The Shoulder Shrug of Forgiveness

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This post is my monthly contribution to Bloggers for Peace.

The assignment for the month of February has been to write a post in regards to forgiveness. Like any homework that I have ever been assigned in my life, I’m writing it at the very last minute. Update:  Kozo at everyday gurus, let me know I was mistaken and that the Forgiveness assignment was for March. I started the day being late and now I’m early!

Forgiveness is a tough topic for me to write about for a whole myriad of reasons. Mostly because I don’t know what it really means and have never given it a name in my life. When I read stories about families of victims forgiving the murderer, I appreciate the vast gulf those families must have traversed to get to that point. I think that it must have required time, diligence, patience and a bigger view than I could possibly ever have.

In writing about growing up with domestic violence, a commenter once praised me for my ability to forgive. I wanted to respond that they were mistaken. I hadn’t consciously forgiven anyone. I just stopped being angry all the time, stopped seeking to blame and began to see the players in the drama for the small, weak people that they were. On occasion I feel compassion for them. In rare instances, when a memory has been triggered, I hate them all over again. How do you find forgiveness in all that?

For me, therein lies the crux of the problem. Forgiveness sounds like this all-encompassing, perpetual emotion that continues on ad infinitum. We’re complicated. I’m complicated. I don’t feel the same way for more than a few days, a few hours, even a few moments at a time. Things are always shifting. My brain is a kaleidoscope – a changing perspective each and every day.

In my daily life, I don’t stay angry for very long. It takes far too much energy to maintain and I am quick to realize the futility of it. It’s one of those emotions, like guilt, that should drive a person towards change or action, but not be held onto. It is corrosive. But the absence of anger is not really forgiveness, is it?

People always talk about the power of forgiveness, piously saying “I forgave him or her for this or that”. Unfortunately, statements like that always put me on alert. Sometimes the naming or announcing of a thing immediately gets tagged in my skeptical head as suspect. Telling someone you forgive them seems weird, too. Has someone ever told you that you’re forgiven? It’s like being given reprieve from execution by the person who ordered it in the first place. You feel grateful, but you’d like to punch them for having that kind of power over you. Maybe that’s just me.

If I’ve started doing things that require a grandiose announcement that I’m forgiven, something has already gone very wrong in the relationship. I apologize when I’ve realized I’ve done something wrong or hurtful and the person I’ve hurt says something to lessen the intensity and vice versa. We shrug it off and move on. Forgiveness is then not holding a grudge and being willing to accept an apology. It is part of the connective tissue of our relationship. A condition upon which we have tacitly agreed.

Of all the types of forgiveness, I find self-forgiveness the most challenging. My catalog of misdeeds and small cruelties is fully collated and recorded and dredged up on occasion when I start feeling a might too good about myself. I will easily shrug off the actions or words of someone else while castigating myself for doing or saying the exact same thing. As I get older, I realize the importance of giving myself a mental flick in the ear to say “That was a dumb thing to do, move on, don’t do it again.” My version of forgiveness is less about the warm fuzzies and more pragmatic. Get on with things, don’t wallow.

Often, when I’ve finished writing about a subject, I have a reasonable perspective, I’ve learned something or I’ve reaffirmed something I already knew. I don’t know anything more except to say forgiveness is a concept of which I do not have a good grasp. Perhaps I cannot name that which can only be felt deep in the bones, sincerely and utterly. Perhaps it is a mental obstacle that erodes only slightly, moment by moment, until one day you can clearly see an uncluttered landscape of compassion.

More Bloggers for Peace:

A Gift from a Telephone Solicitor from Authentic Talk

Friends and Enemies: The Malleable Keys to Peace at everyday gurus

The Inertia of Our Forever War at Peace Garret

Kozo & Cheri asks that you…at Bloggers for Peace

Administrative Note: The Green Study “Worst Job I’ve Ever Had” Contest is coming to life with some very funny/ horrific entries! You have until Sunday, March 3rd 2013, 12:00 pm (US Standard Central Time) to get your entry submitted.

