Forgiving 2020

The year 2020 has been the most maligned year I have experienced in my many decades here on earth. People were cheering on December 31, 2020, because they could finally be rid of the horrible, terrible, no good year 2020. Good riddance!

Last year certainly wasn’t what any of us expected. We knew viruses could cause pandemics, but microscopic organisms weren’t supposed to outwit modern science and cause such hardship, grief, and uncertainty. We knew politics was becoming more divisive, but our dreadful manners and unfounded conspiracy theories weren’t supposed to result in organized efforts to overturn the democratic process.  We knew natural disasters were possible, but they weren’t supposed to become as ferocious and deadly as they demonstrated they could be in 2020.

Life in 2020 wasn’t predictable and stable for any of us. Change happened rapidly and severe suffering and death occurred that no one knew how to prevent. And that naturally made many of us anxious, confused, and distressed. Those twelve months contained a lot of pain that we won’t soon forget.

I don’t think we should forget 2020, but I do think we should forgive it. Forgiveness means letting go of the desire for a different past and accepting whatever happened that wasn’t supposed to happen. It means having the courage to talk honestly about why we’re justifiably upset with 2020, but also being mature enough to take responsibility for our hurt and pain instead of spreading blame and spending useless hours feeling sorry for ourselves. We have every right to be unhappy with 2020, but if we want to pave a heroic path forward in 2021, we need to learn from our disappointments.      

The Buddha used two words together to describe forgiveness: forbearance and compassion. Forbearance means patient self-control, restraint, and tolerance. When we don’t choose forgiveness, we give in to our default setting – our instincts – and forbearance exits while anger and bitterness rush in. If we’re not careful, schemers and tyrants will use our fear, confusion, and victim mentality to manipulate us because they seem to have the power and control we crave. They appear strong and certain and provide simple solutions we can easily buy into. Unfounded conspiracy theories take root, creating what the World Health Organization calls “infodemics.”

Forbearance is needed so we can calmly and rationally find a positive path forward, but we also need compassion if we want to create a year of healing, not hurting. Sometimes compassion is thought of as pity, but that is not the definition that helps us beneficially forgive. The compassion we need to make 2021 better than 2020 is an active process. A compassionate 2021 means a year in which we are energetically working to understand different perspectives and alleviate pain. Author Glennon Doyle Melton described compassion as, “a choice we make that love is more important than comfort or convenience.”

If we’re not careful, we can be persuaded to restrict our compassion to those who think and look like us – who are part of the “good” group. The “bad” group is deserving of blame and derision, not compassion. However, compassion means caring about others – all others. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” He didn’t make exceptions.

The year 2020 was disappointing and sometimes tragic. People lost jobs, lost elections, and worst of all lost loved ones. I help facilitate a grief group and one of the women in the group commented. “In 2020, people have been grieving so many things and not everyone knows how to grieve. We are so fortunate to be in a supportive group that allows us to express our genuine feelings and learn how to deal with loss.”

We need time to grieve when life deals us painful situations, and there is no timetable for grieving that works for everyone. When we suffer loss, we have to enter what is sometimes called “The House of Sorrows,” but at some point in time we want to leave that house so we can feel joy again.  

Losses make us sad and they may also make us angry. The good news about anger is that, if we do it right, we can channel the energy it provides into productive behaviors.

Angry feelings are like alarm bells that tell us there’s something wrong in our lives. Our instincts may tell us to fight or flee when angry energy surges through us, but we can upshift our thinking to our cerebral cortex and problem solve instead. We can practice forbearance and convert our fury into creativity, discovering ways to advocate for our causes peacefully – sharing solutions and responsibility, not hurt. We can surf the internet for verified facts and heart-warming stories of people helping people, not fear mongering. We can control our anger, so our anger doesn’t control us.         

