A couple of weeks ago I hit a woman with a revolving door. I wish I had done it on purpose, but it was an accident. It was at our local YMCA. I had a baby in one arm and a folded-up stroller in the other and was shoving my moving pie-piece with my shoulder; the guy behind me, amped up and ready for his workout, pushed the revolving door fast and hard.
The woman in front of me stepped out of her pie piece but didn’t entirely clear the path, so when my door came around it slammed her sideways.
“Ah, I’m sorry!” I said reflexively.
She pushed her face into mine and screamed, “NEXT TIME BE MORE CAREFUL.” The gym-goers around me rolled their eyes, perhaps at her, perhaps at me, who knows.
So yeah, this is a minor thing, but it bugged me for days. It played in my head over and over again, a “Hotel California”-like earworm, popping into my consciousness at random moments. All the clever things I wished I’d said back, like: “Lady, it’s a revolving door.”
Now a lot of this is probably because the incident triggered other, more profound, feelings of long-ago wrongs, but that’s beside the immediate point, which is: I wanted to stop feeling pissed off. Holding a grudge against this woman was interfering with my life. Every time I told myself, “Just let it go,” it would circle back, thump thump on a dark desert highway…popping into my head unbidden as I squeezed grapefruits or paid the gas bill. It was like some kind of weird alert that blooped over and over again, disturbing my normally relatively happy existence, letting me know I had some serious wells of fury I guess I was trying to tamp down. Great!
This got me thinking: How do people deal with wrongs they can’t get over—wrongs more serious than this? Why do some people recover from abandonment, betrayal, or abuse while others ruminate for years? Sure, some people can “let things go,” but how does one do that, exactly? I didn’t want to feel pissed off over some random woman losing her shit at the gym, but I didn’t seem to have any control over it.
I asked three people, in three different “forgiveness” fields, for their perspectives.
The Organizational Psychologist
Ryan Fehr, a professor at the University of Washington’s business school, conducted a 2010 meta-analysis of 175 studies of forgiveness to identify why some people are able to forgive and some aren’t. He says, “One of the biggest predictors of forgiveness is whether or not the victim is able to empathize with the transgressor. When we think about someone who’s wronged us, we tend to focus on negative attributes, imagining ‘he/she is a bad person,’ or ‘he/she doesn’t like me.’”
But consider that maybe the wrong wasn’t deliberate. “We are biased to think that other people act intentionally,” says Fehr, but most people are just bumbling around, doing the best they can, and sometimes harming other people in the process. This is where the perspective-shifting comes in: To let go of anger over a wrong, Fehr suggests trying to see the wrong from the other person’s side: “If we shift our perspective to the offender’s point of view, forgiveness is more likely.” And try to remember times when you’ve wronged other people: “When we think about times that we have committed offenses, we don’t usually judge ourselves too harshly. We say, ‘Oh, I was having a bad day,’ or ‘It wasn’t that bad.’”
I ask him what to do when you’re ruminating, like I was about the cranky lady at the gym. “Give me a ‘to-do’ to forgive,” I said.
“Think of your own forgiveness as a gift you can offer to allow the offender a similar sense of relief.”
“Okay,” he agreed. “Think about a time when you did something you felt guilty about and someone else forgave you. Chances are, you felt some relief and gratitude for the forgiveness. Now, think of your own forgiveness as a gift you can offer to allow the offender a similar sense of relief. We are less effective when we try to suppress thoughts of conflict. When we try to suppress our thoughts, it generally doesn’t work. This is the classic ‘don’t think about a white elephant’ thought experiment. When we try not to think of a white elephant, it’s all we can think about. Rather than suppressing your thoughts about the conflict, try to shift how you are thinking about it.”
How about if the wrong is more serious? I ask—for example, co-parenting with your ex after an ugly breakup. He replied, “In the case of disagreements over parenting, you can begin to overcome conflict by trying to recognize that you’re both acting with the best interests of the child in mind. Your ex is not just an evil person who is trying to thwart you.”
For an actual forgiveness “action plan,” Fehr suggests exploring the REACH method, a five-step program developed by Everett Worthington, a psychologist who began researching forgiveness after a personal trauma.
The Mindfulness Guru
I run the same questions by Scott Rogers, director of the Mindfulness in Law Program at the University of Miami School of Law.
He says, “The first part of mindfulness is just understanding that the mind tends to turn to the past, uninvited, to reflect on things—things that can be a source of guilt or doubt or discomfort. That’s just the nature of the mind.
“So mindfulness is the practical realm of how to manage this. In a mindfulness [meditation] practice, when you realize your mind is wandering, you bring awareness to the breath and the body and return to the moment. That can have a benefit in not getting lost in the story [of the original hurt]. Over time the mind doesn’t wander so much.” Rogers notes, just as Fehr did above, that many of the agitated feelings that come up are not because of what happened but because of the story we attach to it—that person deliberately hurt me, or that person is a bad person.
