Forgiveness doesn’t always come easily. The struggle to let go of our resentments and forgive those who have harmed us can take quite a while, especially for deep-seated resentments that we have held for several years. But if we wish to achieve long-term sobriety, we have to start working on character defects such as our occasional tendencies to hold onto anger instead of dealing with it appropriately. In other words, we need to learn about forgiveness.
Now, we’ve already talked about letting go of resentments before. We’ve discussed how wishing someone well despite being upset with them can teach us a lot about humility, and how we often need to learn how to see our part in the matter. But even if we understand our part, and even if a part of us may genuinely hope that another person’s life turns out for the best, we may not completely forgive them. In order to do that, we need to learn how to see things from their perspective. And this will take a little bit of work.
Below, we’ll introduce you to an exercise that will teach you how to view even the most repugnant of actions through a slightly different lens. This exercise will hopefully serve to demonstrate just how complicated a person’s motivations can be. More importantly, it should demonstrate the fact that we never truly know a person’s intentions to begin with. Before we get there, however, we’re going to touch on the importance of forgiveness and everything that it can offer us as we seek to make the most of our time in addiction recovery by becoming the best people that we can be.
The Importance of Forgiveness
Simply put, forgiveness is a way of tapping into virtue. We already mentioned humility above. We also mentioned kindness and charity, in the context of doing something kind for the object of your resentments. But there are other virtues that we must embody as we seek to embrace forgiveness as well. We must embrace patience, as others may not forgive us simply because we forgive them. We must embrace diligence in seeing that forgiveness is truly the right thing. And to some extent, we must embrace temperance in the sense that we must monitor our actions and our emotions so that we do not lash out at the person we have resented for so long.
Forgiveness is more, however, than a simple tool that we can use for the sake of embodying other virtues. It is something that we must learn to feel if we are ever to have others feel it in return. When we are making amends, we will not be successful in requesting forgiveness from a person that we have not forgiven for some other infraction. It is highly important that we focus our amends on cleaning our side of the street, rather than lording our supposed humility over others by reminding them that they have often been in the wrong as well. Not only is this against the spirit of amends, but it will not be well-received.
In the past, we have said that one of the roads to letting go of resentments is to learn how to express gratitude. If we can see a person or situation that we once resented as a pivotal element in our lives, something that helped us become who we are today, then forgiveness will quickly follow. Not only that, but we will have a new appreciation for the complexities of life and how various factors influence and shape our personalities and experiences. Forgiveness and gratitude are strongly linked in this way, and both are equally important.
To show just how difficult forgiveness can be, we will below present you with the story of four characters: Prince Wilhelm, King Harold, Princess Celestine (Harold’s daughter), and a bull. You can give the bull any name you wish. These four characters all play roles within a story that ends in death. At the conclusion of the story, you will be tasked with deciding who is responsible. Your gut reactions to the story as written may enlighten you as to why forgiveness has been difficult in the past.
Let’s Play the Blame Game
The story, which is actually derived from a psychology-based video game called Shattered Memories, is as follows:
Prince Wilhelm is passionately in love with Celestine. But she does not love him. One day, Wilhelm comes to the king and asks for Celestine’s hand in marriage. Celestine begs the king not to marry her to Wilhelm, but the king ignores her pleas. Royal protocol means he must say yes to the match. They are married and Wilhelm takes Celestine back with him to his kingdom. That night, he attempts to consummate the marriage, but the distraught Celestine flees. She runs from the safety of the castle and across a field, ignoring the sign which warns of danger. In that field is a bull, who, seeing the girl, charges her. She falls under his hooves and is killed instantly.
In the game, the player is required to line up four figurines representing the characters, ordering them from most culpable to most innocent. Many may pick either Wilhelm or Harold as the guiltiest party. Some believe that Wilhelm would not have forced the marriage if he truly loved Celestine. Others believe that Harold should have broken protocol, placing his duty to his daughter about his duty to the throne. Many may also say that the bull is the guiltiest, since there is no denying that he killed the princess. Most players tend to pick Celestine as the most innocent.
Alas, the story is more complicated than it may appear. Not because of the information we are given, but because of the information that is omitted. For instance, we do not know whether or not Celestine is being chased. She may have had time to read the warning sign rather than haphazardly running into danger. For this reason, some may pick her as the guiltiest party. Many others will put her only as the second-most innocent, with the most innocent being the bull (who was, after all, just being a bull). But what of Harold and Wilhelm? Well, we do not know what the consequences of breaking protocol might have been. Yes, Harold should have held more loyalty to his daughter. But if breaking protocol might have resulted in a war that could cost the lives of countless individuals, then he was stuck making a choice between the lesser of two evils. As for Wilhelm, we are never told whether or not he is actually aware that Celestine does not love him. In the story we are given, she only voices her objections to her father. And while Wilhelm attempts to consummate the marriage, we are not told that he does so forcefully. From his perspective, he might have been simply following through on standard wedding night tradition when his new bride suddenly ran off, leaving him confused.
The point is that, from each character’s perspective, they are the most innocent. None of them were necessarily trying to cause Celestine’s death, and even the two seemingly guiltiest characters may have had perspectives that are not elaborated in the story. This leads us to the great lesson that this story may teach us about forgiveness.
What We Can Learn from This
We may be resentful toward people because we believe they have caused us harm. But that does not mean they were aware of the harm they were causing, or that they did not feel they had adequate justification for their actions. The manner in which you rank the characters in Celestine’s story is irrelevant to what the story teaches us—that guilt is subjective. Sometimes we place it upon ourselves, and sometimes we place it upon others. But in either case, the story changes depending upon who is telling it. Once we understand this and learn to see things from alternate perspectives, forgiveness becomes a much simpler matter.
It is important to remember that the objects of our resentments are much like the characters in Celestine’s story in the sense that we are often missing information regarding their circumstances and their motivations. We may resent an employer for firing us after we failed a drug screen. But much like Harold, they were bound by protocol. We may resent a person for treating us a certain way or making us feel bad about ourselves. But much like Wilhelm, we do not know the full story. It is possible that the actions we have so long perceived as unforgivable were simply committed by a person who did not know how we felt.
Forgiveness requires as much perspective as it does humility. Unless we can learn to put ourselves in another’s shoes and see the situation through their eyes, we will always encounter struggles when attempting to let go of resentments. As we practice seeing situations from alternate points of view, we will become more accepting of others in the process, even when we do not initially agree with their choices. We must also learn that our own choices have not always been spectacular, but we often found ways to justify our actions. Why should we expect any different of others?
The simple answer is that we can’t. As such, we cannot cast the first stone. If we do not learn to embrace forgiveness, our glass houses will shatter all around us, lacerating our relationships with others. It’s important to remember this when dealing with those you perceive to have wronged you. Learn to forgive others, and you will be far more successful when seeking forgiveness yourself.