Whoever came up with the saying “Forgive and forget” was probably referring to a time one of the neighborhood kids accidentally hit a baseball and broke a window. It’s got a 1950’s ring to it (just like that scenario). A little too clean, a little too easy. Granted, in the sort of situation like that it’s totally justified. Kids being kids. Glass being glass. No real emotional attachments. No harm done that can’t easily be undone. Accidents happen.
What if we raise the stakes a little? Let’s say the ball crashed through the window and broke the urn which happened to hold the ashes of your recently-deceased and beloved grandfather. In this instance a bit of emotional pain comes to play. Judgment’s clouded by anger or sadness. It’s harder to brush off. Still, most good-tempered understanding people would forgive and let this go easily enough.
How about this? A mom, with her 2-year old son, is getting some weekend shopping done. The mom sees a sale on baby clothes, looks away for a second, the baby wanders into traffic and a car (completely within the speed limit) rounds the corner killing him on impact? Another accident. This time there is extreme emotional anguish experienced by the mother…and probably the driver as well. Guilt comes into play and with it the ever difficult task of forgiving oneself.
Let’s say you’re a guy in high school and your best friend is in science class when a classmate decides to pull out a gun and kill him and nine others. Or your sibling sleeps with your significant other. Or you spent two months assured that you’d get a raise only to find out that they don’t have the funds. Or your husband or wife commits suicide?
“Forgive and forget” is a stupid saying. Adding the clause “only when applied to the simplest of offenses” helps a little, but it’s not the forgiveness half of the cliché that is its major failing, but part about forgetting. Forgetting something that has caused you pain (physical or emotional) is as ridiculous as trying to forget things that have made you feel happy, content, complete. Both are growth opportunities that should never be ignored. What’s more, once an event has illicited a certain level of emotional intensity, forgetting becomes all but impossible. The farthest those who try will get to doing so is suppression…and we all know how well supressing feelings goes. Forgetting and suppression (bad) are sought after because they present themselves as express routes to the clarity and cool of forgiveness and letting go (SPOILER ALERT: They’re not).
Letting go is not the same as forgetting. I repeat: letting go is not the same as forgetting. Forgetting is the attempt to erase a memory completely. Letting go is the act of understanding the experience, logically cataloging lessons learned, adjusting accordingly, and releasing the negative hold it has had on you.
Let’s take the example of the mother who lost her son (I like using the most extreme examples because it’s easier to take something like this and scale it down to relate to your painful experience than something small like a broken window and scale the lessons learned up):
This is a living nightmare; a mom losing a child. The cause here is the death of the 2-year old (“Oh my god, I killed a child!), the mother’s anger toward the driver (He killed my son! He should have been paying more attention to the road), and the driver’s anger toward the mother (She should have been watching her child!”). Throw in the cops and the family of the mother and you’ve got yourself a certified tragedy. So, what’s the path to letting go look like here (and everywhere)?
First thing’s first: life experiences can’t be undone. Wishing things had been different; that you could go back to the way things were before… it’s not possible. Dwelling on that sort of thought is an utter waste of time and can only do harm. Time spent trying to relive the past is time lost in creating a better present. The pain is prolonged.
Allow yourself to feel. Hurt hurts. You may want to suppress the pain with every bone in your body. Losing yourself in tasks like drinking or partying or cleaning or drawing for the sake of creating distraction, pretending everything’s fine, locking yourself away from the things that could make you feel – choose your drug. These things can prolong the healing process. If you want to scream, scream. If you want to cry, by all means go ahead. Let it out. This is who you are. This is what you feel. Embrace it, as horrible as it is right now.
Keep on living. While it may feel like a certain part of your life has taken a beating…or the whole thing…know that the world will continue to turn with or without you. I suggest you choose “with.” Sure it was the world that kicked you in the first place, but it’s going to be the world that helps to lift you up again…just as it has before. And the cool thing is, every time it lifts you up the chances of the next slack to the face hurting you as much will be much lesser…even the chances of you being hurt at all go down. So keep living. Pick yourself up and have a night out with your loved ones. Take a walk and take in all that is awesome in the world. Use the emptiness you may be feeling and fill it up with something off your bucket list: take a trip, pick up a new language; a new hobby. This will slowly raise your sense of self and belonging and will counter of the negative aspects of allowing yourself to feel, namely getting lost in a prison of those feelings.
Sidenote: What’s the difference between cleaning your house as a distraction to feeling and cleaning your house as a means to keep on living? Answer: Intention. We constantly walk the thin line between helpful and hurtful and mindset can go a long way in placing your safely on one side of the other.
Forgive. While I hesitate to say that any of these steps are the most difficult in the process (that depends on each individual situation – accident or not, emotional intensity, cultural conditions, etc…) I will say that forgiveness of self or others tends to be the hardest part. Unfortunately, it is an integral part of completely letting go. Forgiveness is looking into the belly of the beast and saying, with utter genuineness, “I am not resentful.” To fully let go one must forgive.
Forgiveness tends to be the last step of the process to kick off, a culmination of the others running their course and contentment returning. Life is about growth. If there is an easy meaning to life, growth would be it. Lessons learned and applied. Learning to forgive, to release the hatred toward the offender, is one of the most trying and inspiring methods to growth moving forward. The mother doesn’t need to hate herself to ensure that her next child doesn’t suffer the same fate. The best friend doesn’t need to despise the boy shot his best friend to be kind to a student that is ridiculed and beat on. The girl does not need to resent her man-stealing sister and ex to engage in a healthier relationship with her latest boyfriend. In most cases the opposite is true.
The goal is and always will be not to forgive and forget, but to forgive and let go. The first will lead to the second and we will continue life, empowered, never forgetting, never losing hope.