If you keep ruminating on the original offense, like I was with my lady at the Y, Rogers says, “Here’s where a Buddhist perspective becomes important: Maybe there’s a reason we’re not letting it go. If we could just let it go, we’d be missing an opportunity to grow and to be wiser and more compassionate towards ourselves. Who’s the one who’s being most harmed by not forgiving? It’s us. We harbor a grudge against someone who doesn’t even know they harmed us.”
He gives an example of a hypothetical years-ago slight: “Let’s say something happened in grad school. And you find it coming up, a decade later, and you’re thinking thoughts like, ‘Maybe I should find that person and write a letter’ or even ‘Maybe I should find where that person works and write their boss a letter.’ Now [you’ve made it] much more than it is. The mind will weave a tale that is so much bigger than [the original transgression] was. Mindfulness is about acknowledging the pain, but not reliving the experience that led to the pain. And then working with it so that we can find an okay-ness with what took place. It’s a personal practice of self-sufficiency.”
But what about offenses so grave that some action, now, actually is warranted? I ask Rogers about this, giving an example of someone who has been abused and is still in the milieu of the abuser. What if the victim needs to make some kind of decision, like whether to cut off contact with the abuser? How does decision-making fit in with mindfulness?
He immediately notes that for something like abuse, getting therapeutic help—beyond practicing mindfulness, which can be complementary—is critical. “Getting help in the midst of something traumatic, especially if [someone like an abuser] is still in our midst is important.” Beyond that, he says, “The most powerful component of mindfulness is to move into and remain uncomfortable a little longer than we would normally.” So making a decision that might be frightening or upsetting, like confronting someone or cutting them off, can be easier to bear if you have the tools to endure discomfort longer than you normally would.
“If we’re grappling with what to do, mindfulness allows us to be steadier in a confusing barrage of feelings and to make a decision, even if it’s a painful decision, or one that would cause us to feel shame. [With a mindfulness practice] the shame can lose its grip—you might be able to say, ‘I’m feeling shame and I’m feeling courage at the same time. I’m feeling shame and the capacity to move forward at the same time. I’m able to bear it and just move forward.'”
The Catholic Priest
Nobody has thought about sin and forgiveness more than the Christians. One difference between my husband, a practicing Catholic, and me, an atheist, is that he rather calmly accepts that people are flawed and do crummy things, whereas I get worked up over every slight and wrong—whether in our personal lives or on a global level. It’s fresh news to me, every day, that people will behave badly, and I freak out accordingly. He often reminds me of a sermon he heard as a young man on the subject of forgiveness: If you recognize that only God is perfect, then there is room for humans to be flawed, and you stop expecting them to be perfect as well.
I spoke to the Reverend Edward P. Doran, the priest at St. Charles Borromeo in Brooklyn, New York, about a Catholic view of forgiveness. He starts off with a bit of Scripture: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John 20:21-23). What’s interesting is that while my other interviewees, Fehr and Rogers, immediately understood that I was talking about forgiving other people, Father Ed started with the idea of forgiving oneself, via Confession: “The priest brings the forgiveness of Jesus to the parishioner through the sacrament called Reconciliation.”
While my other interviewees, Fehr and Rogers, immediately understood that I was talking about forgiving other people, Father Ed started with the idea of forgiving oneself, via Confession.
And when I say, “No, I’m talking about forgiving someone else,” he says, “When you’ve been aggrieved by someone, as a human being, it stings, it hurts. If someone has been offended, we’re asking how can they deal with that, that pain. If you look at the crucifixion of Jesus, you realize that he did absolutely nothing wrong—if anyone has the right to complain, he does…Take that hurt and that pain and offer it at the cross of Jesus to offer in union with his suffering. This allows you to rise above it. People hold on to pain and it paralyzes them. That’s not what the Lord intended.”
All these perspectives on forgiveness encourage you to discard the story that accompanies the injury and to replace the rumination with something else. In psychology, the “something else” is the other person’s perspective, in mindfulness it’s your breath and body, in Catholicism it’s the suffering of Jesus.
I tried to put myself in the shoes of the woman at the gym: It was the early-morning rush, perhaps she was pissed at something else in her life, and she was whacked with a heavy door. I was able to summon some sympathy—I have certainly had days when I’ve lost my shit in public over something that I misapprehended.
I appreciate that each of these forgiveness modalities brought a kind of “action plan”—something concrete to do to replace the distress. By the time I’d conducted the three interviews, the rumination on that (admittedly trivial) incident had ceased. Maybe it was my attempts to see her point of view, or maybe the attention I had been focusing on that incident was replaced by my interest in this story. And perhaps that’s the final piece of the puzzle—living your life, engaged in your work and projects and family and friends, is the best way to obscure, layer by layer, the distressing events of the past. It’s like recovering from a physical injury: You strengthen the area around the painful bit, and gradually the original hurt stops bothering you so much. We have to turn up the good things to drown out the bad things. And that, ultimately, is what forgiveness is—a kind of self-care, a commitment to living a full and happy life for your own sake, despite the sins of the past.