We are naturally yearning for normalcy, but I agree with the cartoon that says, “Normal is only the setting on a washing machine.” When I’m struggling to adjust to change and find some vestige of stability, I like to think of myself as a turtle. Turtles have been around for millions of years and are notoriously slow paced. I watched mother sea turtles giving birth on a beach in Florida last year. They had to dig holes for their eggs before birthing them, but they rested in between surges of energy. The work was exhausting but they didn’t give up as they covered their eggs with sand and then made their way slowly back to the ocean, ready to start anew.

I also like to remember that what makes life exhilarating, as well as challenging, is lifelong learning. Singer Nia Peeples said, “Life is a moving, breathing thing. We have to be willing to constantly evolve. Perfection is, in fact, constant transformation.” Forgiveness is all about learning from our past struggles so that we have the courage and capability to move forward with hope, not fear.

If we can journey through 2021 like a turtle, keeping calm and resilient, pursuing admirable goals but letting ourselves rest and recover when needed, then we’ll be able to keep moving forward. If we truly are all in this together, we’ll strive to be compassionate and will give just as much attention to our responsibilities to others as to our own personal rights. We will forgive 2020 for the pain it caused and be grateful for the lessons we learned as well as the many acts of courage and generosity that occurred. The year 2021 will bring us new challenges, but we can resolve to greet them with a spirit of optimism, innovation, and fortitude.

 (Photo by Nagatoshi Shimamura  on Unsplash)

Left Wing Loves Right Wing

What if I told you the left wing and the right wing belong to the same bird?

– Author Unknown

My husband and I have been married 38 years. My husband is a Republican who is quite content being part of South Dakota’s majority party. I’ve been a Democrat since I registered to vote at age 18 and am quite content to remain part of South Dakota’s minority party. What is perhaps surprising is that we both are also quite content to stay married to each other until death do us part.

Have our political party labels caused some problems? Yes.

My husband has been asked questions like, “How can you be married to a Democrat?” Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and powerful politicians say all sorts of horrible things about me based on my political party label. I know because I listen to KOTA radio and I read their tweets. Since I live in South Dakota, I don’t hear as much criticism of Republicans (unless they’re criticizing each other), but I realize nasty, demeaning name calling plagues both political parties.   

Marriage and relationships are difficult enough without certain politicians and media maniacs doing their best to hinder our efforts at understanding and unity. Powerful people are encouraging us to distrust and disrespect each other. It’s frightening because it wasn’t all that long ago that we had a horrible civil war in our country in which family members, neighbors – fellow Americans – fought and killed each other over issues that continue to plague us today.

I’m an educator and have spent my career in the service sector. My husband has spent his entire career as a businessman. I love teaching and the community service work I have done and do, but I count myself lucky to have fallen in love with someone who could show me a different perspective. I’ve studied and taught economics but being married to a businessman has helped me better understand the complexities of a sector I wasn’t previously connected to. My husband gets to hear from me about the education and service segments of our nation. Ideally, we will always appreciate the insights and awareness each of us brings to the relationship and use our diverse experiences to make wiser decisions and produce more intelligent opinions. And often (not always unfortunately) that is just what happens.

There’s a myth out there that we can’t talk about politics or religion in polite company. We’re just too different and can’t agree. It’s true that our pride, egos, and lack of self-control can really derail a conversation and ruin a dinner party. But if we don’t communicate, we’ll never understand those with different life experiences and concerns. We’ll never see the whole picture and we’ll be stuck with our limited vision, unable to let in the light of knowledge and empathy, unable to courageously explore new ideas and adapt to an ever-changing world.

Another myth is that it’s weak and wishy-washy to change our minds or consider compromise. If we believe it’s weak to admit uncertainty or seek balanced solutions, we certainly won’t listen to anyone who challenges our self-declared righteousness, especially if they’re from a group or political party we’ve been told is inferior and trying to ruin our country. We cover ourselves with a shield of defensiveness and pride and attack those who disagree with us. Just as detrimental can be hiding behind a shield of shame and denial, afraid to challenge lies and injustice.

