Recently I was driving home with my kids, when my four year old said, “Mommy, do you remember when I had that splinter and you had to take it out?”
“Yes, I remember” I replied
“Well, that hurt.”
“I know, sweetie, but it would hurt more to leave it in.”
As I thought about that, the impression came to me that many of us are living with emotional splinters. We leave them there, because we think it will be easier than to pull it out.
Although emotional splinters can represent many things, today I want to focus on forgiveness.
What is forgiveness?
The word forgiveness comes from the Latin word, “perdonare”, meaning to give completely, without reservation. Over time, this word was adopted into the Old English word“forgiefan”, which means to give up desire or power to punish. Both of these meanings are insightful as they clearly define that forgiveness is giving. Although we often view forgiveness as something we give to someone else, we often forget that forgiveness is also giving to ourselves. What do I mean by that? Withholding forgiveness does not affect the offender as much as it affects oneself. When you are in a state of hurt, or anger or even revenge as the result of another’s actions, these negative thoughts and emotions have a very real physiological effect on the body. As you entertain and hold onto these emotions and thoughts, damage is created at the cellular level, affecting sleep, hormones, metabolism and energy.
Imagine you are going for a hike up a beautiful mountain. You bring a backpack because you know it’s going to be a long hike, but instead of putting things like water and snacks in your backpack, you fill it with large rocks. Lots of rocks. Carrying rocks around on a hike does nothing to benefit you. It only makes the journey miserable and you are not able to enjoy the beautiful view. Forgiveness however is like putting down the useless bag of rocks and enjoying the hike.
Why is it hard to forgive?
I cannot argue that there are some truly devastating and dramatic events that can happen which cause us grief because of the choice of another person. And I do not mean to make light of some of these events. Some things we wish never happened, however we never have the ability to control another’s actions; only our own. Viktor Frankl was a prisoner of the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz and during his time there he experienced some truly horrific things. However, he discovered this truth which he wrote in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
We may know this intellectually but have a difficult time practicing it. Why?
Forgiveness is hard because we feel a loss. For example, if my friend gossips about me, I feel that I have lost a person I could confide in. If my co-worker takes the credit for a project I did, I may feel I have lost the opportunity for praise or for a promotion. In cases of close relationships, I may feel I have lost the special bond of trust. We suffer because we think of our loss. And this is human nature. I am in no way suggesting that feeling this way is wrong. I am suggesting that when we focus on the loss and choose to withhold forgiveness we end up with an emotional splinter.
At times we may leave the splinter in, withholding forgiveness because we feel we need to make our point, control the situation or punish the other person. We wrongly assume that this will bring peace, closure or satisfaction. However,these things will never satisfy because peace can only be found internally and not from any external condition. We may come to discover that withholding forgiveness is, essentially, withholding peace from oneself.
Removing the splinter
If you feel that you have been carrying around an emotional splinter, remove it. If you find that this is difficult to do at first, you are not alone. Forgiveness requires work on our part. It requires us to search internally and to grow. Mahatma Gandhi said,
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
So where do you begin? A good place to start is to remember that there isn’t one person on the earth that is immune from making mistakes. We all learn through the process of making mistakes. As you change your focus from the mistakes of others to remembering the times you have been forgiven of your mistakes, you will start to develop empathy. Feelings of empathy naturally lower cortisol levels which is going to give better clarity to the situation. The truth is, since everyone makes mistakes, everyone will need to practice forgiveness. Remember, forgiveness may take some time, and it may hurt, but like a splinter, it will hurt more to leave it in.