Be selfish and forgive

by | Feb 26, 2016 | Mindfulness

Forgive others, not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.

– Jonathan Lockwood Huie

I’ve often gotten into trouble, unjustly I might add, because I asked the question why? I say unjustly because I’ve asked the question because I’ve wanted to understand the reasoning and the objective, not because I was questioning anyone’s authority. There’s only good in that right? Unfortunately, more often than not, when I asked the question why, I’ve received defensive responses and found myself in the doghouse. My thinking is and always has been that if I understand the ‘why’ behind something I can do ‘it’ better. So when I saw Jane’s post (not the person’s real name, but on general principle I’ve decided not to use real names), saying “I know that people say forgiveness is for yourself (not the person receiving the forgiveness), but I never understood how to forgive someone who isn’t sorry,” I recognized that she too had been told ‘what’ to do, but not why, let alone how to apply the saying in daily life. The problem with maxims—short, pithy statement expressing a general truth or rule of conduct—is that they are ubiquitous, but are rarely accompanied by explanations, so we can’t fully leverage their power.

Here’s my thinking about forgiveness. When we’re mad at someone for something they’ve done, we’re reliving one scene of a story, often focusing on the smallest part of an entire sequence of events. Living in the past causes us to ignore the greater larger part of our experiences and in doing so we often loose track of just how amazing we are. How long did the event you don’t like last vs. your responses afterward?

The truly important part of the experience is in how you responded. When you don’t embrace everything that happens, you cannot acknowledge that you know how to address issues, confront challenges and find solutions. You’re not even acknowledging that you learned something that you can use the next time you face a challenge. Three major problems with living this way are:

  1. You’re either living in the past,
  2. Imagining the future,
  3. Or not appreciating the present.

Psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, describe any state other than being focused on the here and now, a wandering mind. They write in Science Magazine, “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” When you live in the past, you’re not appreciating that you’re not in that situation anymore. You are stuck on the edge of tomorrow— live, die, repeat—trapped in a moment that no longer exist. It’s not your fault. In fact, I’ve read that, remembering negative experiences over all others is our reptilian brain’s fight, flight or freeze response system working to keep us on guard and safe. The system kept us alive for thousands of thousands of years. You could say we are hard wired.

Unfortunately, except in in extreme cases, that response is no longer needed. We don’t have saber tooth tigers chasing us anymore, but our reptilian brain still wants to protect us. So when we worry about the future, we freeze and go into panic-mode. “OMG, what will become of me if I don’t get good grades, … or that raise?” And more importantly for this conversation, the reptilian brain responds with anger when we sense we’ve been treated unfairly. We want to fight back thinking, “That M-F made me mad when… or I didn’t deserve to be treated that way” That’s the older part of us trying to protect us, but it’s misguided. We are not longer in that situation, so why aren’t we celebrating that fact instead of being pissed?

This brings us to the second problem with not being present. If you don’t recognize how you got out of the situation, often you don’t recognize the tools you have at your disposal when coping with other challenges. In addition to having that reptilian brain, which causes an acute stress response, we have our emotions, which are characterized by intense mental activity. Our emotions are some of our best tools around because they are our own customized navigation system. When we find ourselves in a situation, it’s our emotions that inform us of our proximity to what makes us feel good. It is my opinion that our hearts should determine the goals and our head should figure out to get there.

Unfortunately if your head keeps replaying the situation and your emotion regress, whamo, you’re living in that past and often we don’t even give yourself credit for moving on. Killingsworth and Gilbert also say, we are happier when we live in the present even if we sitting in traffic or preparing for exams. In Killingsworth’s 2011 TED talk he remarks, “Mind-wandering is likely a cause, and not merely a consequence, of unhappiness.” So whether your mind is wandering, which causes you to be unhappy or you are unhappy so you let your minds wondering, make little difference it’s not a good place to be. Do you really want to deplete your well being your time saying how bad they are, instead of boosting it by recognizing how great you are?

Finally and most importantly of all, you need to own your own happiness. Gen Kelsang Nyema says in her 2014 TED talk we need to stop attributing our unhappiness or happiness to what’s going on externally. “We need to stop outsourcing our unhappiness.” She goes on to quote her teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who says much of our time our mind is like a balloon in the wind getting blown here by external circumstances. When things are going our way we’re happy, but if things go wrong our happy feeling disappears. If happiness is dependent on things we cannot control our well being is unstable. That would include whether or not someone feels sorry for something they’ve done to us. But our happiness doesn’t have to be dependent on other’s actions. You can waste your entire life holding a grudge and waiting for someone else to acknowledge your value. But if you do so, you can also live your entire life without ever giving ourselves credit for being the extraordinary people we are. Are you really willing to waste your life thinking about something other than that which brings you joy?

But there is a way to enhance your happiness and that is by fully forgiving others. What do I mean by fully forgiving someone? Well as John F. Kennedy says, “You can forgive your enemies, but never forget their names,” but that means you’ll still holding back, resenting and keeping your defenses up just a little; but to fully forgive someone else you have to turn the focus on you not them. If, however, you focus on you and where you are now, you’ll:

  1. Appreciate that the situation has passed,
  2. Acknowledge that you are capable of surmounting challenges,
  3. Recognize how far you’ve come and get the good feeling you get when you succeed (which starts a snow ball effect of confidence, by the way.)

The scientist and the spiritualist agree that staying present is a key to happiness. There’s no better way to stay in the present than by leaving the past behind through forgiveness. I’m not suggesting that forgiving leads to reconciliation or that you offer forgiveness because the offender deserves it. I am suggesting that you offer forgiveness because you deserve to be free. You should be proud of how far you’ve come and where you are right now. That’s why forgiveness is all about you. No matter what anyone tells you, your life is all about you and how you experience it. “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you (Lewis B. Smedes.)”


  1. Karen Halseth

    I love this article. Just what I needed to complete an issue I have been grappling with.
    I look forward to more.

    • Pamela J. Alexander

      You’ve made my day! Helping is what this is all about. More is coming don’t you worry!


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