We often resist the notion of forgiveness. Why should we let people who hurt us off the hook, when they clearly don’t deserve it?
Set aside for a moment whether or not someone deserves to be forgiven. Instead, ask yourself: Do I deserve to forgive that person, so that I can have peace?
When you learn to defend yourself against a physical attack, the first lesson is: End the fight quickly. Strike strategically if you have to, but get the hell out of there as soon as you can. Even if you happen to be a trained martial artist with an impressive repertoire of complex self-defense techniques, a real fight is not the time to show off all your fancy moves. Regardless of your skill level, you want to get out of the situation – fast.
Now, why wouldn’t you spend the time and effort to take your attacker apart, if you have the ability to do so? Why would you pass up the opportunity to teach a punk a well-deserved lesson?
First of all, the longer the fight lasts, the greater the chances that you will get hurt. Your attacker may be stronger than you, have more stamina, carry a weapon, or have friends waiting nearby. Some good Samaritans who were late to the party may mistake you for the bad guy. Hanging around to teach that punk a lesson is risky business – for you.
In addition, if you get the upper hand over your attacker, and then you continue to fight, you have created a dangerous role reversal: You may have started out as the victim, but now you have become the aggressor, which will not work in your favor in the inevitable lawsuit to be brought by the aforementioned punk.
In short, by dragging out a fight, you are really hurting yourself.
So, when you are physically attacked, end the fight quickly. Forget about whether your attacker should be taught a lesson or deserves to be spared. You deserve to be safe, leave the situation unharmed, and not be dragged into court for something the other person started.
Ideally, we would use the same approach in conflicts of the non-physical kind – end them promptly and move on with our lives. Sometimes, however, we prolong our conflicts unnecessarily. We fight drawn-out lawsuits. We bring up the same past events and argue about the same issues in our personal relationships. We keep conflicts alive on the inside long after they have ended on the outside, continuing to replay in our mind what everyone said or did and reliving the situations over and over again, with all the unpleasant emotions associated with it. Sometimes, we just can’t seem to forgive and move on. Why is that?
“I just can’t let them get away with this!” I often hear from my mediation and coaching clients. A strong desire that the other person be punished for what he or she did is a huge stumbling block to resolving a conflict. And it can act as a powerful force to keep us emotionally stuck in the conflict, even after a resolution has been reached. Forgiving and moving on may feel like we would be condoning what happened, we would prevent justice from being served, and a punk would miss out on a lesson. While this is a valid and common sentiment, it begs the question:
Whose job is it to punish another human being for having done something wrong?
There may be different answers to this question, depending on your life philosophy or belief system. You may look to a divine being to mete out punishment in the afterlife. You may believe in a universal law of cause and effect, with the consequences of our actions manifesting automatically at the appropriate time. Whatever your outlook on life may be, I have yet to encounter a spiritual framework that would make you responsible for punishing someone who hurt you. While that punk may deserve to be taught a lesson, you are not the designated enforcer.
When you hear yourself say “I just can’t let them get away with this,” please ask: Have I appointed myself judge, jury and executioner here? If the answer is yes, then perhaps you would be better served to resign from those jobs – because they were not yours in the first place and, more importantly, they keep you stuck in the conflict and are hurting you.
Not long ago, I was able to disentangle a long-term, complicated conflict situation in my personal life. It was a challenging journey that took a lot of effort. I was amazed how liberating it was to take the simple step of forgiving. (Notice that I said “simple” – not “easy.” Addressing conflicts is never easy, even for a trained professional.) While I was at it, I also forgave my seventh grade PE teacher, two ex-bosses, my first boyfriend, and some former business associates – they all represented the same pattern in my life that I was putting to rest once and for all.
By forgiving these people, I was not letting them get away with anything. They will receive whatever they deserve, through whatever you want to call the universal force in charge. It’s not my job to judge and punish them, and I will no longer burden myself with an obligation that’s not mine.
None of these folks know I forgave them. They may not even remember what happened. But that’s not the point, anyway. I was the one stuck and hurting, and I needed to forgive. I didn’t do this for them – I did it for myself. I reclaimed peace of mind. I reclaimed a significant amount of creative energy. I reclaimed all that space inside me that was previously occupied by those conflicts, and now I have more room for much more important things. Whether or not anyone else deserved my forgiveness is irrelevant. I deserve peace. So I can get on with my life.
Who will you forgive today?