Forgiveness Can Be Bittersweet

Monday, August 17, 2015 - 5:19am
Photo by 美撒郭

Forgiveness Can Be Bittersweet

I see forgiveness as a difficult and noble action — not a weak one, not a surrender or a capitulation. Of course, we can confuse it with giving in, with giving up our standards or principles, as tantamount to forcing amnesia. That kind of coercive denial could never be healing.

Forgiveness is not a single action, but a process. By forgiving those who harmed us, we do not pretend that what harm they caused did not happen, or that it did not hurt. We can see that chronic resentment stands in the way of love. The bitterness that arises from a long-held wrong, gone over and over, encases the heart, making it difficult for love to get through.

Fixing onto the memory of the harms we have suffered generates anger and sadness, and may cause us to withdraw from other love that comes our way. We may become so consumed by these feelings that we cannot enjoy the pleasures that are right in front of us. Forgiveness is the way we break the grip resentment has on our hearts.

This is not to say that forgiveness is easy. It cannot be rushed or engineered, but it may arrive over time. The spike of defensiveness we feel when someone advises us to “forgive and forget” shows how deep our pain has burrowed. Although the people who advise us to do this may have the best of intentions, forgiveness cannot be done on command. That does not work and it is not at all fair to us. In hearing we should stop feeling our very genuine bitter feelings, we may find ourselves defending our pain and our right to continue to feel it.

For those who still acutely feel an injury, it isn’t in the past. The wounds still sting. When our mind glances across that memory, we feel it in our body. Not as just a stab to the heart but sometimes as a rip through the soul. Releasing the bitterness begins with accepting that things are as they are, and grieving, as if we were conducting our own truth and reconciliation commission.

Painful things happened, some of which were accidents, some of which were intentional. Whatever the cause, we start by acknowledging that and grieving what was lost to us then. To forgive we may need to open our minds to a fuller exploration of the context in which the events happened, and find compassion for the circumstances and everyone involved, starting with ourselves. The grief helps us relinquish the illusion that the past could be different than what we know to be true. We are in charge of our own forgiveness.

One reflection that has helped me is recognizing that my work towards forgiving someone doesn’t mandate a certain action: sharing Thanksgiving dinner with them or praising them to others or allowing them into my house. What happens in my heart is the field of my freedom.

(Dario-Jacopo Lagana' / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

Marjorie attended one of my talks. Afterwards she described to me how lovingkindness and compassion had helped her forgive a friend who had sent her a brutal letter. A decade before, Marjorie’s daughter had attempted suicide, been rushed to a hospital and placed in a mental institution.

The friend, someone who had been Marjorie’s close confidant for decades, had been an important person to Marjorie’s children as well. She wrote that Marjorie was to blame for her daughter’s suicide attempt. She criticized Marjorie’s child rearing, her performance at her job, her friendship skills, everything about Marjorie, including the way she hugged. At this moment when the yogi deserved every kindness in the world, her friend only deepened her pain. After the letter, Marjorie and her friend did not speak for years.

Six years later, when her daughter was much better and doing well in college, the friend emailed her asking to reconcile. Even the sight of her friend’s name in the email queue caused Marjorie’s blood pressure to spike. She opened the message bristling for a fight, expecting it would contain more hurtful remarks, so Marjorie’s defenses were at the ready. Marjorie was surprised when she read how much her friend missed her and how sorry she was for what she had said.

Marjorie was still so angry that she was not moved by this sincere apology. She was furious that her friend would ask for a reconciliation. It provoked her to relive her outrage, her sorrow, they way she had doubted herself then, and all the tears she had shed. Yet she was drawn to the email.

Gradually Marjorie thought of how close her friend had been to her daughter and all the special times they’d spent together: hiking when she was young, sleepovers, afternoons at the movies, and the friend’s help at her daughter’s birthday parties. She appreciated that her friend, who had no children of her own, had experienced her daughter’s crisis almost as profoundly as Marjorie had. As she allowed more and more space for the fullness of this event to unfold in her mind, she felt less ill will toward her friend and made her the focus of her lovingkindness meditation. Marjorie understood that now she could wish her friend well, and hope that she would prosper.

That said, she recognized that she did not want to reconcile with her friend in day-to-day life, at least not at that time. Marjorie had forgiven her, but she felt she couldn’t again trust her friend with the intimate secrets that they had effortlessly exchanged before the first letter arrived. After thinking this through, Marjorie wrote back thanking her former friend for her note, acknowledging that she still thought about her, concluding:

“Know that I forgive you completely and hold no bad feelings for you. I wish you well. Forgiveness leaves us both free to move on.”