Tolerating uncertainty, listening to different perspectives, and striving for cooperative, win-win solutions isn’t just kind and nice; it’s productive, intelligent, and wise. Imagine if we tried not to impose our views on others and not to conform to the demands of others. Instead, we shared our thoughts freely and respectfully, without fear or manipulation, and listened to the stories of others with open minds and open hearts. That behavior could result in genuine dialogue that focused on solving problems and finding answers that unify, not divide us.

If we want to fly, we need our right wing, our left wing, and everything in between working together. We can trade in our shields of defensiveness and denial and pick up the shield of love and compassion. That takes courage and effort.

My husband and I may be labeled differently when we go to vote, but we, like most Democrats and Republicans, have so much in common. Both of us support equal rights, affordable health care for all, clean water and air, parks and wilderness areas, freedom from unnecessary regulations, sensible gun laws, responsible fiscal policies, child protection, and the list goes on. We value generosity, honesty, hard work, conscientiousness, compassion and respect for others, and the list goes on.

There will always be conflict and struggle because we’re humans who have different needs, experiences, and personalities. We’re not always logical or rational and we get emotional about issues that matter deeply to us. But we don’t have to be enemies, and we don’t have to listen to people who try to convince us that we are. We can dare to fly using both our wings.

The Gift of Forgiveness

Wondering what to get and give for Christmas and the holidays? I suggest the gift that fits every budget: forgiveness.

2020 has been a tough year for many of us. COVID-19, divisive politics, natural disasters and more have created mental and spiritual anguish. We may find ourselves with relationships that need mending, regrets that need healing, and anger that needs to be transformed into more thoughtful, productive energy. Forgiveness has been a method of lightening our burdens and spreading joy for millenniums and is a caring, priceless gift to give ourselves and others.

Forgiveness Is the Gift of Freedom from Past Pain and Hope for the Future

When I was young, I was uplifted by hearing Janis Joplin singing, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Those words helped me accept my past mistakes and losses, plus reminded me to lose my expectations and desires for a perfect life so I could experience freedom. Freedom to create new ways of thinking. Freedom to just enjoy being me.

We experience freedom when we let go of rigid beliefs as to what we and others should be. Life is inevitably full of struggle with detours and wrong turns along the way. Shoulding all over ourselves and others is rarely beneficial.

When Plan A goes amiss, we don’t have to beat ourselves or anyone else up about it. We can instead free ourselves of unworkable expectations, accept and make peace with the past, and embrace the opportunity we have to learn, grow, and create a Plan B, C, or D (whatever it takes). We can break free of the personal prison we create when we become entangled in destructive thoughts and emotions. The gift of amazing grace is waiting for us to graciously receive it and extend it to others.  

We’re All a Little Crazy Sometimes and Need the Gift of Forgiveness

If you’re feeling a little crazy, you’re not alone. We all deal with tough stuff at some point in our lives and 2020 has been a challenge for most of us. You don’t have to be hard on yourself even if life is being hard on you. Give yourself some love and forgiveness and pass it on.

If we think everyone else has the glorious life we often see on social media or cherry-picked holiday card narratives, our stress is compounded by shame, confusion, and loneliness. Sometimes just knowing we’re not alone helps us understand and accept ourselves better. A person once told me, “I found out other people were feeling what I was and so either I wasn’t crazy, or we were all crazy together. Either way, I was comforted.”

A long time ago, a book called I’m Okay, You’re Okay inspired me to work towards more humility and acceptance of what I am and what others are. I don’t like being burdened and in pain due to bitterness, resentment, pride, or fear. The joy I receive by letting go of troublesome, detrimental thoughts and emotions motivates me to forgive myself for being less than I’d like to be; to forgive others because they’re just being themselves and doing the best they can; to forgive the Creator because there’s good out there, all the time, and I can work on becoming a small part of that.  

Forgiveness Is For Giving

Forgiveness is a wonderful gift to give ourselves, and once we do, we can give more of ourselves to others. Unforgiving people tend to be angry, bitter, distrustful, and arrogant.  They may create headlines and add a lot of drama to life, but at what cost? At times, it does feel good to vent about the things that frustrate and disappoint us, but a steady diet of rage and stress creates a cortisol overload that damages our physical health as well as hardens our hearts (figuratively and literally).