44 Comments on “The Shoulder Shrug of Forgiveness

  1. This reads so well, as though you just wrote it in a flash without much editing. Sounds like you’re on fire! If it feels that way, then wait until the last minute with everything…I really liked your use of language here and totally follow the sentiment. Found myself just really enjoying the style. Props!

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    • Thanks – I do have my moments when things just spill out and I don’t feel compelled to edit much. That usually happens when I go into a subject knowing that I don’t know much! I think I’ve broken through my mental sluggishness and am diving back into writing wholeheartedly this week, so it has been a real pleasure to write. Now onto the novel re-writes…have a great day!

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  2. Terrific essay. I also wonder if my forgiveness is good enough; but I admit I have never suffered anything bad enough such that forgiveness on my part would be very difficult – I’ve never been assaulted, nor have my children; I’ve never suffered discrimination; etc.

    I would think that the “good enough” approach applies here; the fact that you stopped “being angry all the time” and “seeking to blame,” and “began to see the players in the drama for the small, weak people that they were” is enough, I think, to keep you whole and to keep society functioning; enough to prevent society from slipping into a mire of constant revenge actions.

    I lived in Nicaragua after the civil war of the ‘80s and was amazed at how people could forgive each other and move on. One friend ran for mayor of a town as a Sandinista even though his brother had been killed while fighting for the contras. I asked him how he could reconcile that, and he just shrugged (literally) and said, “Well, you have some people who are fanatics;” he meant that he was not one of them. I did not ask him more about his forgiveness, but obviously he felt it was in his interest and the town’s interest to move on.

    And in terms of my forgiveness of others, I think there is some truth to the stereotype that guys just tend to forget some social interactions which may have slighted them . . . it’s probably a good thing that I can be shallow like that, along with the rest of my brothers [smile]. Maybe it’s a Darwinian selection – perhaps all the men with longer memories killed each other off in revenge spearings and didn’t have as many children as my more scatterbrained ancestors did.

    One last thing (organized religion alert!) – I’m Christian enough that I do pay attention to Christ’s teachings about forgiveness, and when I read the gospels it comes through loud and clear that we are supposed to forgive until it hurts. If something horrible is done to me, will I really be able to forgive and wipe the slate clean with the person? I don’t know, but I hope that if I can, as you say, stop being angry, see the players in drama for who they are, and move on, that will be good enough.

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m always amazed when countries, factions, whatever the division, with long histories of infighting and violence eventually transcend it all for the sake of peace. And then you see groups holding grudges for petty grievances that go on for decades.

      As for the gender stereotypes, I’ve known men who hold grudges far beyond any sense of proportion and women who let things slide right on past. Although I think there is truth in a biological need to maintain societal peace, which is why most of us have a filter between the brain and the mouth!

      There is, I think, a pretty huge gap between ideological forgiveness and on the ground, human forgiveness. Aspiration towards an ideal is important, but if you skip all the normal human emotions of anger, needing to understand, needing to be acknowledged, space and time for processing, then forgiveness becomes a big band aid just waiting to be torn off on the next go round or slight.

      I imagine I’ll learn a lot more about forgiveness just reading people’s comments. Thanks!

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  3. This is an interesting post. Until I read it, I can’t say I ever consciously thought about formally forgiving someone. I stop being angry. I am no longer hurt or disappointed. I move on. I accept that it happened and move on, or forget about it. But I don’t say to myself, or to the person who ‘did me wrong’ ” I forgive you”. Although I might say, “I understand” or “thanks for apologizing”. There might be someone I never speak to or see again. It doesn’t mean I haven’t ‘forgiven’ them. It could mean I cannot trust them and therefore can no longer have a relationship. But I am not still angry or hurt etc. having never, thankfully, been in the position I can’t say for sure, but I do not know how I could ever ‘forgive’ someone for murdering a loved one. That I don’t like I could ever make peace with, but like I said, I haven’t been through it. And until you have you don’t know how you’ll react.

