We can be hurt in a million ways, and forgiveness is never easy.  Whether you’ve been cut off in traffic, badmouthed by a coworker, judged by a friend, betrayed by a spouse, abused by the people who are supposed to love you, most of us are faced with a variety of situations that we can chose to hold onto the grudge and pain or to forgive.  People won’t forgive for the following reasons*:

  1. They think forgiveness means condoning the wrong behavior
  2. They believe forgiveness means they have to let the person back into their lives
  3. They think feeling hatred for that person somehow gives them control, power, or strength
  4. They feel that if they forgive, they might get hurt again
  5. They want to punish the offender

I know firsthand how difficult it is to forgive since I’ve been struggling with it most of my life.  I was brought up by my grandmother in Shanghai, China while my parents worked in Yun Nan thousands of miles away.  Grandma took my sister and me on a 72-hour train ride to visit our parents when I was about five.  I was clingy to Grandma and wanted nothing to do with my mother.  One day Mother exploded and beat me repeatedly for refusing to call her ‘mom.”   Her hysterical act frightened me, left a deep mark on my young brain and as a result I withdrew from her further.  I was subjected to her outburst of anger throughout my childhood and adolescent years.  Fortunately her visits to Shanghai were infrequent and brief.

My mother’s presence had an oppressing effect on me.  When I had to live under the same roof with her during the summer break at the end of my college freshman year, I became physically ill.  I suffered from irregular heartbeats and had trouble breathing from time to time, and one day I collapsed in the bathroom.

When Michelle reached school age, my father had passed away.  I asked Mother if she’d come to Chicago and live with me.  I thought the years must have had erased the pain and it’d be the best for Jane and Michelle to come home to their grandmother after school.  At first, Mother and I were polite to each other, exchanging a few words a day.  Gradually, her voice and her facial expressions triggered the implicit memories that had been buried deep under my skull and I revolved back to my coping mechanism: withdrawal.  It drove Mother absolutely insane.  Many times I caught a glimpse of her staring out of the kitchen window with pain written all over her face.  Whenever Joe went on business trips, I made sure to lock my bedroom door for fear that Mother would get so furious at me for ignoring her that she’d barge into my room at night and harm me again.

As a Christian, I felt obligated to forgive my mother.  “If Jesus has forgiven me, why can’t I forgive her?”  But I simply couldn’t.  Forgiveness would mean that I had to accept and love her as my mother, which posed an unsolvable problem for me.  “She has never been a mother to me.  How can anyone ask me to love her as one?”

In his book “Forgive for Good”, Dr. Fred Luskin describes Dana, who feels that the offense against her is unforgivable.  Dr. Luskin tells Dana to imagine someone holding a gun to her head.  Her only chance of survival lies in letting go of the anger and resentment she feels towards her offender.  Dana comes to the realization that her pain isn’t worth dying for and she’s been killing herself slowly by refusing to forgive.

As I was writing about me and my mother in my memoir LET GO, I started to feel her pain and agony in a way I had never been able to before.  Then one day I was sobbing in front of the computer monitor at home because I’d decided that sharing a life with Joe was getting more painful than living apart.  We hadn’t said a word to each other for 4 days and the chilling coldness and loneliness was absolutely killing me.  At that moment, the image of my mother staring out of the kitchen window flashed in my mind.  It shook me to the core.   “She came to Chicago for no reason but to help me out.  But for the couple of years she lived under my roof, I put her through hell by rejecting her, ignoring her and punishing her.  She must have felt ten times more alone than how I am feeling now.  I guess the truth is I am the one who needs to be forgiven!”  All of a sudden, all that hostility I had held inside me towards my mother just evaporated, gone.

People who hurt you are most likely hurt themselves.  Understanding this simple truth can set you on the journey to release even the most unimaginable pain.

Although nobody is holding a gun to our head and force us to let go of the pain and anger, our lives – and our happiness – truly depend on being able to forgive. Forgiveness lowers heart rate and blood pressure as well as stress. It restores positive thoughts and feelings not only to those who wronged you but also other relationships. Forgiveness improves immune system response.

Unforgiving is like drinking poison and believing your offenders will suffer the consequences. You are hurting nobody but yourself. Therefore forgive because it’s good for your physical and mental health. When you forgive, you are not setting your offender, but yourself free. People who forgive others are happier, have stronger, more loving relationships. Reconciliation may mend your relationship with the offending party, but it’s not an absolutely necessary step of forgiveness. In some cases, it may not even be possible.

Two Tibetan monks meet each other a few years after being released from prison, where they had been tortured by the prison guards.
“Have you forgiven them?” asks the first.
“You must be joking. I will never ever forgive them!” replies the second.
“Well,” says the first monk, “I guess they still have you in prison, don’t they?”

* Happiness for No Reason by Marci Shimoff
**The Benefits of Forgiveness by Elizabeth Scott