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