Forgiveness Is A Muscle
A fantastic solution for the most difficult personal problems.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of forgiveness. I’ve been thinking of it because the problems that I wanted to solve were solved faster with forgiveness than with retribution. This is something that they probably don’t teach you in any school, let alone Sunday School. Suffice it to say, that on review of my life, forgiveness has served me far better than retribution. I really can’t think of any exceptions to this trend.
I have noticed that I have been very forgiving of my friends and family. Sometimes, my kids don’t do what I want, but I forgive them and find a way to work things out. One day, my wife didn’t do what I wanted, but I forgave her and my life with my wife somehow, works out. My dad, my mom, my sibs, well, we all have problems to work out, and forgiveness has worked with them, too, even if they don’t know it.
They say that revenge is never sweet. I have found that to be true, too. I have tried revenge a few times before and that never made me feel any better for my loss. I have come to believe that making someone else suffer does not relieve my loss, it does not make me whole, and it will almost certainly never make me a better person. Revenge is a concept grounded in the belief that if we punish another, that they will change to our liking. I can’t think of a single circumstance in my life where I exacted revenge and got what I wanted.
Some time ago I wrote of a confluence of trends in forgiveness and happiness. In that article, I took and gave notice that I have made a habit of forgiveness. I had to make forgiveness a habit to live. To stay sane. I simply cannot live a life where I’m always keeping score, trying to get even all the time. There is no such thing as getting even. I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work.
The habit of forgiveness is an exercise of the mind. It is truly a selfish act. I can’t speak for you, but I can say that for me, I don’t forgive others who trespass against me for their benefit. I forgive others for my own benefit. Forgiveness is freedom from the bondage of self. Forgiveness frees up my mind. Forgiveness allows me to have space in my mind to be happy.
Forgiveness is a surrender of that which ails me for something better. Revenge, spite, and wrath are all signs of illness. We like to think that they serve us. But if you look very deep and long, consider every time that you felt a desire for revenge. Did you have room left in your mind for happiness? If you succeeded in revenge against a trespasser, did you feel whole again? I most certainly did not.
So many years ago (I don’t remember when I started), I made forgiveness a habit, and since I started that, I almost don’t even think about it anymore. It’s almost a reflex or automatic. I forgive because I know the other way. I know the pain and suffering of wanting other people to change. I know the pain of escalation. See, forgiveness is really about that. Forgiveness is about giving up the burning desire for other people to change.
To make forgiveness a habit, I had to build a sort of muscle in my mind. This forgiveness muscle requires constant exercise, just like walking, riding a bike or swimming. When we exercise a muscle, we develop a memory of how to use it. If we rode a bike for much of our time as a kid, we remember how to ride a bike later, even after many years of neglect. But we must first develop the habit.
I have, for example, a writing muscle. I have to use it every day to remember it. I’ve been remiss the last week or two due to circumstances beyond my control. But I kept coming back to it. I kept working towards making the time for my writing habit. I exercise that writing muscle every day so that I’m familiar with it.
Forgiveness is like doing the laundry, paying the bills, picking up after ourselves and cleaning the house. It never ends, it never stops. And what happens when we stop doing those things? We get into a mess. The same is true with forgiveness. I exercise forgiveness every day. I watch other people in my life and notice when I might feel offended. I let the feeling pass. Why?
I am still intact. I have food in my belly, I have not a hint of thirst, I have clothing, a place — a nice place — to live, friends, family, and on and on. I have enough, and I am not the lesser for someone else’s offense. I take notice that the people who offend me are having a bad day, not me. When a customer yells at me because things are going south, that’s on him, not me. He’s the one having a bad day, so I don’t take it personally. Not taking something someone else says or does personally is a form of forgiveness.
A few years ago, my wife and I hired a landscaper to put grass in our yard and build a patio. We gave him a tidy sum to get started. Then he asked for the rest of it after hardly doing much work because he “needed materials”. And then he bailed, but I didn’t take it personally.
We hadn’t done our due diligence and we lost $6500 in short order. We had money left to complete the job, but we were winded. I reported him to the authorities, but that person knew how to hide. He had a criminal record, and I didn’t need that in my life. So I forgave him.
My wife looked him up on Facebook. He bought a nice shiny new truck with money he stole from us and other people. A year later, she finds him again with a picture of that truck on blocks, being stripped of parts for sale. Whatever that guy had going, it was on him. I didn’t need revenge, for he did it to himself.
I went on to replace the money he took by working a day job and delivering value for my pay. When I made a decision to forgive him, I surrendered my desire for revenge for something better, happiness. See? Now that wasn’t so bad. And now my wife and I are very keen on due diligence, too.
The muscle of forgiveness is strong enough to deflect, to ignore, to cut to the chase and to find what is really important about any given scene. The muscle of forgiveness can see the big picture and think through any act of revenge to the most likely outcomes, and none of them are any good. The muscle of forgiveness has a contingency plan. The muscle of forgiveness has compassion. But that muscle grows and remains strong with consistent daily exercise thereof. There is no other way. I’ve tried other ways myself and they don’t work.
I know it may seem strange to say that forgiveness is a muscle. When we think of muscles, we may think of brute force or shows of strength. But the strongest men must know that with great power comes great responsibility. In any power struggle where I have greater power, I am mindful of the damage I could do with my words, my acts, and my will. I am mindful not to exert power in a way that shuts other people down. Instead, I use that power to lift others up, but in order to do that in any power struggle, I must be forgiving. I must have that forgiveness muscle ready to use.
With each passing use of the forgiveness muscle, I became happier. I noticed that when I surrendered that one thing, I often got something better. I got a consolation prize, or I got many of them, and they add up. Once I made forgiveness a habit, I began to notice a pattern. I began to notice that with each act of forgiveness I was happier.
This happiness that I speak of…it is cumulative and progressive. The more often I used forgiveness as a tool for better human relations, the happier I became. It’s like a dopamine hit I can get with shopping, but far better and longer-lasting. Forgiveness eventually leads to contentment.
What I offer here is a tiny sliver of my experience in a world filled with powerful people who express their belief that might is right, that punishment is always just, that every slight deserves reprisal. That is a world filled with really angry people.
We see those angry people on TV, on YouTube, in the news, in the movies, and we read about them in the press. But the reality for most of us is that if we acted like those other people we see in the media, we would only become miserable with every act of retribution. That misery is cumulative and progressive with every act of revenge. And sometimes, that misery is fatal.
I forgive others not because this is how the world is, I forgive because this is how I want the world to be.