Holding on to resentment about another person is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to experience it instead. Or so says the adage attributed to Nelson Mandela, Buddha, Dr. Wayne Dyer, or Alcoholics Anonymous. But sometimes the alternative, forgiveness, is almost an alien concept, especially when the other person is clearly in the wrong (and you know that for sure because you’ve been replaying the same scenario over and over in your mind).
Here’s why I think forgiveness is like getting a chance to go back in time to heal that resentment and undo the damage. It’s possible to turn a painful memory into a positive force in your life.
Memories Can’t Be Trusted
Memories aren’t accurate anyway, according to Donna Bridge, lead researcher of a 2012 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. We like to think of our memory as a system of filing cabinets, each drawer containing a memory we can pull out, look at, and put back, leaving it unchanged. But as it turns out, each time we remember a memory, we change it a little. “Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval,” Bridge says.
Maybe this happens for survival reasons: Our memory has to stay up-to-date, so we can make decisions that will keep us safe. Current circumstances and perceptions can alter our memories, leaving a permanent mark on them.
So this means that if there’s an upsetting memory that you have been replaying over and over, for any length of time, chances are very good that your mind has tampered with the memory and it didn’t really happen the way you remember it.
Think about this another way: How many times have you had an interaction with someone which didn’t even upset you until later, when you had the chance to really think it over? It’s possible that your mind began to rewrite the memory according to your perspective, causing you to read into things differently than you did in the moment.
Forgiveness: The Power to Change a Memory for Good
If your resentment toward another person is hurting YOU instead, and if you can’t even trust your own memory of how it all went down, what’s a grudge-holder to do?
The path to forgiveness is different for every relationship and every situation. And for some, forgiveness happens more easily than for others. Sometimes the only way is just to work at it, a little at a time, like untying a big knot. You don’t have to understand why it happened. You don’t even have to forgive for the other person’s sake; forgiveness is for your own benefit. You can always talk to someone who can help you get a fresh perspective on the situation: a therapist, an impartial friend, an uninvolved family member. However you go about forgiveness, start with the decision to do it, and the rest will folow.
If you want a next-level tool for learning forgiveness, check out Byron Katie’s method called The Work. Her way of looking at things feels like a fresh breeze shaking everything upside down. You might even find that you have been completely mistaken about the situation, and you are the one in the wrong. I highly recommend her book Loving What Is, which describes The Work in-depth (not gonna lie, I kind of love all the examples of people doing her “Judge Your Neighbor” exercise). You can also find all the resources you need to do The Work on her website for free.
If you’re at all like me, and the person you find hardest to forgive is yourself, forgiveness is even more important, because your self is the one person you will keep running into! The Work can help you forgive yourself, too. I’ve done the Judge Your Neighbor worksheet on myself and it’s been amazingly eye-opening.
Why I Think Forgiveness Is Like Time Travel
Now for the fun part. I want to tell you about a study done in 2000 that highlighted the effects of prayer on patients who had sepsis (a life-threatening blood infection) in an Israeli hospital. As you might expect, the randomly-selected patients who were prayed for recovered more quickly, and more of them made a full recovery than the control group (the un-prayed for).
The crazy thing about this study is that the people who were prayed for were not present-day patients in 2000, when the praying was happening. They had been patients between 1990-1996. The people doing the praying were praying for sepsis cases that had occurred in the past. Their prayers affected the healing of patients in the past, even though they had been praying in the present.
I first heard about this study in Dr. Joe Dispenza’s book, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, which I’m currently listening to in my car (for free from my public library, woohoo!). It immediately made me think about the way love and forgiveness both work in reverse to heal the past.
Your intention to forgive can work its magic on the time that has gone by.
Kind of like the way, when you finally find true love, or when you finally find your calling in life, it works retroactively to make everything OK in the past. All the lonely years, the relationships that didn’t work out, the mistakes you made – it all ends up looking like proof that there was a plan all along.
You Can’t Move Forward If You’re Stuck in the Past
I think forgiveness works like the prayer in that sepsis study. When you set the intention to open yourself up to forgiveness, it has the power to work retroactively on your life, healing your painful memories and redeeming the past. When you truly forgive and let go of bitterness, it can transform your entire life, freeing up your energy to be fully present, rather than keeping you stuck in reverse.
There’s no reason to spend another second holding on to poison!