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    • You’re right in that how forgiveness is handled is about circumstance and degree – how you choose to react, whether it is in conversation or simply absence. I like that you pointed out that not seeing someone again is not about forgiveness, but trust – that’s a whole different post, but well worth thinking about in the context of forgiveness. Can you forgive someone even though it’s unlikely you’ll ever trust them again? Are those two things separate issues? More to think about! Thanks, Fransi.

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  4. Great piece and a great topic. I remember in my late 20’s hearing a lot about what forgiveness was and wasn’t – mostly from religious people who meant well. I came to believe that it was not about washing away or putting aside offenses, it was about not wanting to see someone pay the price, letting them off the hook. I don’t think it has to be spoken, I think it is acted out.

    My Pop and I had a tough relationship in my teens and into my 30s. I took issue with how he behaved and where he fell short. There were real and serious things to forgive – but I found myself at an impasse with him, destined to walk in disappointment the rest of our days. About 15 years ago it occurred to me that Pop just didn’t have it in him to be the type of father I wanted him to be – it was not in his DNA. My need for him to be something he was not put an insurmountable wall between us. One day I just let him off the hook, he was who he was and there were some really wonderful things about him. I quit expecting him to own up or live up to my expectations and just let him be who he was. It radically changed both of us. I quit expecting him to say he was wrong and one day out of the blue he did, and I think he did because I no longer needed him too. Don’t get me wrong, he was never dependable, or honest, or able to put someone else first – but he was funny and kind and was always an adventure and I came to love those things about him. For me this is forgiveness.

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    • When it comes to family, forgiveness is a challenging task, especially with parents. Our expectations as children have been forever disappointed and every time we reach out, we’re reminded of that fact. I’m sure you and I are not talking about not getting the bike we wanted or something superficial like that.

      My childhood defined me in so many ways, as did my powerless rage. Then one day, I realized I had a choice. Once I claimed my personal power, my choices, it became easier to step away from the situation and look at it with interest and curiosity and to see the people as the fallible humans they were.

      If that is the path of forgiveness, it is a very long one and I think that often we expect it to come quickly. Sometimes, it doesn’t come at all, because we hold onto our anger to distance ourselves from the pain. It’s when we’re able to feel and process that pain that anger dissipates. I wonder if what it takes to forgive the big stuff is bravery – a willingness to face what hurts, allow it to wash over us and then we’re no longer afraid to be open to ideas of compassion and forgiveness.

      Sorry, Lorri, I went off on a stream of consciousness ramble there. I think I can relate to or at the very least admire your story tremendously – it tripped some mental wires!

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      • Not to worry, I kinda did the same thing on your post – I clicked reply and saw that I had written a novel. You are correct, we are not talking about being denied a bike or a barbie doll.

        You are so very right about power. It occurred to me one day that I not only had the power to determine whether or not I had a relationship, but also the power to set boundaries. Having discovered this I also had to own that from that point on I had to take responsibility for my stuff – I could choose to let it take me to dark places or I could choose to not react to it. I was captain of my own ship and from then on it was my course.

        I also think that you are onto something when you talk about the bravery to face the pain. It is work. Someone told me once that children face pain that they don’t have the tools to process – the pain doesn’t go away, it’s put into an account that may collect interest – eventually that pain spills over into other areas. I can relate to that a bit.I had that powerless rage too. As children we cannot deal with that.

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        • You are absolutely right about children not having the tools to process these intense, painful emotions and events. This is why we see everything from cutting, to suicides, to substance abuse in the very young. With no power over their own lives, these things turn inward and just eat them up. I feel lucky that my self-destructive behavior had a limited shelf life and I am still here to be all angsty about it in public!

          Setting boundaries has been one of the most useful tools in being okay with things. It’s taken me a long time to learn to do that and I slip on occasion, but wow, life is much easier knowing where I end and others begin.

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        • You are so right about that. Boundaries are transformative – making space for me and my sensibilities changed and saved my life.

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  5. That was… outstanding! I’ve never thought about the topic much, but I found myself nodding a lot as I read.

