My friend, a rabbi in San Francisco named Michael Lezak, has officiated at hundreds of funerals where people have failed to resolve their conflicts, compounding their grief with regret and shame. “Pain and anger are ingrained in our souls,” he told me. “Untreated, unchecked, and ultimately unreleased, this subterranean wound can so easily metastasize, undermining our potential and preventing us from feeling fully alive. “
Or, as Anne Lamott wrote in “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith”, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” Buddhists suggest that unresolved feelings of revenge can follow us even after death, and should be erased lest they become part of our next life as downstairs issues.
The why of forgiveness is more obvious than the how. It takes a lot to break the wall of emotions (disgust, anger, hurt) that keep us from forgiving, especially when the offense is cruel or damaging. How do we even start?
I find it helps to invoke memories of my own crimes and misdemeanors. I have been late, lazy, unduly lucky. I was the young solipsist, the arrogant college girl, the shrewd Karen of my forties. I drank too much, spoke too sharply, been too harsh in my evaluations. Sometimes I don’t help as much as I should. I confused identity with character. I am only partially informed, and I am too influenced by the media I choose to explain the world to me.
Once my memory has been rekindled, I try to stay in the memory for as long as I can bear. The more details I can bring up, the more my feeling of outrage dissipates completely. Catholics in my childhood might call this confessional process adjacent. I see it as humility – and research shows a connection between facing our own shortcomings and finding our way to forgive others.
Dr Robert Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, which develops programs for schools, defines forgiveness as simply “choosing to be good to those who are not good to us”. He does not recommend judging injury. Better to skip picking, listing, making cases. Direct your energy towards this transformative movement: recognizing the inherent worth of the other.
Rabbi Lezak points out that on Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement, Jews read a passage that includes a clear call to choose life. “Part of this lifestyle choice business involves building muscle tone to let go of grudges,” he says. He believes that forgiveness muscle is built like all muscles: through repetitive use.