What I’ve Learned About Acceptance and Forgiveness

Misunderstood signals.

Confused feelings over a piece of writing.

An old friend knocking on the door.

Acknowledgement of a shared painful experience.

All of the above have occurred in the past two weeks, though not in that order, and I’ve been talking about these experiences with a few people. What has struck me is that I’ve actually learned something over the past year about acceptance and, from that, about forgiveness. What I’ve learned has profoundly impacted my reaction to and understanding of the situations above. The following attempts to explain.


Acceptance

I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be. – Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

People sometimes react to things we say or do in ways that are surprising, and such surprises may be unpleasant. I have learned, however, that an individual’s reactions say a lot more about that person than they do about anyone else.

It is very important not to internalize nastiness that might come your way. People can disagree and disagreements can be healthy, informative, and an opportunity for growth. But a negative response to something I have said or done is not because of me. If I do or say something you don’t like, consider why you don’t like it. Consider what bothers you and why. Consider why you reacted the way that you did. You know yourself better than I do and chances are, your reaction has more to do with you than it does with me. I might bring up emotions, feelings, memories, or areas of discomfort that you do not like – but your reaction is about you and not about me.

This does not mean that I should not consider your feelings and try to gauge how you might react in a given situation. This does not mean that I can do and say what I like with blatant disregard for the affect it might have on others. It does not mean that I can be intentionally or unintentionally cruel and walk away like nothing has happened. It simply means that as long as I am acting as a decent person and treating you with that dignity that you deserve as individual, I should feel neither guilt nor shame when you react in a way that I do not expect or understand.

People are surprising in positive and negative ways and that demonstrates that we should always give people a chance because they may be experiencing something we are unaware of or cannot imagine. This means that we cannot condemn others for behaviors that we don’t understand. Rather, we can meet others where they are and accept who they are with open hearts and open minds. Since we still may not like or agree with everything people do it is also vital to practice compassion in all of our interactions.

Forgiveness

It’s no use to go back to yesterday because I was a different person then. – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

When we practice compassion towards others and accept them simply because they, like us, are doing the best they can with the lives they lead, being angry with others is nonsensical. Ignorance causes suffering and suffering causes harm. People who harm are hurting and they need our love and support. Our anger only hurts ourselves.

I’ve read a lot about Buddhismmeditation, and how the brain is wired to help others. It has taken me a long time (and six months of chatting with a therapist – best decision I’ve ever made) to internalize what this means. It means that I can’t be angry with you if you hurt me because you’re hurting, too. And whatever you’ve done to me is reflective of whatever has happened to you. I don’t need to know what that is to forgive you for your actions.

When we find ourselves angry or hurt, it is helpful to consider why. Consider what it was that brought up negative feelings for us. Exploring those negative feelings is an opportunity for personal growth and development. When we find ourselves angry, we can stop. We can take a breath. Acknowledge and lean into our emotions. We can allow ourselves to feel.

And then we can return to the people who brought up these emotions and forgive them for causing us harm. Likely, that harm comes from their own suffering. Likely, they did not mean to hurt us.

When we forgive each other, we become different people. We become more knowledgeable about ourselves and others. We become more aware, more open-minded, and probably happier than we were. Even if we choose not to continue our relationships with people who have angered us, we are not allowing negative feelings to take over other aspects of our lives. It is far healthier to live without anger, either at ourselves or others.


It has taken me my entire life to learn these lessons. As someone who feels very deeply, I know that it’s very challenging to step away from emotions that arise without invitation and often claim our attention for longer than we’d like. Recently, I’ve noticed that I’m far calmer now in the face of adversity than I ever have been. I’m not driven to anger as readily and when I am hurt or upset, it’s much easier and less painful to find a quiet mind and state of equanimity again.

Mindful awareness of how I intuitively react and why I do so has been extremely helpful in developing a clearer mind, deeper understanding of others, and a renewed desire to be vulnerable in relationships with others. I no longer try to be right because it does not bother me as much when I’m wrong. I am much happier accepting people for who they are and forgiving them for what they do than I ever was when I constantly kept score or internalized what others said or did. I am not nearly as important in anyone’s rational or irrational decision-making as I used to think. Knowing this makes it much easier to respond with love when others are clearly hurting.

If I’ve hurt you, I apologize. I was likely suffering and certainly did not mean to cause you harm.

If you’ve hurt me, you’re forgiven. I love you, too.

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. – Lewis B. Smedes

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