This is happiness that forgiveness brings us — the ability to move on without bitterness. Marjorie no longer had to get caught in the grip of this painful story and all the ways it caused her to conjecture, plot, and despair.

Forgiveness is a way of loosening the grip of fixation, but I’ve seen over and over again that it is a process. It is not decision, and it does not come about by force of will. We may decide after exploring forgiveness that we, like Marjorie, do not want to see that person again. For some, forgiving and understanding the relationship is over may be the viable path. People can really hurt other people and there is no need to think: Well, I’ve got to get over this so you can be my best friend again. If we can find a way to forgive and free our hearts, we are saying life is bigger, we are bigger, we are stronger than the hurt and the feelings around it.

In this way forgiveness can be bittersweet. It contains the sweetness of the release of a memory that has caused you so much suffering, but it is also a poignant recognition that relationships shift so much in the course of our lives that perhaps we cannot reclaim the way we were to each other in the past. Whatever decision we come to about action in daily life, in the end, forgiveness is a path to peace and a powerful and important component of love.

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Monday.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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I have been trying to forgive another person I considered to be my soul mate for nearly two years. Through therapy, I also came to recognize that I have been unable to forgive myself for allowing this person to hurt me so badly. He is someone who works hard to be a good person but who, like all of us, is deeply flawed in both his need to be right about everything and his need to maintain his self-image as a "perfect child of God." Recently, he has raised the prospect of getting past this and being friend. Like Marjorie, I know that I don't want to have this person in my life for a number of reasons. I also know that the resentment I still feel is harming me more than it harms him. After reading this, I now understand that in granting forgiveness to him, I feel like I'm just satisfying his need to feel better about himself. There is the awful, stubborn part of me that doesn't want to let him off the hook for the pain he's caused, even though I know that I'm hurting myself as well. I believe in the power of forgiveness and as a practicing Christian know that it is the right thing to do. But it is never as easy as it sounds. Just saying, "I forgive you" won't work. I know I need to give it wings and release it but find it nearly impossible to do. This meditation is moving me in the right direction, but as Sharon wisely points out, it cannot be a decision. It must come from my heart. Maybe I will allow the grief to wash through me again ... and again, if necessary ... in the hope that it will cleanse me enough to finally let go and grant forgiveness. But first I think I must forgive myself. It's not going to work the other way around. Thank you for a thoughtful article. I especially like your metaphor of a truth and reconciliation committee, one we need to convene in our our hearts and minds.

One of the things I've learned over the years, thanks to my spiritual director, is to start where I'm at in my prayers. "Lord, bring me to the place where I really want to want to forgive." Sometimes it just isn't possible to get to the place of starting to forgive, or even truly wanting to forgive without God's help. I know there are times when I'm really honest with myself, that I find that I just really don't want to forgive - yet. The pain is familiar; the discomfort and extra care we are giving ourselves because of it - we're just not ready to move on. She used to say to me, we'll be done being a victim when we're done being a victim. It is indeed a process. We need to give ourselves permission to let our process take it's journey through all stages of hurt, anger, denial, etc. There is something to learn from each part of the journey.

This is such a valuable process - I believe that the more we forgive ourselves and those that have wronged us the more we will heal the entire world. There are so many wrongs done that inflame anger, bitterness and war. We feel powerless to change these things but the power is in our hands or rather our hearts in the little bits and pieces of forgiveness that we can bring to the world. Thank you!

If the message here, is that 100% of transgressions can be / should be eventually "forgiven" ~ then I disagree. There are some things in life that cannot be forgiven. Period. I do not suggest there is a firm list. The "unforgiven" act or acts will vary, from person to person.

I do not relive "over and over" (as the article says) the intentional act of evil committed against me. I have made peace with it occurring; it does not color my life. But I do not forgive that person. Nor will I ever.

Aside from that 1 incident, I do agree that "letting go" of as much as you can, is healthy and necessary for a more peaceful life. And i certainly have done that.

Wow, this is so beautifully said: "What happens in my heart is the field of my freedom." !!!

Another perspective on forgiveness:

"And yet, do we really have the right to forgive one who has wronged us, but is unrepentant? And do we have the right to forgive one who wronged someone else? The answer given by Jewish tradition is no. There are situations when one is not allowed to forgive — not only not obligated, but not allowed!"