When I’m being unforgiving, I don’t have much good to give. It’s likely I’ll add to my list of regrets and shameful behaviors, not my list of generous gifts of kindness. I realize my naughty list will inevitably grow, but I do try to keep my numbers down. Accepting myself and others, reminding myself that the world doesn’t exist just to please me, and evaluating a painful situation with curiosity and compassion, rather than self-righteous indignation or pity helps.

When we unwrap the gift of forgiveness, we are delighted to find freedom from hostility, resentment, and shame. We discover the compassion needed to accept and understand human weaknesses (our own and others) and the strength and courage needed to create a brighter future.

Give yourself and others the gift wise philosophers and spiritual leaders throughout history have advised generously sharing: forgiveness.

(Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)

Fuel Up On Gratitude This Thanksgiving

I’ve been celebrating Thanksgiving all my life by eating a big turkey dinner and then making myself slightly miserable by topping it off with pie and whipped cream. When I think Thanksgiving, I often envision food, which fuels my body. However, I’ve learned that fueling my spirit with gratitude and thankfulness empowers me in ways turkey and mashed potatoes never will, plus there’s fewer calories involved.

The Thanksgiving holiday was officially declared in the midst of the Civil War (1863) by President Lincoln. Sarah Josepha Hale is known as the Mother of Thanksgiving because she lobbied to create an official day of thanksgiving which she hoped would help unify the nation and reduce tensions between the North and the South. People across the world have long desired a special time to be set aside for thankfulness and celebrating the harvest season. All the major world religions emphasize the importance of spending time appreciating whatever blessings have been bestowed upon us, whether large or small.

Gratitude Is Especially Important When Our Lives Are at Their Worst

I’ve known factually that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, but it has only been in the last decade or two that I’ve truly realized what a wonderful blessing gratitude and giving thanks is to our spirits. I’ve become truly grateful for the opportunity to spend time thinking about what’s good about the world and my life. And I appreciate gratitude time the most when my life is a horrible, painful mess and the world seems to have gone crazy.

I try to take regular thanksgiving breaks in which I allow myself time to focus on the delightful things I appreciate about life. Worries and fears are placed in temporary storage while I count blessings. My personal list includes morning coffee, chocolate, loved ones, kind words, birds, dogs, humorous videos, dancing, singing, sunshine, naps . . . the list goes on and doesn’t include anything extravagant or difficult to achieve. It’s based on gratitude for being, but not for being anything in particular.

Being grateful doesn’t mean worries disappear or we become Pollyannas, oblivious to hard realities and inconvenient truths. It doesn’t mean overindulging in things we’re grateful for – like chocolate chip cookies or an excellent merlot. It does mean being aware that even though much in our lives might be no good, terrible, awful; digging deep and finding that which can light our paths will keep us from despairing. Gratitude is the fuel that empowers us to move forward, especially when times are tough.

I’ve been researching forgiveness for the past 7 years. When I first started, I wasn’t too impressed with studies that showed a relationship between gratitude and forgiveness. Why was that significant? Then I had a very painful experience and became more aware of how essential gratitude is to forgiveness. When I found my mood sinking, my thoughts becoming bitter, and my body losing energy, I found the nourishment I needed to keep going down a positive path through gratitude breaks. I picked a calming place and counted my blessings instead of my worries and hurts. It was a mini vacation away from shame, regret, anger, and resentment. Gratitude breaks can energize us, change our perspective, and provide the lift we need to create new and improved chapters in our life story.

Gratitude Improves Relationships

The people around us are grateful when we take gratitude breaks. Sharing smiles, laughs, and kind words – even for a short time – can improve relationships and change the atmosphere in a home or workplace.

If we really want to go all out with the gratitude theme, we can make a point to tell family, friends, and anyone else we’re thankful for, how much they mean to us. There may be all sorts of things that annoy us about someone, but seeking to find that which we respect and admire can smooth out many bumps in our relationships. Especially if we’re willing to tell the person we’re annoyed with. Would you rather cooperate with someone who appreciates your strengths or someone who constantly reminds you of your weaknesses?