    One thought your words triggered is that I find understanding goes a long way towards dealing with a perceived offense. When you understand someone’s motivation, to me it sometimes seems to mitigate some of the hurt.

    The other thing that popped into my mind was how you hear the phrase, “forgive but don’t forget.” I’m not sure what that means, exactly, either, but it seems similar to somethings you said about the anger going away.

    I do find that there are things (the ex-wife or certain job aspects) where I’m fine as long as I don’t think to much about it. Because if I do, I get angry all over again. And that translates to the world… lots of stuff I can live with so long as I don’t actually think about it too much.

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    • That is a good point about trying to understand someone’s motivation for doing what they did. I eventually get to that point, whether or not I think their reasons are valid.

      I don’t like that phrase “forgive, but don’t forget”. Why choose to remember every shitty thing someone did to you? Maybe they keep borrowing money that they don’t pay back and you need to remember that so that you stop lending them money. Maybe what needs to be remembered is the lesson, not the offense.

      I have to be careful not to get caught in the hamster wheel of things I’ve found hard to forgive. If thinking about it causes that same old flush of anger, it might be that it’s just not time to work through it. I think of that as the stuck phase and only hope they don’t last too long, but some things have taken years of back burner time before I was ready to deal with them.

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      • I think that’s right about not forgetting the lesson (rather than the offense). I have a good friend who isn’t careful with property, his own or others, so the lesson learned is to just not loan him stuff.

        I find there are things where it just doesn’t seem possible to work through them. There’s nothing to work through in my mind. It’s an injustice, pure and simple, and I’m powerless to change things in any real way. So,… they’re just toxic areas to avoid.

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  6. Forgiveness is such a tricky subject.

    I mistrust the whole “I forgive them” schtick, because it sounds suspiciously like “I don’t really forgive you at all, I just want you to know that I am a bigger person than they are, because I have it in me to forgive the horrible thing(s) they did.”

    I can get tied up in all sorts of semantic knots on this one, but ultimately, to me, forgiveness is something like “developing compassion for people who’ve done shitty things.” And maybe, just maybe, understanding that in their place, while I hope I wouldn’t have done the same shitty things, I just might have.

    Karen

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    • I get caught up in the semantics as well. Plus, when you hear the various public contexts where “forgiveness” is used (politics, entertainment, etc.) it does seem to knock the legs right out from under it.

      I like your definition of it, although it would depend on the offense and the context, as so many things do. As I have committed a few shitty acts myself, there is definitely some room to have compassion for others. Thanks for reading and commenting, Karen!

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    • I love this definition of forgiveness, Karen. I have done some shitty things, so I need to have compassion for others who might have erred. It reminds me of “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” it also reminds us that people don’t try to do shitty things. Things happen to them that cause them to act in a way that seems right at the time.

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  7. Green, that was an excellent, excellent post. I agree with so much if not all of what you said. Changing behaviour, moving on, occasionally revisiting, acknowledging, apologizing etc. are all key things but forgiveness as a stand alone act evades me as well.

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    • Glad to hear that I’m not an obstinate, unkind ass (or at least that there are 2 of us) for thinking forgiveness is not a magic, one-time pill. Naturally it depends on what we’re talking about – minor offenses, rudeness, I wouldn’t give a second thought to, but murder, violence, cruelty – these are things, that if forgiveness is ever in the picture, require a lot more than words. And I would imagine, a whole lot of time.

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  8. I think of forgiveness as not necessarily the presence of something as its absence. I always say I can’t live without my two best friends, anger and resentment, on either side of me. I know I’m in a place of forgiveness if I no longer have anger and resentment. But I’m so damn sarcastic that it’s hard not to hold a grudge. Like I’m lying in wait for someone to trip up so I can confirm that they really aren’t worty of my forgiveness. I think the old adage, “forgive, but don’t forget” applies, not because it should, but because it’s awfully hard to forget. The resentment can be overwhelming.

