In September, I began a motivational speaking tour of all 50 states. Each stop features an extensive open discussion where people share with me their thoughts and concerns, as well as situations they're working on in their personal lives. One of the topics that comes up most frequently is forgiveness. How to move on. How to let go. How to heal. How to make sense of a painful experience or make amends with someone who has wronged you. Recently during an appearance in Tennessee, a young man approached the microphone and emotionally yet calmly explained that he was angry with several friends who'd been withholding information from him. A woman they all knew had been beaten by her boyfriend. This had been happening for some time. The angry friend had only found out about it when she was put in the hospital after an especially brutal confrontation with her abuser. Naturally, this friend was beside himself with frustration that he'd been kept in the dark. He wanted so badly to go back in time and save his friend. He wanted to avenge her and attack the man who'd beaten her. He wanted to lash out at his friends who hadn't told him or done anything to intervene. He was living with a knot in his stomach, and it was tearing him apart.
At another stop, a young lady had just overcome a battle with cancer and was upset with her sister, who'd never bothered to visit during a long stay at the hospital, even though the two lived in the same city. She was so hurt and couldn't figure out how to forget about all the loneliness she had felt, all the resentment she had steadily developed for her sibling while stewing in her room. The two wanted to know: Is it possible to let these feelings go? It's a very hard question to answer in both cases—or in any case where someone feels aggrieved, for that matter. When hurt is heaved upon you, it can feel personal and raw. The benefits of forgiveness are well known and much touted, but very challenging to execute. It's a gesture you make toward the offending person, in essence freeing the wrongdoer from their own guilty conscience. Of course, the added bonus is also freeing yourself from pain by lifting the burden of resentment, anger, and frustration.
True forgiveness, for me, has always remained elusive. So I've come up with a workaround of sorts.
I've never quite mastered either of these: letting go or absolving. From my own experiences, I've held on to resentment and anger and sadness for years. I've been on the receiving end of bad business deals, bad relationships, and general bad behavior. I've certainly done my own fair share of harm to people in my life, and there's definitely been some karma there. Because of that, true forgiveness, for me, has always remained elusive. So I've come up with a workaround of sorts, one that has less to do with excusing the wrong that someone has done to you or alleviating the negative impact of the experience on your life. Instead, when someone hurts me, I try to transform that resentful energy into an opportunity. I've found it's very satisfying to take all that desire for revenge, all that desire to get back at someone, all that desire to inflict equal amounts of misery on a person who has done me wrong, and redirect all of it into an inner conviction, and vow to never do to someone else the thing that has been done to me. You can think of it as a kind of Golden Rule in reverse. I've found this contract with myself can bring about a feeling of completion and progress, a proactive process of absorbing and applying a lesson to my own life. I've found there is an incredible release and exhilarating freedom in turning all that hurt energy into a determination to live a decent and ethical life.
If you can use the experience of having seen someone do wrong as motivation to never do that to someone yourself, you are building a better you. This is applicable to a broad spectrum of grievances. The man in Tennessee, for instance, rightfully upset with his friends, could vow to never turn a blind eye to wrongdoing as they did, or act as though some evil being done was none of his business. He would never fear stepping in when it was clear that he absolutely should.
The young woman torn to shreds by her cold and unfeeling sister for not visiting her while she was sick in the hospital could vow to never ignore those in her life who need her support. She would choose instead to rise to the occasion, and be there for the people who need and rely on her. These raw emotions inside us are real power and real energy. They are not to be wasted or numbed out or squashed, but channeled and harnessed and used for good. It's so easy to want to lash out at a person we disagree with, a person we're mad at, a person we wish would behave differently. But all that frustration and anger and vital energy is much better spent making sure we are living the most virtuous life we can, and being the kind of person we wish others would be toward us. These frustrations and ordeals are all tests to see if we have the inner strength and resilience to not only withstand adversity, but to use the pain to transform us into something bigger and better than we would otherwise be.
We cannot let anything or anyone corrupt our hearts or cause us to compromise the dignity and virtue of our character. There will be great tests and challenges, but each time we resist the temptation to lower ourselves, we not only overcome an obstacle, but graduate to a new level of inner strength.
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