Sometimes the person we’re annoyed with is ourselves, but giving ourselves credit for what we do right may be a better path to self-improvement than scolding ourselves for what we do wrong. And we can work on being thankful for all those things we’ve done wrong because we can learn and grow from those experiences. (I know – that’s easier to say than do.)

Gratitude Breaks Are Like Living in the Moment

Gratitude breaks are like the current advice to live in the moment. We can’t forget the past; we need to learn from it. We can’t forget about the future; we need to plan for it. We can, however, treat ourselves to joyful, peaceful moments in which we simply bask in the delight of whatever brings us happiness.

Take time to be thankful. It’s advice that’s been given to us through the centuries and throughout the world. Gratitude enables us to see the light in dark situations and empowers us to face our worries and fears with courage and hope. Giving thanks is like letting the sunshine come in and clear away the dark clouds that inevitably appear from time to time, leaving us with a rainbow of possibilities and brighter days.

Embracing Uncertainty

In times of rapid change and conflict, we long for certainty. We want to predict and plan for the future and clearly see the path forward. We need something to believe in that will carry us through tough and confusing times when we feel out of control and fearful.

It’s natural to yearn for certainty, but we are better off if we can learn to embrace it. Tolerating uncertainty is good for our thinking as well as our mental health.

Tolerating Uncertainty Improves Our Thinking

If we cannot tolerate uncertainty, we risk being manipulated by tyrants and charmers who reassure us that they know all the answers. It’s easier to just follow someone who appears to be extremely confident than to ask questions, listen to various viewpoints, and make decisions on our own that we may be unsure of. We can calm ourselves, for a short time at least, by picking a person or a news source that tells us what we’re comfortable hearing. Information that challenges our chosen beliefs can then be ignored or labeled fake news. We’ve found a story and we’re sticking to it.

Tolerating uncertainty, however, guides us to good thinking and is an important characteristic of a critical thinker (someone who analyses and evaluates an issue before making a judgment). When I first heard that I thought, “Tolerate uncertainty. That’s strange advice.” But, with further reflection, the wisdom became clear.

When we’re certain we’re right, and totally confident that we know what we’re doing, our minds close. We shut down our curiosity and our willingness to listen to and examine new ideas and creative solutions.

How many people have been hurt because some group was certain their political system, their religion, their territorial claims, their way of doing things was right and the opposing group’s wrong?  “Of course God is on my side and supportive of the pain and ruin I plan to cause proving it!” Off to battle we go, leaving a trail of devastation and destruction instead of renewal and restoration.

Admitting we’re uncertain can be tough because it may be seen as weak instead of wise. Once we say we’re certain about something, we may refuse to change our minds because, unfortunately, we often would rather be right than know the truth.

Embracing Uncertainty Is Good for Our Mental Health

Accepting the uncertainties of life is good for our thinking and also for our mental health. Therapists now call our tendency to react negatively to uncertain situations and events “Intolerance of Uncertainty” or IU. Excessive stress and fear, plus uncontrollable worry can result when we doubt and feel indecisive. We naturally like norms we can count on and people we can trust.

How can we lessen IU and create more peace of mind? First, we must be comfortable with uncertainty and accept that there are many things in our world we personally can’t control – like nature, family, friends, politicians, viruses, etc. Acknowledging that we are not in control of the grand majority of what goes on in our world can be scary, but when we embrace uncertainty instead of fight it, we lay the foundation for the next step, which is building up our ability to cope with uncertainty.

Embracing uncertainty helps us tone down the fearful part of our brain (the amygdala) that helps us quickly remove our fingers from a hot oven burner, but that also leads us to saying and doing things we regret when we’ve had time to calm down and think things through. We can keep our fearful instincts in check by avoiding excessive negative information and angry voices whose purpose is to manipulate us. Choosing to focus on constructive, calm voices, beneficial events, and productive problem-solving efforts allows our higher order, logical brain areas to guide us. It prevents paranoia and unfounded suspicions from surreptitiously weaving their nasty web into our thinking.

