A classic Buddhist proverb states: “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Forgiveness is one of the most important lessons life has to offer, but it is also one of the more difficult sentiments to learn and practice.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, empirical research confirms the proverb’s message. “Forgiving people are less likely to be hateful, depressed, hostile, anxious, angry, and neurotic,” Lyubomirsky says.
“They are more likely to be happier, healthier, more agreeable, and more serene. They are better able to empathize with others and to be spiritual or religious. People who forgive hurts in relationships are more capable of reestablishing closeness. Finally, the inability to forgive is associated with persistent rumination or dwelling on revenge, while forgiving allows a person to move on.”
Lyubomirsky notes that when we feel wronged, our first inclination is to respond negatively. I tend to believe the notion that people are inherently good, and while some may make poor choices or behave inappropriately, they do not hurt others intentionally.
While forgiveness releases inner animosity, it does not imply that you must reconcile a relationship with the person who caused pain. Of course boundaries may be needed for your own emotional threshold; forgiving someone is absolving feelings of contempt and allowing yourself to attain peace of mind.
So how can we practice forgiveness?
The How of Happiness suggests that garnering empathy allows a new perspective to unfold and forgiveness comes more easily. When we try to understand the other person’s emotions, thoughts and feelings, while also realizing that they too have a story of their own, forgiving their actions suddenly becomes more plausible.
Lyubomirsky advises us to practice empathy in our daily routines every time a person does something that’s not easy to comprehend. Why do you think he or she behaved that way? What elements could be contributing to this situation? Is he or she going through something that’s stressful? Did he or she grow up in an abusive household? We’re not making excuses for others or justifying their actions, but we are learning to figure out the place that they’re coming from.
Now let’s look at the other end of the equation, the uglier side. Sometimes the anger, the regrets, the angst over a situation-gone-wrong, leads us to look in the mirror; sometimes, we need to forgive ourselves.
I’ll never forget an excerpt from Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love that hit the nail on the head in terms of this infamous internal struggle. During Elizabeth’s stay at an ashram in India, she meets Richard, her personal mentor with a tough-love mentality, who helps her on her quest for happiness.
During one of their many heart-to-heart conversations, she conveys the guilt she’s been harboring from the dissolution of her marriage and ultimately leaving her husband. “I’m waiting for him to forgive me, to release me,” she says. Richard looks at her, before assertively stating “waiting for him to forgive you is a damn waste of time: forgive yourself.”
Practicing forgiveness, with ourselves or with others involved, may be challenging, but will surely be beneficial in terms of our mental well-being. Alden Tan contributed a blog post to Tinybuddha.com about letting go of his anger, which can certainly foster a forgiving nature as well.
“Let it go, not just for a better future, but also because you’re a good person,” he writes. “And a good person isn’t angry most of the time. Instead, he sees beauty in the world and strives for a positive life, in which others around him can be inspired too. Choose to let go of your anger so you can be that person.”