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February 22, 2017

This is why it’s so Hard to Forgive.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

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In the last years of my mother’s life, I was her financial power of attorney, working conscientiously to ensure that her modest financial affairs were in order before she passed on.

So imagine my bafflement at receiving $600 cable TV bills month after month—and then my rage upon discovering that my brother was watching pay-per-view movies at my mother’s house during her visits to the hospital.

I wanted to kill him.

I confronted him; he refused to pay. I threatened to report him for elder abuse; my siblings said no, we’re family, we’ll take care of it—then did nothing.

I tried all the tools in my spiritual arsenal to quell my boiling anger—tonglen, lojong slogans, metta practice—but there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that my justified rage would budge.

After my mother died, I became the executor of her estate, which declared that her assets would be distributed equally among all five children. I wanted my brother’s debt debited from his inheritance. Again, my siblings prevailed against it.

On the day I closed my mother’s phone account, I poured my frustration out to the Comcast customer service rep, who listened patiently, and then simply said:

“Sweetheart—your mother just died.”

I collapsed into a rag pile of tears on the phone with that kind lady.

A week later, feeling utter dread as I approached the church where my mother’s body lay, the first family member I saw standing on the side balcony was my brother.

He flashed me a weak smile, and in an instant I saw his pain, vulnerability, and his utter fragility as a human being on this planet.

And it was gone.

The righteous anger evaporated, leaving an echo of space where the rage had been. We hugged and wept for our shared loss.

After the funeral, I received a note from the customer service rep. All pay-per-view costs were dropped from my mother’s final bill.

What Makes Forgiveness Hard?

The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism states that we suffer because we hold on. Like the classic story of the monkey that risks its life because it can’t release the banana in the box-trap, we perversely find it easier to hold onto toxic resentments than we do to release and forgive.

Think for a moment about two children who get into a playground fight. Their parents chidingly admonish them to, “Be nice and make up.” The children offer a grudging handshake.

Is that forgiveness? Both children are still angry, but they’re powerless over the imposition of the adults who are forcing them into a socially acceptable version of forgiveness.

For us women, forgiveness is especially problematic.

Not only do we believe that we should forgive immediately, like those playground children, we also bear the burden of social conditioning to be sweet, pretty, and to be helpful to others. We are told to never look bad, smell bad, raise our voices, be a problem, get in the way, or upset anyone else.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, a vital stage of the forgiveness process is feeling fully the depth of our pain, meeting those un-sweet and un-pretty parts of ourselves that hold the keys to our transformation. If we can’t release our embarrassment about our anger, true forgiveness will elude us.

Another challenge to forgiveness is that, in the words of medical intuitive Carolyn Myss, “We are addicted to the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ mentality.” If someone harms us, we believe resolution will come when the perpetrators have paid the penalty for their actions.

I believed my peace of mind lay in the cable bill being settled rather than understanding the wound that drove my brother’s behavior.

While there certainly is a place for setting the books straight, our confusion of justice with mercy leaves us still smoldering even after the price has been paid.

A Different Take on Forgiveness

Webster’s Dictionary has two simple definitions of forgiveness:

1. to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong): to stop blaming (someone)

2. to stop requiring payment of (money that is owed)

If you merge these two definitions, you can see that our life force is a form of currency.

When we hold on to an old grievance, we’re taking present-time life force and sending it into our past to keep an old wound alive.

In doing so, we create energetic debt. Over time, the debt creates degenerative disease, addictions (food among them), and spiritual bankruptcy: shame, bitterness, resentment, and so forth.

Forgiveness, then, is cancelling the debt.

It’s bringing our emotional currency into present time and exchanging the you-owe-me attitude of justice for a much braver vision of mercy

It means releasing those who have harmed us, or who we have harmed, from responsibility for our life. It means calling our spirit home from the people, places, and circumstances it has unwittingly wandered into.

Most importantly, forgiveness is not a one-time event. It’s a way of life.

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Editor’s Note: This post is the second in a five-part series on Women, Food, and Forgiveness by mindful eating and body image coach Marcella Friel. Her 5-day retreat, Women, Food, and Forgiveness, opens April 19, 2017.

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Author: Marcella Friel

Image: laura betancourt/Flickr 

Editor: Travis May

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