Saturday, 18 May 2013

Embracing Happiness, Part III: Forgiveness

This is the third post in a 7-part series that I'm calling Embracing Happiness. It's meant to document some things that I've learned over the past year and a half that have completely changed my life and led me to where I am now, to being a happier and more complete person than I have ever been before. Each piece will speak to a major skill or lesson I've learned and how that's contributed, directly and indirectly, to greater beauty and joy in my life. If you missed them, here are part one and part two.

You know those people who remember that time you made a mistake 3 years ago, and bring it up every time they want to make a point? I know quite a few people like that, friends and family alike. Learning is a big part of moving forward positively. The thing is, when these people bring up your 3-year-old mistake, it's not usually done in the spirit of learning; it's done in the spirit of finding something to hold against you so that they can win an argument. (As a side note, in case this offers any comfort, I might argue that if they can't find anything more recent and relevant to hold against you, you're probably not doing so badly, in reality.)


There is a lack of forgiveness there. It's them saying that they're still angry about or judging that decision you made all that time ago. And it begs the question: what does it accomplish? For me, it makes that person someone who I'm neither learning from nor enjoy being around, and often, I will distance myself from that person. Do I want to be someone who others don't want to be around? Definitely not. So part of that is making sure that I'm at least doing my best to forgive others for their choices and not judge them all the time for them.

Having to be right and winning arguments is not only detrimental to learning (as outlined in my last post on Humility and the ego), but it also makes it really, really hard to forgive people. After all, these flaws we see in others are really good ammunition. They're really good ways to look better than them when we're arguing with them. Right? But needing to be right is the same as bullying, as reminding others that you win and they lose, because you're less imperfect than they are.

Forgiveness lets us let go of that. Does that mean we just forget every mistake that was ever made? Of course not, because doing that means we're not learning, either. But it does mean we need to look at the productive, positive side of things and recognize these mistakes as opportunities to learn, not things we should hold against people we claim to love. This is of course easier said than done, and so I've developed a simple system for me to make sure I know my motivations behind bringing up the past. This may or may not be useful to you, but it has really, really improved my interactions with the people in my life. It consists of three questions, which I'll outline below and explain a little:

Question 1: Do I know this actually happened?
Gossip is not productive, and doesn't really give us an accurate picture of the world. If you're bringing up a past that you don't know even happened, that's not productive. Rather, it's trying to find something to hold against the other person, based on something heard through the grapevine. Asking if this information is actually true may be useful, in cases where it's a really serious thing that should probably be dealt with, and that the person should probably know that others are saying about them. If that's not the case, then there's no reason to use hearsay to attack others. Of the three questions, this is probably the one that disqualifies the most things from coming out of my mouth.

Question 2: Is this still relevant?
You can bring up the times in college when the other person was binge drinking to defend the idea that they're an alcoholic, but if they're in a place right now where they have one drink socially every third weekend, it's not productive to bring it up. They've already learned from their past and have arrived at a different place in their life. Instead of trying to guilt them over the past, it's actually probably more productive to congratulate them: "You know, I was thinking about how you used to drink a lot more, which seemed like it was making you unhappy, and you don't do that anymore. I'm really proud of you for making that change because you seem much happier and healthier for it." Wouldn't that be nice to hear once in a while from a loved one?

Question 3: Will this actually benefit the other person?
If the answer is no, then I'm probably just doing it to hold something against the person and win a fight. If the statement or situation will actually benefit the other person, I'm probably not feeling angry at the time (though possibly a little frustrated, if I see a clear opportunity to learn and the other person doesn't--this actually happens fairly often for me). If the statement is actually meant to benefit the other person, I also don't have to include irrelevant information about how angry I am right now, how they always mess up, or anything else like that. The point is how it affects them and how you can give them information that may help them enhance their own life and their relationships with others. Keeping this in mind, all I need to say is roughly, "I love you, and I'm on your side. I hope that this mistake doesn't keep happening and hurting you (and/or your relationships) over and over. I want to be here for you, to work with you towards achieving that and support you however I can."

Using this framework, I've been pretty successful at forgiving while also making lemonade out of lemons.

This meme says it all. You need to respect you, too.
But there is one crucial bit that I want to stress. Forgiving others is not the same as just taking whatever is given to you from whoever gives it. I told you earlier that I will distance myself from people who I feel unproductively remind me of or judge my past decisions, and I don't feel that it's inconsistent with forgiving them. Forgiving them means I'm not angry, and that if I were given the chance, I would give them the opportunity to see how their behaviour affected me and learn from it, if they chose to. But people who aren't interested in helping you learn from your mistakes are often very unlikely to be open to learning from their own mistakes, especially in emotionally-charged situations. So in my experience, it's best to give them space, and then (if possible) approach the subject when they're feeling more open. It may go well; it may just start another fight because they're not ready to hear it. But the important thing for me to remember is that they're doing the best they can, and if their best isn't showing me the respect I deserve and they're not willing to work on that, then there is nothing I can do but remove myself from an abusive situation.

And this ties into the last (but most definitely not least) bit of this piece: I became stronger and happier when I was able to forgive myself. It means letting me forget the past when it's not helping me learn and grow. When I make a mistake, of course I need to be able to learn from it, but once that process is over, I need to let it go unless it's informing a decision right now. Otherwise, it becomes an exercise in self-torture, of constantly beating myself up over something that I've already dealt with in the best way I can. You can't go back and change the past, and realizing that is key. If you expect yourself to change everything that's already happened, then no wonder you have trouble forgiving yourself!

I am imperfect. I make mistakes. And if all I can do is dwell on the mistakes, I'm not learning from them and I'm doing myself a terrible injustice. I'm being unproductively hard on myself, without giving myself the opportunity to grow and become stronger for next time. Forgiving yourself is the process of saying, "Well, I messed up, and that's OK, because nobody is perfect. I know that this is probably where I went wrong and I'll be able to do better next time." Being able to embrace the fact that you're imperfect actually makes you...well, closer to perfect, because you're always becoming stronger and better equipped to succeed.

As with many things, forgiveness begins with yourself.

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