The Power of Forgiveness

“Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”
– Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela died on Thursday, December 5th.  He lived 95 amazing years.  He was a leader, humanitarian and visionary.  His life was inspirational and defined by conviction and bravery.  For 27 years, he was imprisoned in his home country of South Africa.   He was mainly incarcerated for wanting to end apartheid, which was a system of racial segregation and a way for the minority whites to control financial and social power in South Africa.  While in prison, he allegedly befriended the guards and warden and he fought for rights of prisoners.   He refused any “perks”; if other prisoners did not receive what he was granted, he refused.

In 1990, in one of the 20th century’s greatest moments, Mandela was granted freedom.  Additionally, the dismantling of apartheid began. Upon his release from prison, Mandela walked through the prison gates and was greeted by “tens of thousands” of people shedding tears and cheering for him.  He looked to be about 55 years but was closing in on 72, an age that most would be focused on retirement.

At this period of time, however, he was reborn.  Prior to incarceration he was involved in plans for violent revolution.  While in prison he became a pacifist but continued to fight apartheid.  Between this evolution and his youthful energy and optimism, he captivated the world.  In 1994, the power of his positive energy and forward thinking led him to become the first non-white president of South Africa.

He possessed many gifts.  He was brilliant, selfless, assertive, charismatic and stubborn. His stubbornness manifested as persistence.  His efforts at peace and ending apartheid were both sincere and earnest and people listened to him.

One of Mandela’s greatest gifts was his ability and willingness to forgive. He was unjustly incarcerated for nearly three decades.  His enemies perpetrated this due to what I believe was irrational fear and ignorance and also greed.  Mandela did not dwell on this.  He realized that anger and resentment of this would only perpetuate problems.  Upon his release, he immediately focused on forgiving as a way to move forward with his goals of equal treatment for all. He summarized this concept in a beautiful statement after he was freed; “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

In a perfect world, when one wrongly harms another, the perpetrator would repent and ask for forgiveness.  Forgiveness would be granted and relationships would be restored or at least reformed. In our non-perfect world, however, this scenario rarely plays out.   For best recovery, the harmed person must work to understand that anger and vengeance cannot change the injustice experienced.  In addition, that thoughts or feelings of anger and resentment can generally lead to the loss of even more mental and physical energy, interfering with the recovery.

It can feel irrational to forgive, depending on the nature of the offense.  It is natural to feel angry and a person should.  I don’t expect people to always be able to forgive.  Sometimes forgiving is not possible.  In those instances it is important for the harmed person to learn to accept that and to manage the anger and other feelings  in a productive way.

Forgiving is a process and can take time.  It is ok to expect justice in certain cases as well.  It is a rare thing to “truly” forgive.  Absolute forgiveness often includes the capacity for empathy and compassion.  The way to achieve that is to consider the “humanity” of the perpetrator of injustice.

Forgiveness also involves temperament.  Those that can forgive tend to “not remember” much of the past’s hurt or betrayal.  Those that cannot forgive tend to hold on to a laundry list of hurt and betrayal.  It also helps to have a trusted person to talk to about the betrayal or injustice and the associated feelings those bring.  There is a healing power in being validated and heard.

Some are unable to forgive because they have guilt or are mad at themselves for past “discretions”.    In these cases those feelings must be addressed first.  The ability to forgive often begins with the ability to forgive one’s self.

Looking back at Mandela’s last 23 years on earth, you can see how his ability to forgive gave him power.  It allowed him to truly be free.  It granted him nearly unlimited energy to focus on massive social awareness, world-changing thoughtfulness and to lead an incredibly long and fulfilling life.  I guess that one of the most amazing things about him was his natural understanding that it is a gift in life to invest “emotional currency” in ourselves versus giving it away to those that have harmed us.

5 thoughts on “The Power of Forgiveness

  1. Gina R says:

    I wish I could walk out of the emotional prison I have been put in and leave the bitterness and sadness behind. And lead a truly free life. I wish I could have met Nelson Mandela and asked him how he was able to leave the past behind and truly move forward. It seems a daunting task that only the most amazing can do.

  2. Colby says:

    Nicely written. Particularly:

    ” His stubbornness manifested as persistence”.

    Which, in turn, I believe led to his unique ability to empathize and subsequently forgive those who persecuted him and others like him.

    Keep WRITING Steve! Thanks!

  3. Erin Toll Glover says:

    Forgiving myself for not being a better parent to my bipolar son has required years of therapy. Thanks for the reminder from one of the greatest leaders of our time.

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