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    • I can relate very well to your comment. I will think I’m over something and then that person will do something else and all the anger will erupt. The other thing that I have found myself guilty of is passive-aggressive anger – when you tell someone everything is just fine and then spend the next week making backhanded comments or referencing the offense. I’ll hear myself and realize what an unpleasant, broken record I sound like (and feel just little bit embarrassed). I’m working on it, though. I come by my forgiveness the long way, I think!

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  9. My own perspective changed when I realized the pixie-dust foundation on which blame is founded, and from which forgiveness extends. For me, the notion of blame is something that runs “through” rather than “to” people, so tracing blame would be an exercise in genealogy, history, culture, the impact of climate and biology and how that conspiracy of events echoed through time to wound the individual that expressed some slight upon me. That is far beyond the clarity I can muster with my limited field of vision. With no real blame, I have nothing to forgive. Even if I found the source, I am still left with whether it is a wound that needs healing or a crime that needs punishment and if I can conjure up the latter with enough self righteous pixie-dust to point a finger, I am left with three fingers pointing back at myself. How we go forward is the real question to me because the very question of forgiveness masquerades the fact that we are at best still stuck in the moment, or worse, living in the past. The notion of driving with the windshield as the meat and potatoes of moving forward, and the rear view mirror as the spice seems to me to be the only way to reduce the repetition of the same mistakes to begin with.

    Great post, thanks for sharing.

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    • You are getting at something that I really wasn’t able to enunciate (yet). Is it my place, my power to forgive or is it my responsibility to work through my own anger and figure out where I go from there? I abhor self-righteousness in myself (and often in others), so maybe humility demands that we assume responsibility for our reactions and not deign to “bestow” forgiveness on anyone. I’m still not expressing myself well here. With any kind of understanding or compassion, it’s really hard to scream foul about someone else’s mistake, transgression or offense. I have to think about this some more, but you bring up another important perspective.

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      • I can’t help but think my perspective has at least some self service appendages to it, not that I should apologize, nor be forgiven for that.. I am not religious, but the parable of leaving the offering and resolving offense before making the offering in the New Testament speaks volumes to the point that when we carry offense we have nothing to offer. We are simply stuck. I remember absorbing and expressing the notion of crime and punishment and the offense I carried would inevitably repeat itself over and over again on my social landscape. It had the effect of perpetuating the wound. It’s like putting a new paint job on the same engine and thinking I put it behind me. It was only after disciplining myself to shift the lens from a crime and punishment perspective, to a wounds and healing one that I was ever able to move forward. I still have some vestigial echoes of that cultural installation, but biology unashamedly looks to heal with whatever resources it has to do so, not punish. Frankly, I think it is a better guide than the things we dream up in our minds. Culturally speaking, we sometimes bring a salt coated club to beat the wounds thinking somehow they’ll go away. Maybe we need to be forgiven our ignorance. 🙂

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  10. Michelle,
    I love this honest look at forgiveness. You have the courage and insight to see beyond faux-forgiveness. It seems to me that you are delving deeper into the issue in order to have an authentic and lasting form of compassion/peace. We would be wise to follow suit. I love your last line, “Perhaps it is a mental obstacle that erodes only slightly, moment by moment, until one day you can clearly see an uncluttered landscape of compassion.”
    I also love the idea of the shoulder shrug and ear flick. You made me realize that forgiveness does require us to just move on sometimes. Great post, and you are not tardy. The forgiveness challenge is for March. 🙂
    P.S.
    Can you click on the froggy thing at the bottom of the Monthly Peace Challenge and paste the url of this post in the link collection? This is our new way of sharing peace posts with other Bloggers for Peace. Let me know if you have any questions. {{{Hugs}}} Kozo

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    • I used to get this comment frequently on my school report cards: “Does not follow directions” (mostly because I was daydreaming). Well, I guess I should be delighted that I am actually early with an assignment for once (and just did the Froggy link thing). Maybe after all these great comments and thoughts, I’ll have to do another forgiveness post in March with newly acquired knowledge!

      I think authentic and lasting forgiveness has got to be a holy grail of living peacefully. It’s figuring out what that path is and recognizing that it can’t be forced into reality – sometimes it’s all about time and patience.

