Let go – even if you can’t forgive

‘It’s important to forgive and forget’ is a widely used piece of folk wisdom. However, it’s not that simple. For someone to feel under pressure to forgive, they must have been hurt, betrayed or abused in some way. It is therefore questionable how realistic it is to expect someone to be able to find forgiveness in those circumstances. It can be not only unrealistic, but also unfair. To put someone under pressure to forgive when they are wrestling with the pain and insecurity they are experiencing can be seen as unhelpful and even as cruel. When they are already feeling ‘wronged’, they can then be made to feel that they are ‘in the wrong’ for continuing to hold feelings of resentment towards the person(s) who brought about the problem in the first place.

It also assumes that there can be no action or attitude that is unforgivable, that whatever happens can (and should) be forgiven. This is a very big assumption to make and a highly problematic one. The bland advice that we should forgive and forget is therefore not one that should be accepted uncritically.

So, am I suggesting that forgiveness is over-rated and is not something we should bother with? No, that is not the case at all. There are certainly many situations where forgiveness is quite appropriate and to be encouraged. The problem comes when this idea is overgeneralised, when it is assumed that forgiveness is in all cases the appropriate response.

So, does this mean that brooding resentment should be the order of the day because forgiveness is not a realistic expectation in the circumstances? No, that is not what I am suggesting either. This is where the idea of ‘letting go’ comes in. What this refers to is the ability to (and desirability of) putting the hurts behind us when we are ready. The ‘when we are ready’ bit is important, as the more hurtful the experience has been, the longer it is likely to be before we can readily countenance the idea of putting it behind us. Trying to do this too soon is unlikely to be helpful, and putting people under pressure to do so before they are ready can be counterproductive, and even positively harmful.

I was once fortunate enough to be in the audience when former athlete and TV presenter, Kriss Akabusi, was giving an inspiring speech about his troubled childhood and how he not only survived it, but managed to thrive. One important point he made about his childhood was that ‘the past is somewhere to visit, not somewhere to live’. In other words, he had managed to put those hurts behind him. That would not have happened straight away, of course, and anyone trying to pressurise him into achieving this before he was ready would have been more of a hindrance than a help.

Letting go means not allowing the hurt to control us, to undermine us or to disempower us. It means acknowledging that what was done was done (no denial), recognising the extent and severity of the hurt that was caused (no minimising or playing down), but not keeping that hurt alive by feeding the flames of resentment. It means letting those flames cool down at their own rate and then, when it is safe and reasonably comfortable to do so, to translate them from current hurts to past experiences – that is, to put them behind us, with or without forgiveness. This enables us to move on, to face new challenges and not be held back by what has gone before. That way we can be freed up to focus on the present and future, while learning the lessons from the past.

Be graceful

‘Grace’ has two main definitions. It can refer to elegance and poise. But it can also mean decency or honour. Both of these aspects can be helpful to us, especially the latter. Let’s consider each in turn.

A graceful person, in the first sense, is one who is unruffled, someone who can deal with trials and tribulations without breaking step. This can be a distinct advantage in relating to other people. It can help put them at their ease and help them have confidence in us and what we are trying to do. Having the poise of inner calmness can also work wonders for our blood pressure, our ability to cope with pressure and thus keep stress at bay. It therefore has benefits all round. Some may see it as a quality that some people are born with, while others have to learn how to do without. However, in reality, it is a skill (or set of behavioural skills) that can be developed over time. There is no reason why people cannot learn to develop poise and grace if they are prepared to make the effort and to develop the self-awareness involved.

Think about the range of people you know. Think about the extremes – that is: who do you see among them who are particularly graceful? At the other end of the spectrum, who are the people you would regard as far from graceful? What distinguishes the first group from the second? In other words, what makes the graceful people graceful and the not so graceful people not so graceful? What can you learn from this analysis that can help you optimise your ‘gracefulness quotient’?

The first sense of ‘grace’ is therefore a matter of skills. The second meaning, by contrast, is a matter of values. Being graceful, in our second sense, is about committing ourselves to a value position that involves being respectful, treating people with dignity and thereby being a decent and honourable person. Of course, much of this derives from our upbringing, the ways in which we are taught right and wrong and other aspects of our culture. But, while cultures are very influential, each of us has our own role to play in shaping how we behave and how we treat one another. We need to take ownership of our ‘grace’.

Values are often seen as abstract issues, but in reality they are very concrete, in the sense that they are very influential in shaping our, thoughts, feelings and actions. It would therefore be very unwise to dismiss them as ‘abstract’, as if that means they make no difference to our concrete reality. That would be far from the truth.

To develop grace in this second sense, we can undertake a parallel exercise to the one outlined above: Who are the people we know that we regard as particularly decent and honourable? Who are the ones we would see as lacking grace? What distinguishes the first group from the second? What can such an analysis teach you about making grace an important feature of your value base?

What is particularly interesting is that, if we look closely enough, we can see important links between these two different meanings of ’being graceful’. The more poise we have, the more confident and self-assured we can be, and therefore be in a stronger position to treat others with dignity and respect, as we will have less baggage of our own to get in the way. Similarly, the more we treat people with dignity and respect, the fewer problems we will have and the more respect we will get in return. That will then put us in a stronger position to adopt an elegant and self-assured approach to our lives, to have the poise that comes with grace.