Mind & Body

To Forgive, Divine

Learning to forgive helps relieve feelings of depression and anxiety and increases a sense of optimism. Here, 6 ways to get started.

To Forgive, Divine
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I CAN'T WAIT to dance on your grave, I once vowed to my father. It wasn't the first time I'd spoken out against him, nor would it be the last--as far back as I can recall, the two of us never got along. Exhausted and enraged by his abuse, I left home at 18, but he continued his verbal attacks long distance. Finally, in my 30s, I cut him off.

But that only solved one part of the problem. I was no longer exposing myself to new battles, but his negative voice never left my head. Every bad choice I made--from men to jobs to medication--I traced back to my father. I blamed and hated him for my pain, even when the pain was self-inflicted. Worse, I often hated myself more, unable to shake his prophecy that failure was my destiny.

I'm OK; it's not OK
I NEEDED TO FORGIVE my father, friends told me. This, I was assured, would free me to get on with my life. Indeed, I was worn out from the anger and depression that plagued me when I contemplated our relationship--I had to let go. Because not letting go was interfering with every other relationship I had, from friendships to my own parenting to romance. Not letting go was killing me.

But I had problems with the concept of forgiveness. As a child brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, I was often told I was going to hell for one minor infraction or another. I was also told forgiveness is mandatory--you know, If it's good enough for Jesus Christ.... In my mind, my father and the church were too entangled for me to separate. As I grew to reject his authority, I eventually thumbed my nose at the church and anything associated with it.

It turned out I was misguided in my imaginings of what forgiveness means. I learned that it can be about freedom rather than repression. "Forgiveness doesn't mean saying that what the other person did was OK--you can still be quite clear that their behavior was harmful and inappropriate," explains the Venerable Thubten Chodron, a Buddhist monastic and founder of the Sravasti Abbey in Newport, Wash. "But that doesn't mean we need to be angry and resentful. To stop being angry, to stop holding a grudge--that's what I call forgiveness."

My first steps toward releasing my resentment began a few years ago when I read Alice Miller's Banished Knowledge, a book about overcoming childhood abuse. Miller claimed there was no need for me to forgive someone who had abused me. Why should I? And what right did my father have to be forgiven? This concept resonated deeply and somehow liberated me, launching me first on a path of deep self-analysis and, later, professional therapy. There, I was finally able to work through some of my father issues. Certainly, I still had flashbacks, bouts of anger, moments of wistful regret during which I longed for a different set of memories. Certainly, too, I never forgot what he'd done to me. But as the blessings of time joined forces with the tools and skills I acquired in therapy, my hatred for my father began to give way to something else.