real Life


Forgiveness is too often seen as weakness, submission, or defeat. It makes us uncomfortable because it seems to concede that whatever hurt us was acceptable. Estranged family members, cold spouses, vengeful exes, friends turned frenemies — the need for forgiveness is everywhere, but it’s not easy to do. We sorely need practice.

I’ve experienced the effects of withholding forgiveness myself. Many nights I’ve tossed and turned, trapped in bitterness and anger over the way people have treated me. I’ve spent countless hours coming up with the perfect comebacks and well-executed speeches. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to think forgiveness is for chumps and that I don’t want any part of it. Every fiber within me usually craves revenge, audacious victory, justice.

But not only is forgiveness possible — it’s necessary. It’s the only way to restore relationships, and it actually improves the health and well-being of the person struggling to forgive. When you’re hurt, it’s the one thing that can help you transcend the pain and emerge on the other side stronger.

We’re confronted with the need to forgive every day — whether it’s the taxi that cuts us off, the spouse who loses their temper, the sibling who acted out, the co-worker who took the credit, the classmate who started the rumor. It’s normal to want revenge or justice. But our lack of forgiveness typically only hurts ourselves. Some have likened withholding forgiveness to drinking poison and expecting the other person to die from it.

Science now supports this metaphor by showing that avoiding forgiveness can be harmful to your health and well-being. It can increase your heart rate, blood pressure, risk of depression, heart disease, chance of diabetes, and affect our sleep. Conversely, those who practice forgiveness lower their risk of heart attack, have better sleep quality, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, pain reduction, and lower levels of depression or anxiety.

For health reasons alone, one might consider forgiveness more seriously.   

But what does forgiveness even look like? It is more than simply accepting an apology with words. It is a process that involves reflection, acknowledgement, empathy, self-awareness, surrender, and action.

First, forgiveness involves reflecting on what hurt us and why. It is founded on a realistic acknowledgment and affirmation of our feelings. That’s not an easy task because it means opening up an emotional wound and being willing to explore it to discover just how deeply it hurts and why.

From there, we can try to place ourselves in the shoes of the person who harmed us in order to attempt to understand what led to the hurtful action. This practice of empathy is one every person deserves because we have all hurt another at some point. Most people aren’t trying to be hurtful or evil, but have come to a point of such woundedness that they inflict differing degrees of suffering upon others, often reflexively.

Practicing empathy acknowledges the humanity of the person who harmed us and helps change our perspective on the situation. A common response to being hurt is either defensiveness or a need to control the situation so that we won’t be hurt again. Practicing empathy helps us see the other person in the midst of our pain.

We may not be able to control what happened to us, but we can take ownership of our actions moving forward and choose how to overcome the pain. We can choose to forgive anew each day, to move on, to heal.

It’s worth noting that forgiveness is different than reconciliation. The word “reconcile” has Latin roots: “re,” meaning again; “con,” meaning with; and “cilia,” meaning eyelashes. In ancient days, reconciliation signified being so reunited with someone that you would touch eyelash to eyelash. It implies a deep intimacy and closeness.

Reconciliation, therefore, requires the work of two people. Forgiveness does not. Thankfully, the success of our forgiveness is not incumbent upon the contrition, sorrow, or apology of the perpetrator. If this were the case, many of us would be trapped in a cycle as victims of the wrongdoings of others. Forgiveness transcends hurt because it is the work and healing of the individual who was harmed. It makes a person resilient, free, peaceful, and even joyful.

If you’re doubting that’s possible, a few radical examples come to mind:

I think of Imaculee Ilibagiza, the author of the New York Times bestseller Left to Tell, who survived the Rwandan genocide only to find her family and almost one million of her fellow Rwandans killed. Months later, she met the man who killed her mother and one of her brothers and said, “I forgive you.”

I think of the Amish communities in Nickel Mines who immediately extended forgiveness to the man who killed 5 school children. Not only did they voice their forgiveness, they also donated money to support the killer’s widow and family.

I think of St. Pope John Paul II, who met the man who attempted to assassinate him in prison, publicly and personally forgave him, requested his pardon, and became his friend. The pope stayed in touch with his family during the man’s incarceration. After being released from prison and having converted to Christianity, the man laid two dozen roses on the pope’s tomb in Rome.

“We all need to be forgiven by others, so we must all be ready to forgive,” St. Pope John Paul II said. “Asking and granting forgiveness is something profoundly worthy of every one of us.”

We all encounter other people’s brokenness and we are all wounded. Practicing forgiveness makes us stronger, not weaker. And it frees those who hurt us to transcend what happened as well. By embarking on the journey of forgiveness, we come to find ourselves happier, healthier, more whole, more compassionate, and resilient. Forgiveness is a journey toward loving more deeply that we must set out to travel anew each day.

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