For­give­ness re­vis­ited

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - PSYCHOLOGY - • DR. BATYA L. LUDMAN The writer is a li­censed clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist in pri­vate prac­tice in Ra’anana, and au­thor of Life’s Jour­ney: Ex­plor­ing Re­la­tion­ships – Re­solv­ing Con­flicts. She has writ­ten about psy­chol­ogy in The Jerusalem Post since 2000. [email protected]

Prepar­ing for the hol­i­days with for­give­ness an im­por­tant theme, now’s a great time to ex­am­ine your­self and your be­hav­ior and re­flect on who you are and who you’d like to be. Al­ways a work in progress – while you’ll make mis­takes, hope­fully you’ll learn a lot along the way.

In or­der to for­give oth­ers, you must be able to for­give your­self. This be­comes more dif­fi­cult when you feel you must al­ways be per­fect, per­haps de­mand­ing this from oth­ers, too. Sadly, this need for per­fec­tion can lead to se­ri­ous anx­i­ety and cause much un­hap­pi­ness for you and oth­ers. Some­times by ne­glect­ing to look at your role within a re­la­tion­ship, you may point a fin­ger at the other, in­sist­ing that they must be the one to change or give in, while you are in­fal­li­ble.

When two peo­ple come to see me be­cause they are not get­ting along, I of­ten show them a di­a­gram of a cir­cle with two x’s in­side. These x’s within one cir­cle rep­re­sent a good re­la­tion­ship: what I as­sume the “cou­ple” (two adults, a par­ent and child or two friends) are striv­ing for. I then show them a cir­cle with one x in the cir­cle and one out­side, as well as an empty cir­cle with both x’s on the out­side. I point out that those x’s out­side the cir­cle have a choice – they can stay out of the cir­cle for two hours, two days, two weeks, two years or for­ever. How long would the cou­ple like to re­main out­side of the re­la­tion­ship in which they’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing con­flict? The choice is theirs. Only they can an­swer that and only you can an­swer that ques­tion within any of your re­la­tion­ships.

While it’s pos­si­ble that it is the other per­son who has opted to re­main out­side and not work enough on the re­la­tion­ship, where do you stand in terms of mak­ing it easy for them to en­ter the cir­cle and be ac­cepted as part of the re­la­tion­ship? What role do anger, pain, shame or hurt play in main­tain­ing a sta­tus quo that’s un­ac­cept­able with re­spect to what you want in a re­la­tion­ship? In other words, if you want to have a bet­ter, closer, warmer and more lov­ing re­la­tion­ship, you, too, have an equal, if not more im­por­tant, role to play.

FOR­GIVE­NESS IS some­thing you do for your­self. If you don’t learn to let go of your griev­ances, they’ll get in your way, pre­vent­ing you from mov­ing for­ward in a re­la­tion­ship. For­give­ness does not mean for­get­ting, con­don­ing or ex­cus­ing poor be­hav­ior; nor does it mean that you’re min­i­miz­ing your own pain. It’s never easy to let go and for­give be­cause it has the po­ten­tial to open you up to fur­ther pain. How­ever, not for­giv­ing can be equally, if not more, painful, leav­ing you with the heavy bag­gage that you carry around daily, but of­ten fail to see.

It isn’t easy to for­give some­one, es­pe­cially af­ter they’ve hurt you so deeply. It’s not easy to go back into the cir­cle. Ini­tially, you may say that you opt out for­ever – you’re done with the re­la­tion­ship. If it’s that easy and you can sim­ply dis­pose of the re­la­tion­ship, it may not have been as im­por­tant or mean­ing­ful to you as you thought. Even when declar­ing that this is it, you’re fin­ished, you may be left with a nag­ging pain that keeps you ques­tion­ing, “How could they?” or “Why did they?” You may be sad that you’ve let go of the re­la­tion­ship, but you have not let go of your anger around it. This lodges it­self within you and im­pairs your ac­tions, thoughts and how you phys­i­cally feel. You may feel a heav­i­ness ac­com­pa­ny­ing your pain. It may be in your head, chest, gut or shoul­ders. You may feel tired, up­set or re­sent­ful.

Why do you need to hold onto these feel­ings and why are you in­vested in not let­ting them go? Does it re­ally help you to hold onto them? If so, what’s the pay­off? How do you jus­tify your anger? Are you proud of your ac­tions? Does it honor the per­son that you strive to be?

While there may ap­pear to be ben­e­fits, usu­ally the cost to your re­la­tion­ships is far greater. Be hon­est with your­self. How does hold­ing on and be­ing re­sent­ful ad­versely af­fect you as a per­son? What will hap­pen if you let go of this heavy load? What will hap­pen if you re-en­ter the cir­cle, once again try harder, to­day, for you, for your re­la­tion­ship and for oth­ers you care about?

