“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” ~Martin Luther King Jr.
“Stop the world, I want to get off!” I felt like screaming this phrase at the top of my lungs during a difficult period of my life. Obviously, stepping off terra firma into outer space was not an option; what I desperately needed was to be free of chronic fatigue, stress, anxiety, and negative emotions and behaviors.
Sleepless nights spent rehashing painful events past and present also needed to end.
Leading up to this period, I had struggled through a lengthy and emotional divorce proceeding and, along with my children, had been dealing with the aftermath of betrayal. Circumstances leading to the divorce from my husband dictated that I be the primary custodian of our children even though we shared joint custody.
I had been a stay-at-home mom but now needed to return to work. I found a full-time job with flexible hours, and things were going fairly well. I was determined to make the best of this new life.
And then my ex-husband took my son away—something so painful for me at the time that I could barely breathe. My youngest son was persuaded by his father to move out of my home to live full-time with him.
The only consolation was that we lived in the same small town. I wasn’t prepared for this move and the potential implications. Then came another blow—my ex-husband took my son and moved out of town.
In the face of another loss and what would become estrangement from my son, I filled with resentment. I used up tremendous amounts of energy trying to keep my emotions under control.
Angry actions and words burst forth randomly. Before long, resentment grew into an ugly root of bitterness. I didn’t understand this metamorphosis or my inability to contain my anger.
Bitterness is characterized by intense antagonism or hostility. It is toxic, self-destructive, and hurtful to others in our sphere. If the root is not cut out, it will spread and choke joy and contentment right out of our lives.
You can unintentionally make yourself bitter in various ways:
Following a hurtful experience, we move on without resolution, determined to leave it in the past. We decide to suffer in silence. We may even tell ourselves we don’t care. Resentment builds and beckons bitterness.
Wallowing in it
We can choose to nurture the pain of an offense, allowing it to fester into a giant open wound. We make sure that others realize we have been deeply wounded. This victim mentality oozes bitterness.
Hanging on to it
It’s possible that the offending party has asked for forgiveness. If our response was a mere, “Okay,” or a less-than-heartfelt (lame), “I forgive you,” the door to bitterness is propped open by resentment and an unwillingness to let go.
All these behaviors are poison to the soul.
How to know if you have morphed into a bitter old biddy:
1. You exhibit undesirable behaviors such as impatience, caustic comments, cynicism, a judgmental attitude, and a lack of compassion.
2. You realize that your behaviors are hurting those around you. Bitterness will inevitably rise to the top of our resentment pots and spill out all over undeserving bystanders.
3. You re-live past hurts, keeping old issues alive; you fantasize about how things could have played out differently and picture the offender getting what he/she deserves.
When I examined my behaviors and thoughts, I realized that I desperately did not want to be the bitter, angry person I had become.
How it’s possible to forgive people when you have been devastated by their actions:
Forgiving can seem like a big hurdle to jump. You may rather hold on to an old wound and refuse to forgive because the offender doesn’t deserve it, has not sought forgiveness, or demonstrated remorse. We can always find justification for refusing to forgive.
An alternative is to pursue the process of letting go of the grievance. Perhaps you come to realize you played a part in what happened. Or you may develop a degree of compassion for the offender if you objectively consider their point of view.
If there is absolutely no justification for what happened, you may take pity on a person who is so emotionally bankrupt that they willingly hurt others.
It is a process and will take time, but the act of letting go in order to forgive is essential to your well-being.
I would encourage you to count the cost of withholding forgiveness and then consider the following truths:
1. Forgiveness is intentional, not a feeling born out of emotion, but rather a firm, once-and-for-all commitment. Waiting until you feel like forgiving or until you receive a request for forgiveness may never happen. It’s up to you.
2. Forgiveness doesn’t hinge on the subsequent behavior of the offender. When we suffer a wrong, we choose to forgive and live in the freedom of forgiveness, or we refuse to forgive and live in bondage to bitterness.
Maya Angelou once said: “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”
I chose forgiveness. I listed the still hurtful offenses of my ex-husband and one by one sincerely forgave him for each act. A heaviness that had been lingering over my soul lifted. It was liberating. Before long, I began to feel good about myself again.
How you can navigate the storms in your life by cultivating a constant attitude of forgiveness:
Maintain a few helpful ground rules:
1. Try to forgive minor offenses by the time your head hits the pillow at the end of each day.
2. If you have a mental list of unresolved past grievances, consider each one and forgive those involved.
3. Choose to forgive without waiting for an apology. It also helps to remember times when someone forgave you—it’s humbling.
4. Don’t allow your mind to dwell on previously forgiven offenses; you risk opening the door to resentment and bitterness a second time.
You can experience the rich rewards of forgiveness.
A forgiving attitude allows you to soar above painful memories and live life fully in the present.
You will experience increased authenticity in friendships and more joy, intimacy, and fulfillment in close relationships.
Guard these rewards carefully—no matter how deeply you are hurt or offended, do not allow bitterness the opportunity to take root within you.
Woman in field image via Shutterstock