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Forgive and Set Yourself Free

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and realize that prisoner was you.” ~Lewis B. Smedes

We’ve all heard the saying “forgive and forget.”  It seems easy when you say it like that. The forgetting part can be daunting, though. I can say that when you let go, the memory dims. That’s a start.

I didn’t understand the importance of forgiveness until I was in my mid-forties. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve forgiven people over the years. I just never understood how it related to my own well-being.

Let’s face it, not forgiving someone for standing you up or forgetting a birthday isn’t going to weigh on you for years and inhibit a full life. Not forgiving a parent for abuses, real or imagined, can.

As with most “aha” moments, we want to share our new found wisdom with everyone. A friend of mine understood what I had just discovered. She had been abused by her father.

It took her years to let go of the anger. The hurt never really leaves, but the anger can keep you from truly living. The only way to move on is to forgive.

She told me about her father-in-law, and how badly she wanted to share this wisdom with him. He is now in his 90’s and filled with anger. No matter how she tries, he won’t let it go. Let’s call him George.

George’s Story:

George’s father abandoned their family when he was a toddler. It was the 1920’s. There was no shared custody, no every other weekend. It was a very different world. Women had just gotten the right to vote.

It’s difficult enough in today’s world to be a single parent. Imagine being a single mother in NYC during an era when society frowned on women working, let alone supporting a fatherless child. His mother must have been constantly distraught.

George and his mother moved in with his grandmother, who was getting on and not fully able to handle a toddler. This only added to his mother’s stress. Yet somehow, his mother managed to support and care for George until he was seven years old.

At that point she found, what she believed, was a better life for him. A family friend knew a couple, with two sons of their own, who lived on a farm in the Catskill Mountains. They would gladly take George.

Their sons were younger than he, and farming is difficult business. All hands are welcome, so it seemed a win-win all around.

“I can imagine his mother’s relief,” my friend told me. “She must have thought he’d have fresh air, never go hungry, a healthy life! More than she could give him in the city.”

George’s take on this story is quite different.

In his heart, he felt that she just gave him away. The couple who took him in treated him like a slave laborer. The father was abusive and mean. George’s anger started building then and there.

It never occurred to him that his mother only got one week’s vacation annually and spent it with him at the farm every single year. It never occurred to him that this could’ve been a painful and gut-wrenching choice for a mother to make. He just felt abandoned and furious.

Then, during the summer when he was sixteen, his mother came to visit with her new fiancé. She introduced George to her future husband as “My first husband’s son.”

In George’s eyes, she had denounced him completely.

My friend’s take on this is that George’s mother had worked and lived the single life for 14 years, in a time when that was frowned upon. She had found someone and fallen in love. He obviously loved her, too. She did not want to jeopardize this in any way.

George stayed at the farm until just prior to his 21st birthday. At that time he moved to Brooklyn, New York, to live with an aunt he hardly knew while he looked for work.

He was fortunate to find a job with a company that supported him from his time in WWII through his retirement 40 years later.

He married a woman he adored, had two children, and, despite his upbringing (whether you deem it fortunate or not), had a successful career and happy life.

He maintained a cordial relationship with his mother and step-father, keeping his anger hidden from everyone. His children barely remember their grandmother, as she died fairly young.

As George has gotten older, his anger and bitterness over his mother’s perceived abandonment defines him. His wife died at the age of 69. They were the same age and devoted to each other. He was so helpless around the house that his family never thought he would last a year without her.

Now, 23 years later, he is still carrying on.  For the past nine years he has lived in a small apartment in my friend’s home. It’s the time they’ve lived close to him that has magnified their awareness of his anger.

A few years ago, my friend had an evening alone with George. It’s not something she looked forward to.  He’s difficult to be around because he’s such a grumpy old man.

The evening ended with the two of them sharing “war stories” from their childhoods. He spoke of abuses by the man who owned the farm. He made it clear he blamed his mother for all of it.

She shared some stories of her abuse as a child, making the point, “We are here now as survivors.”  Like me, she always felt her past made her the woman she is today.

We all learn in our own way, and maybe some of us need to experience hell to truly appreciate the lives we have now.

“I keep trying to help him see it how I interpret it, and let go, forgive her,” she explained. His response is always, “It’s too late, and she’s dead.”

It is never too late.

Forgiveness is for you, not the person you are forgiving. More often than not, the person you are forgiving will never know you’ve forgiven them. It is a gift you need to give yourself. Imagine a huge weight being lifted off your shoulders. You feel so much lighter, freer!

George is 92 years old, and it’s possible he will die an angry old man with a very heavy heart.

If you doubt the power of forgiveness, I hope you will reconsider. You will be happy that you did.

Photo by tim geers

Profile photo of Barbara Hammond

About Barbara Hammond

Barbara Hammond is an artist and author with two blogs. Zero to 60 and Beyond is about life stories and lessons learned; Petals, Palettes, and Parties is all about creativity.

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  • Great article, thanks. I feel there is no wisdom in “forgive and forget”. If we forgive the ACTOR and not the ACTION, we have the possibly to taste from freedom, unburden ourselves and live lighter, as you stated…and never even have to see, talk to or, especially, ever be harmed again by the person we are forgiving. We all deserve to give ourselves the gift of forgiveness.