Thank you for this, Len. Raised a Catholic, the Christian themes of forgiveness run deep in my psyche and have never made much sense. I like how the Jewish tradition recognizes our humanness: that we feel outrage. It is a part of us. Recognizing it and putting the onus of reparation on the wrong-doer places responsibility on humans and acknowledges our (very natural and normal) emotions to being hurt.

Your quote is fascinating, specifically because it is from the Times of Israel. I am not a Jewish Scholar, but I am familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures presented in the Old Testament. I am unaware of a commandment that says thou shalt not forgive (fill in the blank.)It would be useful if you could list some sort of reference as to what actions are not allowed to be forgiven. Can you imagine the state of the world, particularly in the Holy Land if forgiveness was not only allowed but mandatory?Throughout history, much of the carnage that continues endlessly is because of non-forgiveness. As Gandhi said, if we followed the charge an eye for an eye, half the world would then be blind. Where and when does it stop? I can assure you, my people, my family and my person have experienced all manner of injustice and violence throughout the centuries until the present. My coping method is to work towards forgiveness, because it is the only thing I have any control over. I can not change the past, but I can control how I go forward. Forgiveness, the most difficult and frustrating of any human endeavors is the only way to the present and future peace not only for the individual but for the collective. I do not comprehend how any organization of any kind can dictate what can and can not be forgiven, let alone say what deeply personal feelings and Contextualization are "allowed" such things are basically impossible, how can forgiveness or non-forgiveness be enforced?

Maybe this will help:

I have come to terms with my reality of how I was hurt in my relationship, but not truly knowing why it happened is a stone wall with my forgiveness towards this person. If I only knew "why" he did what he did. Seems to me if someone would explain the truthfulness behind their hurtfulness, I could get over this and move on myself. I need an explanation of why this happened and I have not received it, so in turn, I ask myself everyday, does he not love me?, is this why he did it? He doesn't have the strength to tell me he doesn't love me, because he thinks I will crumble? What is it? It's maddening not knowing the truth!

I understand how you feel. More than 20 years ago, a friend and I came to an impasse after she sent me a letter in which she said some very hurtful things but then forbade me to discuss the matter further. I found that the things she said so weighed upon me that I couldn't discuss anything at all, so not knowing what to say, I said very little. When I finally wrote to her about the matter (after a year of trying to carry on without saying anything about it), she "ghosted" me. I couldn't believe it. Any attempts to contact her afterword were ignored. We had known each other half our lives. It is a loss that has haunted me since then, despite all my attempts to "heal" from it.

What is clear, though, is that we resolve conflicts in very different ways, and that if our friendship was to continue, we would have had to always agree on matters, or I, at least, would risk receiving the kind of letter that I had before (to tell the truth, it was not the first time she had ever sent me a letter of that type). Maybe she saw that she did not want the kind of friendship with me that meant we would occasionally disagree or wrong each other. She always said I was more invested in the friendship than she was ("If anything every happened to Bill," she once said, "and I asked you to come, I know you would. But I could not reciprocate; not many people are that generous"). So that was the wall.

I'll never know exactly why she ghosted me, but perhaps it was a lot of little things that had more to do with her way of interacting with the world than it did with the way we interacted with each other.

I really appreciated this piece, as I do all of your teachings and writings. The idea of forgiveness as a process is not something I've ever thought about - life often feels so rushed that I often find myself making decisions based on "all or nothing" thinking and some kind of erroneous belief that everything must happen now. Today. Right this minute. It's a relief to believe that that is not necessarily the case, and to think that I can truly forgive the people in my life who have harmed me those most, without that meaning that I must also set them a place at the table of my life. Thank you, Sharon, for your beautiful wisdom and your thoughtful clarity, once again. ~ Heather

I really appreciate the observation that forgiveness is not an instantaneous decision, but a process.

We're typically taught from a very early age to just "shake hands and make up"--usually by some exasperated teacher, caretaker or parent. Then this morphs into "Get over it" as we make our best efforts to be adults. I believe this is why so many of us lack the skills to navigate forgiveness. Thank you for exploring a much more realistic perspective on the topic.


::low whistle:: Man, this one hit close to home and was so necessary to read. When I divorced my manipulative and emotionally-abusive husband a year ago, I felt confiding in my mother all the reasons this was necessary would finally let her see and understand me. It was only after she berated me with shame, anger, and anxieties, blaming me, turning the situation into something about herself, did I realize she had been emotionally spearing me since childhood and was probably the reason I ended up with a man who mirrored the way she treats me.

