The Art of Forgiveness

Andrew R. Warnecke, MA, LPC

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” – Alexander Pope

I was recently scanning through my cable stations and saw a show called Hoarders. I thought about my classes on abnormal psychology back in grad school and came to the conclusion that we all have a little bit of hoarder in us. We all seem to have trouble letting go of certain things. I believe that it really isn’t the thing as much as the emotional attachment we have projected onto the thing. So as I was working on an idea for an article, I thought it would be appropriate to explain what I consider to be the art of forgiveness.

Much like the hoarder of things, we can have a tendency to hoard our feelings. When we are wronged or hurt in any way, we have the opportunity to hold onto it or to let it go. If we choose to hold onto the hurt or angry feelings, they can become resentments, the worst of which are what we call justifiable resentments. I am not saying that we should just ignore the feelings. Feelings are a wonderful gift from the creator, but they can be a double-edged sword if we don’t know how to break them down and manage them. Feelings can either serve us (help us set appropriate boundaries and limits) or they can debilitate us (turn into resentments, retaliation, and revenge).

As an anger management counselor, I see a lot of people who are not only perpetuating their hurt, but they are often hurting others. I call this anger displacement, which leads to collateral damage. The reasons that we feel angry and hurt are often justified, as we live in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people. We have all heard the famous saying that we often hurt the ones we love the most. I see this in almost every case that I am called to work on. The people who have the hardest time letting go of anger in the form of resentments are people who are not necessarily malicious, but who are hurting the most and lack the education and understanding of how to deal with these feelings. So just like the hoarder, the “stuff” in the form of negative feelings builds up to toxic levels and makes our emotional environment far less than healthy. Anger turned inward turns into depression, and anger not dealt with appropriately externally turns into aggression. I see a lot of both in my practice.

The art of forgiveness is so very important to our world today. It all begins with understanding that forgiveness is a gift that we give to ourselves, not to the person we are angry with or resent. I love the saying, “Resentments are like drinking poison and waiting for our opponent to get sick.” Resentments hurt the person who holds onto them much more that the ones resented.

As with any art, “repetition is the mother of skill.” So if we are to get better at the art of forgiveness, we have to actually practice. I employ many different exercises to increase this skill in myself and my patients. I believe that one of the best strategies is writing. As we put our thoughts and feelings on paper or a computer screen, we are actually purging them, much like our bodies would purge a rotten bite of food. The sooner you start to discharge the anger or resentment, the better. When we get the thoughts and feelings out, we can begin to heal and gain perspective.

I believe peace is a perspective away. I also strongly believe in prayer. Prayer is as old as humanity and it really works if you practice it on a daily basis. I also recommend that we seek support and help from one another. We are social creatures, which means we need one another. Just like we didn’t build the house we live in, we can’t build a social support network without each other.

I wish we had classes on emotional intelligence and management in our school systems, starting and advancing in depth as we move through primary to secondary education, just like we teach other arts such as writing and music. We just aren’t going to get better unless we have some sort of educational structure. Counseling is effective, but not nearly as mainstream as it could be. It’s truly a situation where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

We live in a fast-paced, in-your-face world that seems to create an environment for caustic feelings and behavior. We are force-fed negativity, so practicing the gentle art of forgiveness may be one of the most important ideas of the day. Forgiveness isn’t approving; its understanding and accepting. I’ll end with a quote I heard once in a church sermon, “God forgives. Do I know something he doesn’t?’’ If you are struggling with feelings of anger and resentment, please don’t underestimate the importance of the art of forgiveness.