    May all beings live with ease. 

  • Anonymous

    You are so right Gary.  In my case I had to explain to my mother that I had forgiven her long ago so I could move on, but she needed to understand I cannot have her in my life.  It was difficult but necessary.
    Thanks for your comment.

  • I love the term you used “live lighter”, I use it quick a bit myself, especially when I’m leading sitting groups in Forgiveness or Metta meditations. I think those two words, when used together, speak volumes.

  • Bob

    I have been on both sides of the fence: to be unforgiven and having to forgive. It took all my adult life to forgive my dad for abandoning me. I still have not been forgiven by a friend of whom I considered the best friend of my life.

    I had to consciously forgive my dad each time I recalled something painful he did to me. With time I was able to forgive him from the heart. Before he died he told his second wife it was too late and I never got the chance to tell him I forgave him.

    I tried to make amends with my friend but I could tell it was of no use. Maybe he will one day forgive me, but I had to move on.

  • Bravo Barbara – well written and thoughtful.  George may never forgive but hearing his story will help us readers put some of our own baggage in perspective.  Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    I guess all you can hope is that your friend has forgiven you in order to lighten their load and move on, as you’ve tried to do Bob.  It is a process, for sure, but so much better on the other side. Thanks for joining in.
    b

  • Anonymous

    Thank you JG.  It really does put it in perspective when you think about carry all that anger around for a very long lifetime.  Nothing can be worth that kind of pain, in my opinion.  Glad you liked the post!
    b

  • Anonymous

    Forgiveness is such a potent topic for me.  It seems to me that the person I am always trying to forgive is ME — a bit solipsistic, but again, I have to forgive myself for that.  I need to forgive myself for growing old, for making mistakes, for not being the person I imagined i could be.

     Yogi Bhajan, the person who introduced thousands to Kundalini Yoga, said that we should all try; to forgive God for allowing us to grow into a feeling of separateness.

    Anyway, it’s a great topic. Thanks for posting!

  • Anonymous

    Interesting Michael.  I guess when we wholly accept ourselves we’ve forgiven all the things that kept us from that wholeness.  It is always a work in progress isn’t it?  Thanks for contributing to this topic.
    b

  • I am able to forgive more fluidly when I remind myself that every person is doing their best from their own state of consciousness.

  • Anonymous

     That’s how I came to forgive my mother Ann.  I came to the realization that she did the best she could with what she had and knew.  That’s all any of us can do.  Thanks for your insight.
    b

  • What a great piece, Barbara.  I have a friend I have been working to forgive now for 10 years, and I’ve had to take it step by step.  I know one day I will be able to get to the point where I can truly wish her well and not have any negative associations when her name comes up, but for now I’ve only reached the point where I have completely let go of the anger and have almost-neutral feelings toward her.  It is definitely a process.

    I do agree that everyone has to come to their own realization and find their own path towards forgiveness (and plenty of people will never make it to that point).  It is such a personal journey and we each need to heal in our own way.  It is a very valuable lesson to learn that we have a choice whether to hold on to those feelings and let them ruin the rest of our lives or not.  It seems, though, that some people let their anger or unforgiveness define them and it is too scary or overwhelming to let go of it.  How wonderful it would be if we all could help each other heal so that no-one had to go through life holding on to so much pain and resentment!

  • What a nice surprise today to see this post by Barbara. For me, the hardest person to forgive is usually myself.  Not that I don’t treat myself well – I do, and probably spend more than I should on me, but it’s the little intangible things like wishing I had done this or that just a tad better for someone else – or been more generous with my time, money, etc.  I have a hard time longing for just another 5 minutes with my mom or dad or to chat for another 2 minutes on the phone with them — I wish I could have just more time to hang out and do “nothing” with them – and realize work and my laptop (which did receive it’s own punishment  –see “shaken laptop sydrome”) are not living sometimes.
    Thanks for the reminder about forgiveness!
    xo
    the “me” in madness

  • Anonymous

    Very good point Alannah about taking it step by step.  I believe it starts with releasing the anger bit by bit.  Eventually, I think, we realize it is still holding us back somehow and the only way to truly move on is to forgive and let go completely.

    I do agree with you that sometimes our anger defines us to the point we fear letting it go.  Who would I be without it??  Clearly George is in that place.
    Thanks for you input!
    b

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Lee for adding to this discussion.  I agree you should be gentler on yourself and bask in the glory that was your family, and still is. 
    b

  • Holly

    This is great! I know I tend to hold grudges for a very long time (I’m talking years) and it certainly has impeded my ability to grow and flourish as a human being. At school I would walk the halls and have to avoid certain areas and groups of people just because I didn’t want to face those people who had hurt me in the past. On the other hand, while I was avoiding them I was avoiding the root of the problem- forgiveness. By not forgiving these people for hurting me in the past I had extended this hurt over the length of my 4 years in high school. I dropped out of certain clubs and class just because I didn’t want to put up with the bullshit. But, the problems were still there and these people were now holes in my road life. Sure, they had hurt me once but I was now hurting myself because I did not have the courage or strength to get over it and move on. Recently though, I wrote those few people letters to ask them for forgiveness. Though I did not outwardly say ‘I would like your forgiveness’ I did do so in a more subdued sense. I told them that I was sorry and really tried to explain to them how I felt and really, just let them know I cared (even after a year or two). It may take some time to forgive someone but an good apology is worth waiting for and a much better way to move on. Instead of simply ignoring the hole in your life and having to make the extra effort to walk around it, deal with the problem!   