When we relax and become more at ease with life’s inherent uncertainty, our health improves. Our life’s journey becomes more peaceful and enjoyable when we let go of the idea that life should be a certain way, and instead just let it be. We quit fighting against the waves of life and learn to ride with them.

When my world seems chaotic and confusing, I work on calming my fears through time in nature, music, and reading. Charles De Montesquieu said, “I have never known any distress that an hour’s reading did not relieve.” I pray, believe in love and kindness, turn my attention to helping others, and commit to conquering my fears instead of giving into them.

I don’t think IU is a mental disorder. I think it’s simply our human condition. It’s hard to be uncertain, but we can improve on how well we deal with the fact that there is no fail-safe recipe to follow in creating a happy life.

I’m inspired by the ponderosa pines of the Black Hills. They have learned to thrive under very uncertain weather conditions. They encounter vicious winds, snow that bends and breaks their branches, droughts, fires, and a vast array of temperatures. I see them curve like acrobats, flourish in rocks and sheer cliffs, and rise up after forest fires. The ponderosa pines remind me that although we can’t force life to follow our will, we can resiliently adapt to life, appreciate its beauty, and embrace its uncertainty.

Reading Guide for Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness

I recently was able to discuss my book, Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness, with my friend Nadine’s book club. What a wonderful group of women! I enjoyed discovering what touched them about the stories and hearing their perspectives.

My friend Liz provided me with the above photo of her book and the tabs she’d mark so we could discuss various ideas and share insights. I appreciate learning from my readers!

The following Reading Group Guide is for book clubs or for anyone who likes thought-provoking questions. If you’d like more detailed discussion questions, I’m doing a book study at my church and have developed questions that explore each story. Please contact me if you would like me to visit your book club or group, either in person or by zoom, or if you would like to discuss a more long-term book study.

Reading Guide for Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness by Christy Heacock, PhD

  1. Did your understanding of forgiveness change after reading the book? In what way?
  2. What story was most meaningful to you? Why?
  3. Did you identify with any of the forgiveness heroes? What did you have in common?
  4. How important do you think the 4Cs are to forgiveness? Is one more important than the other? Would you add an additional component?
  5. What role does humility and vulnerability play in the ability to forgive? Gratitude? Acceptance?
  6. How important is self-forgiveness to forgiveness of others and forgiveness of God or Fate?
  7. What is hard about forgiveness and how can we try to overcome obstacles to letting go and moving forward?
  8. Is there a quote, passage, or insight you’d like to be sure and remember as you face forgiveness challenges?

It Could Have Been Different

One impediment to forgiveness is not understanding how someone could do something hurtful. Shouldn’t they have known better?

A helpful forgiveness belief is that everyone is on their own developmental and spiritual path – learning, growing, and doing the best they can. This helps us forgive others and also ourselves.

I wrote the following poem, It Could Have Been Different, with the purpose of better understanding how circumstances impact who we are and the choices we make.  

It Could Have Been Different 
By Christy Heacock

She was born a farm girl at a time when farm girls got married, had babies,
and were supposed to be fulfilled by family, faith, and a clean house.
She wasn’t supposed to like books so much,
and learning new things,
and dancing and dreaming.

She was a good girl
and dropped out of school to care for her sick mother.
But woman’s work wasn’t happy work for her
and she decided to blame that unpleasant truth on other women,
who it seemed to her had created the box she’d been stuffed into.
She idolized the male gender, as they got to do the things she wanted to do.
Their lives seemed a little closer to heaven than the hell she was experiencing.

She became pregnant in an age that required you marry,
even if you were only 17 and the man who got you pregnant was 20 years older.
She had a second baby ten months after the first
in a small rural community where you didn’t talk about
birth control or family planning.

She became depressed in a time and place
that didn’t tolerate sadness, sorrow, or compassion,
but gave a nod to anger, meanness, and harsh judgments.
She became isolated and unforgiving
and didn’t realize she was hurting her family,
because the only hurt she could feel was her own.