Good re­la­tion­ships re­quire hard work and change on your part. This in­volves notic­ing the good in oth­ers and not pass­ing judge­ment even when you’re in pain and that seems dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble. It re­quires judg­ing oth­ers fa­vor­ably even when you feel they are wrong, be­ing more re­spect­ful and more sen­si­tive to their needs when you may not agree with them. It is never easy to look out­side your own value sys­tem and rec­og­nize that oth­ers may do some­thing dif­fer­ently even when you think that your way is the best.

HERE ARE a few strate­gies for try­ing not to judge oth­ers, prac­tice for­give­ness and work to­ward rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in your re­la­tion­ships.

Never re­spond in the mo­ment. Take a step back and ask your­self how you would like to be judged in the same sit­u­a­tion.

Open up your ears and your heart to lis­ten and hear what some­one has to say. There is al­ways an­other side to a story and it may dif­fer from yours. That can be okay.

En­gage in con­ver­sa­tion. Find out how oth­ers are feel­ing. Try and un­der­stand why they re­sponded as they did.

Can you make space for those with dif­fer­ing view­points and val­ues, in­stead of la­belling “oth­ers,” rather see­ing the per­son un­der­neath?

When you are hav­ing a hard time for­giv­ing your part­ner or fam­ily mem­ber, don’t for­get to ask your­self how long you’d like to stay an­gry with them. Hours? Days? Years? Now’s the per­fect mo­ment to seek rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

In the same way that you would treat your best friend with kind­ness, learn to look at your­self as a hu­man who some­times errs. Al­low your­self not to have to be per­fect and you will be hap­pier.

For­give­ness goes hand in hand with grat­i­tude for all that you have in your life. What are you grate­ful for?

The more vi­o­lence and ug­li­ness you ex­pe­ri­ence in your world, the more you have to give of your­self to “do good.” You can show oth­ers that there is a bet­ter way by pro­vid­ing hope and in reach­ing out to oth­ers with love.

Real for­give­ness is re­fus­ing to hold onto your ill will even when that’s ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to do. Let­ting go of the grudges and re­sent­ments, the right­eous in­dig­na­tion, the ill will and your need to pun­ish the other per­son for their ac­tions frees up your en­ergy to move on, past the pain. This em­pow­ers you and al­lows you to heal. The past is be­hind you and can’t be changed, but you can cre­ate a bet­ter fu­ture. Life is short and you never know what to­mor­row may bring. Do you re­ally want to go to bed an­gry or close the door with­out try­ing to work things out? Now as the hol­i­days are at your doorstep, are there peo­ple who you want to reach out to, re­la­tion­ships that you want to work on and a hand that you want to ex­tend to bring im­por­tant peo­ple back into your life? If so, de­cide what you want your re­la­tion­ships to look like and then work at achiev­ing that vi­sion.

For­give­ness is some­thing you do for your­self

Es­ther ar­rived at shul out of breath and ir­ri­ta­ble. She was out of breath be­cause she’d been run­ning, afraid of be­ing late for Yizkor. She was ir­ri­ta­ble be­cause of the chil­dren. Ruth had daw­dled over break­fast, and Danny had re­fused to wear the clothes she’d se­lected for him. Then one of the twins fell over and de­manded a plas­ter on a non-ex­is­tent sore and she had a tem­per tantrum be­cause there were none left. All stupid triv­i­al­i­ties, but they’d al­ready spoiled the day for her. She was ex­hausted. It seemed years since she had felt fresh and re­laxed. She longed for a seg­ment of time that was wholly hers, not to have to share it with the fam­ily, much as she loved them, nor to have to fill it with end­less chores.

For once the “Ezrat Nashim” was packed. In her neigh­bor­hood, it was a lux­ury for women to get to “shul”… al­ways there were ba­bies to be nursed, and tod­dlers too small to be quiet or left out­side to play. But to­day ev­ery­one would come for Yizkor, the Memo­rial for the De­parted. The word meant “He shall re­mem­ber” and ev­ery­one had some­one they had once loved and lost.

