Earlier this year, in Bloomington, Indiana, Adam Sarnecki confronted a man breaking into a parked car. In a panic, the criminal shot and killed Adam.
Imagine the shock, anger and resentment you would feel if a similar injustice happened to one of your friends or family members. Perhaps you already know.
Remarkably, the father of the victim, Ron Sarnecki, responded to this tragedy with profound love and understanding. Although he was extremely upset about losing his son, Ron told reporters that he forgave the killer.
You may find it difficult to identify with this reaction, but there is a critical lesson to be learned here. Despite undergoing the traumatic experience of losing his son, Ron Sarnecki is now on his way toward a peaceful life. He has learned to forgive.
At some point, we’ve all been wronged. Perhaps you were in an abusive relationship or a friend turned her back on you, and you’ve carried bitterness and resentment with you ever since. You likely had no choice in what happened to you, but here’s the good news: you do have a choice in how you react to this adversity and how you will live the rest of your life. Is it time to release the heavy burdens of anger and bitterness that have weighed you down for so long? Is it time to forgive like Ron Sarnecki did?
Before continuing, let’s clarify what forgiveness is not. To forgive is not to excuse, justify, pardon or condone what someone else did. Furthermore, forgiveness does not mean that you reconcile with this person or that you invite him or her back into your life1. The purpose of forgiveness is to free yourself from the negative thoughts and emotions that so often accompany a grudge. Indeed, a great deal of research suggests that there are negative consequences for those who find it difficult to forgive.
A lack of forgiveness is often accompanied by resentment, which is associated with feelings of depression and anxiety. Furthermore, people who are less forgiving are more likely to be hateful, angry and neurotic. On the other hand, forgiving people are more likely to be happy and physically healthy.
However, such benefits can take time. One study demonstrated that emotionally abused women who participated in forgiveness therapy experienced greater self-esteem and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety, compared to people in standard therapy. Notably, these women were in forgiveness therapy once a week for eight months, on average.
True forgiveness can be one of the most difficult things you ever do. But, through hard work and perseverance, the benefits are more than worth it. Here are two recommendations for how to begin this process:
Remember when you were forgiven. If you are having trouble forgiving someone, recall a time where you were in the opposite situation—a time when someone else was hesitant to forgive you. Put yourself in the shoes of this person. Why did she forgive you? Did you deserve it? What would your life be like if she never did? What would her life be like if she still held a grudge against you? Remember that one day you may need to be forgiven again, and someone else will be in the same position you are in now. If you would hope to be forgiven, it’s right to do the same for others.
Write a letter. You may not feel comfortable directly contacting the person who wronged you, and that’s okay. Nonetheless, you may benefit greatly from writing a letter detailing what happened, how you felt about it, and what you wish he or she would have done instead. Finally, do your best to express forgiveness and understanding toward that person. Think carefully about whether you should actually send the letter—when in doubt, wait a while longer.
You may be tempted to hold on to anger and bitterness like an old, faded photograph. Without it, there will be nothing to remind you of what happened and why it was wrong. However, you need to ask yourself a simple question: does this make you happy? Does it really feel good to have hard feelings toward someone day after day, year after year? Imagine what life would be like if you let those hard feelings go. Do you remember what it feels like to not have such a heavy burden on your shoulders? If not, it’s time to find out.
Ultimately, forgiveness will set you free. There will still be hard days when the memories come back and the hard feelings resurface. But if you make the conscious choice to forgive what took place, your life will be forever changed. Your hard heart will soften and you will see the world differently. Give yourself the gift of forgiveness and see for yourself the peace that awaits you.
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