Sometimes she would be rescued by books
that took her on journeys that stirred her imagination and gave her hope.
As she grew older she created a fairy tale in her mind
of the way things were,
and she tried not to let real people or unsettling experiences
intrude on that story.

She grew up learning you didn’t complain
until you were visibly and incontrovertibly ill.
Consequently, when the heart attack threatened,
the available modern hospital did not take the place of
a solitary bedroom and rosary beads.
So she died young.

She did the best she could
with what she had
and who she was.

It could have been different,
but not for that person,
in that time,
and in that place.

It’s So Easy to Hate, So Hard to Forgive. Why Is That?

The following article I wrote was featured in the SD Standard August 28, 2020. You can check out my piece and more here.

A Rapid City research psychologist and author asks, it’s so easy to hate, so hard to forgive – why is that?

I was recently asked in an interview, “Why is it so hard to forgive?” My book,“Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness”, answers that question, but not in the one minute of time I was allocated.  I realized I needed to do some more thinking about how to answer that question succinctly. 

When we’re angry, shamed, in pain, or intensely disagree with someone (as illustrated above in an image from Psychology Today), hate comes easy – at least it does for me. I instinctively feel vicious, unkind thoughts and emotions rising up in me. My amygdala (the part of the brain that plays an important role in anger and fear) worries that my survival is threatened and so comes to my rescue by urging me to fight or flee. If I’m not careful I’ll lash out at someone, or if they’re more powerful, I may run away, hide my feelings, and find a sneaky way to take revenge. 

It’s easy to hate because it’s instinctive and doesn’t take self-control, effort, or an upshift in our thinking. We don’t have to figure out how to be respectful or considerate. We don’t have to open our minds and hearts to differing viewpoints or take responsibility for our feelings and actions. We’re right, they’re wrong; we’re good, they’re bad. Case closed. 

Forgiveness, however, requires understanding, compassion, the courage to confront our fears, listen to a different perspective, create new ways of thinking. Why choose forgiveness when hating is so much easier? 

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

― James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”

I think Baldwin was on to something. Self-righteous indignation, moral certainty, being pumped up with pugnacious pride – that’s not painful; it feels good.  At least for a while. 

What can be painful? Listening to opinions we don’t like. Taking responsibility for whatever part we may have played in a destructive situation. Trying to figure out how to innovate and solve a difficult problem. Admitting we’re imperfect and could be wrong, just like the object of our hate. 

We know forgiveness is a virtue, but hate may also make us feel virtuous because we’re sure we’re despising the right things and the right people. If we just shame, punish, bully, or humiliate enough, those bad people will become good people like us – or at least have the decency to keep quiet and know their proper place in life. 

We resist and reject forgiveness when we’re rewarded for our hate – when our nasty social media posts get likes and our hurtful name-calling provides us with attention. When fear- mongering and malice draws crowds and recognition for our cause. When detesting the out-group makes us feel safe and closer to our in-group. 

Hate is a powerful emotion, but its power is limited because it requires no higher order thinking. Hate is fueled by fear and anger, whereas its opposite, love, receives energy from faith, hope, and understanding. 

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” 

 – Baba Dioum

When we’re angry with someone who disagrees with us or who is trying to hurt us, we don’t want to take time to understand them. They should change – right now! We have trouble being patient and resist seeking a productive, honorable path forward. We don’t care if those others are doing the best they can; it’s simply not good enough. They’re obviously idiots or villains and it’s our duty to point that out. 

Forgiveness lightens our burdens, frees us from bitterness, improves our relationships, and creates a new and improved chapter in our lives. But it’s not an easy path. It often takes bravery and strength. I appreciate Buddhism’s view of forgiveness as a combination of compassion and forbearance. 

Why is it so hard to forgive? (Here comes my short answer) Because forgiveness requires courage, compassion, and creativity; acceptance and understanding. It means adapting, learning, growing.  

Is forgiveness worth the effort? Ask yourself, “What am I becoming? Who do I want to be?”  Then you will know the answer.