The sub­dued buzz of talk­ing stopped with the thump on the bimah and the au­thor­i­ta­tive com­mand, “Yizkor!” Chil­dren filed out and there was si­lence for one long sec­ond, be­fore the low keen­ing and cry­ing that ac­com­pa­nied the tragic words of our mor­tal­ity:

“Lord, what is man that thou re­gardest him? Or the son of man that Thou tak­est ac­count of him? Man is like to van­ity. His days are a shadow that pas­seth away. In the morn­ing he bloometh and sprouteth afresh; in the evening he is cut down and with­ereth…”

Even be­fore the im­ages be­gan to form, Es­ther felt her cheeks wet with tears. Strangely, it was long-lost aunts and un­cles she be­gan re­mem­ber­ing first, though she hadn’t con­sciously thought of them for years. Yet they, too, had helped to form her, just as the books she’d read, the songs she’d sung, the friends she had played with had all con­trib­uted to the woman she had be­come.

Aunt Fanya, a big, stout woman with a voice like a trum­pet. Ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing her timid lit­tle hus­band Isaac, had been afraid of her. She wore enor­mous hats trimmed with wax fruit or scar­let os­trich feath­ers, and the whole fam­ily seemed to cower. But once, when Es­ther was 10 and had the measles, she had come to visit her. “Go and lie down” she or­dered Mama, who’d been up with her all night. She sat next to the bed and read her sto­ries, and when she got bored, she showed her how to make birds out of col­ored pa­per. She wasn’t sure if she’d dreamt it, but she thought that when she closed her eyes, Aunt Fanya had kissed her gen­tly and dabbed Eau de Cologne on her fever­ish face. After­wards, she’d never been afraid of her again.

“Teach us to num­ber our days that we may get us a heart of wis­dom…”

Wise! That’s how she re­mem­bered Zeide, a pious, gen­tle man with a white beard. He was al­ways learn­ing, hunched over the ta­ble, books ev­ery­where. He peered at you over the top of his glasses, and Es­ther thought it took him a while to rec­og­nize her, as if he was too pre­oc­cu­pied to ad­just to a lit­tle girl and her needs. But some­times she sat on his lap and he told her sto­ries of Queen Es­ther, and her name­sake Es­ther who had been his wife in the Old Coun­try. His eyes would mist over. “A true Aishet Chayil,” he would as­sure the child. Then one day, his place at the ta­ble was empty, and the room was some­how di­min­ished. She hadn’t needed the cov­ered mir­ror to tell her that Zeide was gone and she must trea­sure his words be­cause they were all she had left of him.

“Mark the in­no­cent man and be­hold the up­right; for the lat­ter end of man is peace…”

Had her fa­ther found peace in the end? She of­ten won­dered. His life had been a never-end­ing bat­tle to pro­vide for his fam­ily, never earn­ing quite enough. He worked long hours in the store, but the neigh­bor­hood was chang­ing. His good Jewish cus­tomers moved out and “the oth­ers” moved in, throw­ing rocks through the win­dow, tak­ing things with­out pay­ing. Es­ther tried not to add to his bur­dens, but some­times on Sun­days he would take her to the park and push her on the swings. Her brothers and sis­ters had lots of friends, but she was a loner and he sensed it, telling her jokes to make her laugh, and she would pre­tend for his sake. Poor Papa, at least now you’re not wor­ried about un­paid bills.

“… May God re­mem­ber the soul of my rev­ered mother who has gone to her re­pose….”

Now her tears were flow­ing unchecked, for this was the first time she was say­ing Yizkor for Mama, and the loss was a con­tin­ual ache in her heart. They had been so close, shar­ing ev­ery­thing. And Mama was so wise, not in­tel­lec­tual or so­phis­ti­cated, but filled with com­pas­sion and un­der­stand­ing. She had never sought to hold Es­ther back, but now she was the one to have left. “One day,” she thought sadly, “my chil­dren will be say­ing Yizkor for me. What will they re­mem­ber about their mother?”

She thought of the morn­ing’s an­noy­ances and her re­proaches. Lately her pa­tience had been shorter, her af­fec­tion­ate re­sponses rarer. Her face burned with shame. “For­give me,” she whis­pered. “Teach me to show love to my chil­dren, to re­mem­ber they’re still small. Help me to be a mother that one day they will re­mem­ber with love, the way I re­mem­ber Mama.”

When shul was over, she went to find the chil­dren. Ruth’s hair was un­tidy and she’d lost her rib­bon; Danny had mud on his new white shirt; the twins were both smeared with choco­late. They waited ner­vously for their mother’s com­ments. She gath­ered all four of them close to her.

“I love you,” she said softly, “al­ways re­mem­ber!”

Now her tears were flow­ing unchecked, for this was the first time she was say­ing Yizkor for Mama, and the loss was a con­tin­ual ache in her heart


(Il­lus­tra­tive; Pix­abay)

STRANGELY, IT was long-lost aunts and un­cles she be­gan re­mem­ber­ing first, though she hadn’t con­sciously thought of them for years.

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