Updated: Dec 17, 2022
On May 3, 1980, Cari Lightner, a 13-year-old girl, was killed by a drunken hit-and-run driver in Fair Oaks, California. The 46-year-old driver, who had recently been arrested for another DUI hit-and-run, left Cari's body at the scene.
Cari’s tragic death compelled her mother, Candy Lightner, to found an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD). It would grow into one of the country’s most influential non-profit organizations. We are not told explicitly that she forgave the inebriated driver, but her actions proved that she would not allow her life to remain chained in resentment and loathing.
After spending 27 years in prison for his political beliefs, Nelson Mandela was released in 1990. He could have easily harbored feelings of bitterness and hatred toward those who had imprisoned him for so long. Instead, Mandela chose to
forgive his captors and work towards building a new, more unified South Africa.
These are just 2 outstanding examples of how people were able to free themselves from the bitter chains of unforgiveness. But is this action possible for us ordinary people when we have endured mistreatment, harsh, thoughtless words; when we have been cheated, betrayed, physically, sexually and emotionally abused, lied to, ignored, or abandoned?
The reason I chose to write this blog post on forgiveness is that it has come up as a topic with many of my clients in private practice and in my grief support group. I have witnessed the looks of consternation on the faces of individuals who are faced with the challenge of forgiving an individual in their lives who has caused them great pain. I have heard the plaintive question of "Yes, I know the right thing is to forgive so and so, but HOW do I actually do that?" Hence, the question, "Is forgiveness humanly possible?"
This question has driven me to explore the topic in great depth as I searched for some deeply buried nuggets about forgiveness. This blog represents a summary of what I discovered and what I felt were the most poignant morsels of wisdom.
WHAT FORGIVENESS IS NOT:
Forgiveness does not diminish the wrong done against you
Forgiveness is not a denial of what happened
Forgiveness is not weakness
Forgiveness does not require you to become a “doormat
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting
Forgiveness does not take away the consequences the other person will face because of his or her actions
Forgiveness does not necessarily mean a continued relationship with the offender
Forgiveness does not require you to open yourself up to the offender to be hurt again.
Forgiveness does not wait for the offender to apologize or earn forgiveness in some way.
WHAT IS FORGIVENESS?
Forgiveness is among the hardest things we can do
Forgiving someone can be difficult and uncomfortable
Forgiveness is an act, not just a change of thought or attitude. As in Candy Lightner's case, her act of forgiveness was to found MADD. In Nelson Mandela's situation, forgiveness was followed by becoming the first black South African president.
Forgiveness, like love, must be demonstrated by meaningful, concrete action in our lives.
Forgiveness is not a one-time decision, but an ongoing process. Feelings of relief and healing are often not immediate.
Forgiveness is the bravest, most powerful thing you can do. It breaks the hold that has been put on your life. Refusing to forgive allows the person or thing that was hurtful to you continue to hurt you.
Forgiveness is an act that benefits you more than the offender. It sets you free.
Forgiveness is a choice, NOT a feeling.
All the leaders of the Abrahamic faiths teach forgiveness as the best way to live. Jesus taught that we should forgive not only once, but seventy times seven, that is, the number of perfection. In other words. don't ever put a limit on how often you forgive.
Islam teaches “Do not harbour a grudge against one another, It is not lawful for a Muslim to avoid speaking with his brother beyond three days.” [Bukhari and Muslim].
The Jewish faith says "Why should one forgive? Basically, because it is a mitzvah, a divine command." The Torah explicitly forbids us to take revenge or to bear grudges (Leviticus 19:18).
So in answer to the question, "Is forgiveness humanly possible?" Forgiveness is an intensely spiritual act that calls upon our higher self to transcend our human instincts. Left to our own devices, we are prone to seek revenge, to hate and to protect our egos at all costs. Forgiveness requires Divine strength which all of us have access to if we are humble enough to reach out and ask for it.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, who so courageously demonstrated forgiveness towards his captors: “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”