Through counseling it has been revealed that she most likely suffers from a personality disorder. I have not yet reached the stage of true forgiveness, though, and my only defense is very limited contact with my parents. I have felt guilty about that since I have a young son and feel obligated to let them have a relationship with him. I am bookmarking this and will refer often!

Thank you for this. Am working with the my therapist to move past my mother leaving me (the family) when I was very young and then having a less than nurturing step-mother. I know that forgiving these women is essential to me becoming happier and more open to life. From what you write I see the process that I'm allowing myself to be in, and how important it is to not let myself get distracted.. thank you.

Everything in this article is true -.yes the wound is real and hard to overcome. Stubbornness maybe. Forgiving someone who hurts your heart is a challenge.yet I agree it need to be done.

Lovely piece. Not stated explicitly is that the need for time and space for forgiveness can be to develop boundaries. Maybe to grieve that they are necessary. I found that carried resentments played a role in protecting me where I was naive. When I could do that myself, the resentments melted away.

This is a really interesting idea and certainly rings true for me.

Thank you for this powerful article. I chose it as the guided meditation for our group on Sunday evening, followed by silent meditation, then discussion. I've received feedback that it was very helpful to several of the members.

right up your alley

In my own journey, I found that holding onto hurt and anger was a way for me to still be in relationship with a sibling. I realized that if I let go and forgave, there would be nothing. By circling over and over the list of grievances, it kept me in relationship with him, when he obviously wanted nothing to do with me. The forgiveness on my part came, and there was nothing left, and the grieving came. Holding on in some circumstances is just that, we cling to the familiar even if it is only a grudge. Forgiveness allows the space to create new situations even in circumstances where we do not want the new, isolation and loneliness may be the new companions. Freedom from anger and hurt are not always welcome. A teacher of mine once said to me, "you really love your story don't you." She then showed me that by hanging on to stories of victimization was causing me to identify myself with those things. Did I want to define myself as such? Not really, so for me forgiveness was the start of the uncomfortable journey of self definition and self responsibility. It is so much easier to settle into the rut of letting those who have harmed you,define you and blame them for the limits. Living well, being free is really the best revenge, and the first step towards such freedom to self define, self affirm and deep true self responsibility is forgiveness. Forgiveness is never for the situation or person that harms, it is only for yourself, forgiveness is the ultimate act of selfishness. When you forgive, you stop wasting precious energy on other people who obviously do not have your best interests at heart, or the past you can not change, you save it all and focus on yourself.

Listening to the metta meditation right now. Planting seeds of intention. Just beautiful.

I am deeply grateful for your contribution. I am just completing a yearly period of bereavement in active forgiveness, the scope of which is daunting, even as I am beginning to embrace myself, freed of the hurt that has been dealt me and which I have inflicted. Not only on my family, which I left behind over a year ago - and the year gave me the gifts of letters and meetings with some of my closest relatives, when I had the chance to act like Marjorie - but also my former occupation, my city and my mothertongue. I was a Polish poet for over a decade, and a beginning essayist, but the way my calls for help and cooperation were answered in the period of hardship, the blindness of some people towards which I tried to be good, loving and providing (my fellow country men and women), have made me give up on writing in Polish. Having said this, my calls were not unanswered. I was helped in a way that made it possible to remove myself from a harmful home conflict, which I survived only because I have never forgotten that the close person I was living it in a violent conflict was a PERSON, whom I loved and who tried to love the way they could. And as a person, they deserved recognition, in the least. I made my decision to give up writing in Polish, not (only?) out of resentment, but because I choose to not co-create my local community, since I seem to have moved on so much that I hardly share core values with my people. What really made possible the grieving and forgiving (I am still in my home city) was gratitude, and recogniction. Recognition of the 'wider context' of my problems (which stemmed directly from my active attemps to make a change here) and the challenges I put to people around me, and gratitude for all the gifts I have been given and all the things I have reached out to in the years that have brought me to writing this reflection. You could say that I have consiously applied loving kindness both to people that harmed me and helped me (sometimes they were one person), especially to my loved ones, which eventually, as I am leaving the troubles behind, made it possible to love myself again and open up to new people, new commitments and new relationships. Indeed, I am essentially grateful for the harrowing period (of about ten years), as it has made me grow up and grow in ways that otherwise would have not happened. It has also invited me to a journey of self-love, which ultimately saves me and makes me capable of being a human anew. Hopefully, a better human.