  • gloria

    I am  STRUGGLING with forgiveness, of an unfaithful spouse. It is very painful, and the betrayal is tough. I decide to forgive, but unexpected things will bring back the pain. I am hoping time will help. 

  • Skwong

    If you don’t open the gate to your mind, even if the light of Buddha is there, it can’t shine in. In Buddhism being with yourself in meditation is one step ahead in forgiveness. Search your heart for anger, hate and revenge follow up with letting go and forgiveness. Thank you for the article.

  • I have a bad habit of holding a grudge … one that I’m working hard to get rid of.  Because, as you show here so poignantly, it does the most harm to myself.

    p.s. I am so happy to see your writing appear here, Barb — hurrah for you!

  • Anonymous

    Holly, It’s a shame you wasted so much time in high school carrying the weight of all that.  It seems you’re on the right track but I wouldn’t hold out for any apologies from others before letting it all go.

    The thing about forgiveness is how very personal it is. Those people who hurt you may not even realize what they’ve done.  If it involved bullying they may have felt power in numbers but bullies don’t think in terms of personal hurt.

    If you can find a way to forgive and let it go without needing their apologies you’ll be in a much better place.  The sooner the better you’ll feel.
    All the best, b

  • Anonymous

    Gloria, I can’t imagine how difficult that is.  There may be nothing more personal than that.  If you can think in terms of your own well being instead of theirs it may help the process.  Remember it is for you.
    All the best, b

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for your insight!

  • Anonymous

    You are such a good person Doreen that I’m sure you’ll figure out the key to letting those grudges go.  If you think of it as self love it’s a good place to start.
    Thanks for the props! b

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  • anon.

    My mother physically and mentally abused me from the time I was about 7 and on. I have had a lot of problems letting it go, but this article really helps. Love wins every time. <3

  • Anonymous

    I’m so glad this helped you in some way.  I imagine your mother was abused, as well.  It’s a vicious cycle and hard to break.  When I looked at that aspect, and knew she had been abused, it gave me some clarity that led to being able to forgive.

  • Rekhalal5

    I find it easier to forgive others than myself.  I carry loads of guilt and shame around over things I have done and said, some of them many years ago.  This really helped. I have kids with different fathers, I have never been married, but the kids are really fine.  I just feel everyone is judging me all the time and it is hard to let go of the burden and pain in my heart.   This puts things in perspective.

  • Taufiq

    going through a really bad breakup, I let my emotions get the best of me and I said some awful horrible things to my ex that I deeply regret now. She says she can never forgive me but after months of making myself feel miserable I have finally learned to forgive myself and now things are slowly going into the positive direction for me.

  • Grace Kim

    This is a heartfelt article and all, but I want to know how to forgive.

  • Hi Grace,

    Perhaps this one may help you:  http://bit.ly/dAMDUU

    Namaste,
    Lori

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  • Diana.M.

    Hi gary, I completely agree with what you said. Without forgiveness moving on is impossible.

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  • I’m really glad this helped you.  Keep easing up on yourself. You’ll get there.

  • Everything is a learning process.  Sometimes others can’t forgive you until you forgive yourself.

  • spider

    Barbara, thanks for the great post!  I am really struggling with forgiving my mother and my sister, who have neglected me and have been extremely abusive and demeaning.  There was a big blowout at Christmas and it still upsets me greatly.  I know that I need to forgive them but I feel like I would be “letting them off the hook.”  This may sound foolish, but I wish there was a way for them to see and understand how they have made me feel.  I realize this is most likely not possible.  I also mostly need to work on forgiving myself for the mistakes I’ve made, because I now know that I did the best I could with what I knew at the time.  All of the above takes continuous practice and a state of mind that I am striving for.  Thanks for the insight.

  • Jerry Najera

    http://youtu.be/06ncUeus2gM

    I forgave my father.

  • Roxanne

    I want to say a big thank you for the good work you have done in my life and that of my friend Peggy, for helping her to get her job back and others you have helped in one way or the other. What more can i say, please keep up the good work and thanks a million times for bringing my partner back to me, and for the sake of those that will love to contact him, you can contact him via email ihumudumupriest@gmail.com. Roxanne

  • NADIA

    HELLO,I want to say a very big thanks and appreciation to Dr.Lawrence for bringing back my husband who left me and the kids for almost two months. I am very much grateful to Dr.Lawrence who brought my husband back to me within 3days.I pray to God almighty to give you the strength and wisdom to help more people having similar problem like mine. drlawrencespelltemple@hotmail. com

  • greatdane

    She gave her child away to a man that abused him, that is fair grounds for hating her