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  11. Well thought out and written, and as with so many of your other posts, helpful for me. In the last week I had to accept that someone dear to me is not going to forgive me for something I didn’t do (in the context of not realizing I should have done it). I did actually ask her to forgive me. The experience has been shocking and painful, but it has also moved me forward. Though it seems she is unable to forgive me, I have forgiven myself. Should she decide in future that she can forgive me, I will be joyful for it.

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    • I’ve been in situations like that – I know it’s painful to go through, especially when you do apologize. I’m glad you are able to move forward. That’s another aspect of forgiveness I didn’t write about – that the giver and recipient of an apology may not be processing the situation at the same pace. It makes it awkward and sad if it doesn’t get resolved. Then I have to try not to develop a grudge in opposition to them not accepting my apology, because that is all about my pain, not them being wrong. Then, as you pointed out, you are open and receptive if they want to reconnect. Apologies for the convoluted thought process here! Thanks for sharing your example, Linda.

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  12. Michelle, you will be interested in this story in the Washington Post Magazine from the weekend. Six grown kids and how their lives and relationships turned out, 47 years after their abusive, alcoholic father shot their mother (she survived; as was typical for the time, he barely spent a lick of time in jail). The shooting both changed and solidified everything. A good read, and despite the title, it’s about abuse, not “gun violence.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/liveblog/wp/2013/02/28/magazine-after-dad-shot-mom-a-family-deals-with-the-haunting-legacy-of-gun-violence/

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    • I started to read this, but it is one of the after effects of my own experiences that I have a difficult time reading about the hidden, claustrophobic and violent lives of other families. It is an article not for the faint of heart, which unfortunately, I can be, on occasion. I appreciate the referral, though and I’m sure other readers will find it an enlightening article. It’s funny, but this particular sensibility didn’t arise until after becoming a parent. It feels like I’m looking through both sides of the mirror.

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  13. “I hadn’t consciously forgiven anyone. I just stopped being angry all the time, stopped seeking to blame and began to see the players in the drama for the small, weak people that they were.”

    I always thought that’s what forgiveness was. Forgiveness isn’t something that you give to the people who need to be forgiven – it’s the gift you give to yourself (oh god, did I just say that? I did, I really did) to be able to go on and live a good and happy life and get past things that might otherwise prevent you from just being awesome and doing good hit with your time here. Forgiveness is what you do because life is too short to blame and hate and dwell.

    This was a really lovely post.

    x

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    • I think that’s what I’ve often mistaken the idea of forgiveness for – the idea that we bestow it on other people. And while it is a bit of Chicken Soup for the Soul sentiment, you’re probably right in that it’s something more beneficial to do for ourselves. Thanks, Molly, for reading and commenting – I’m sure you’re enjoying a little more browsing time after all the focus you had to put into your workshop application. Send some of that intensity over here – I need to get this #$%@ novel done!

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  14. Reblogged this on Exceeding the Speed Limit and commented:
    Here is another amazing post from a gifted bloggess. She offers perspective on a difficult topic but as usual, begins an amazing conversation. I struggle with finding forgiveness and letting go so I appreciate the depth of her insights. Enjoy!

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  15. This resonates with me as such a heartfelt post — and makes me reflect on that concept of forgiveness, as well. I do not think it as simple as some would make it to be, either, and sometimes does seem more fluid in its process. Nice post, G.S. ~ Kat

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    • You said it more succinctly than I managed – I think fluid is a great way to describe the idea and the practice of forgiveness. Thanks!

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  16. Nice post, great observation about “the concept” of forgiveness. And you’re right, forgiveness is not a concept that can be mentally washed away or even a feeling. It’s just a new state of being, when we choose to accept that certain things happen so we can experience it fully in our lives. Compassion is when we just let that thought-form go, because we’ve already learned from the experience and no longer hold on to it. We consciously choose to move on, so it no longer binds us. This is true freedom. ♥

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    • I like that idea of a “new state of being”. There is something redemptive and positive about not holding onto something, so that we can be open and free. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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