Release the Past to Free the Present: Another Meaning of Forgiveness

By Adam J. Pearson


Introduction

In “Forgive and Be Free: The Liberating Power of Forgiveness,” I introduced the practice of forgiveness and its tremendous ability to transform our lives and give us a greater sense of inner freedom. At the end of that article, I emphasized an encouraging feature of forgiveness, namely that:

I only have to choose to forgive once and that is now. In every moment, I get to choose whether to hold on to blame and suffer or forgive and be free.

Forgiveness happens in the now and we only ever have to choose to forgive in the now. In this article, I’d like to explore a facet of forgiveness that is crucial to grasping its full liberating value, namely, its striking power to release us from the past so that we can be free in the present. I will suggest to you that forgiveness literally offers us the key to unlock the barred gateway of the past so that we can enter the doorway of freedom here and now. What do I mean by this? Let’s dive right in and find out.

Redefining Forgiveness

In “Forgive and Be Free,” I suggested a very simple definition of forgiveness, namely, that:


Forgiveness is choosing to lovingly let go of blame.


This is a useful definition because it’s simple and it brings us right into the core of the practice. However, there’s another dimension to forgiveness that this definition doesn’t make explicit. To reveal it, we need only remember that the blame that we hold onto, the judgments we maintain, and the grievances to which we cling all have something vitally important in common: they all relate to the past. 

We blame others for what they have done to us in the past. We judge people for what they have previously done, said, valued, expressed, or thought. We hold grudges because we feel others have wronged us in the past. In all cases, therefore, we carry the past into the present and hold onto it for dear life. Why, you may wonder? Because we want our pain to be validated and we think that holding onto grievances is the only way to protect ourselves from getting hurt again in the future. We hold onto our grievances because we think they offer us a shield to keep the hurt out.

There is an element of wisdom in this line of reasoning and also and element of tragic folly. The wisdom lies in the fact that it is helpful to remember how people have acted in the past in order to avoid being hurt in the same way. Naturally, if I have learned through experience that a particular man is prone to conning people out of their money, it would be wise for me to remember not to entrust this fellow with more of my cash. 

The innocent mistake, however, lies in the false belief that I have to emotionally cling to my grudge in order to remember that people tend to behave in certain ways that could result in me getting hurt again. It’s even as if inwardly tensing up and desperately clinging to the memory of the pain of a past wrong will somehow hurt the person who hurt me and thus give me a sense of revenge. However, the truth is that, as a famous proverb once said, holding onto a grudge is like trying to kill another person by drinking the poison yourself. The only thing that grievances do is hurt you. They destroy your peace and happiness from within. And they bind you to the past.

Forgiveness comes in to address this issue head on. Its purpose is simple: liberation. Forgiveness allows us to release the inward tension of holding on to past pain that keeps us suffering in the present. Its purpose is to heal the pain by lovingly releasing it. Therefore, we might also define the meaning of forgiveness in another way:


Forgiveness is choosing to lovingly release our present from the hold of the past.


To understand this, recall that holding on to grievances or memories of past pain involves letting my past hold power over my present. In other words, it means letting past pain hurt me now. Holding grievances saps and drains my energy, which should flow smoothly into the now, by contracting it around a grudge, judgment, or concentration of blame. It means choosing to sacrifice my present peace and happiness in order to maintain the emotionally-charged memory of pain I felt in the past.

I’ll repeat this idea because our happiness depends on it really hitting home with us. Clinging to the memory of past pain literally means forcing myself to keep suffering now in order to ensure that I don’t forget that I suffered in the past. Is it just me or is that not tremendously, unbelievably, and incredibly ironic? We claim that we hold on to past hurt to make sure that we do not suffer in the future, but all this does is guarantee that we suffer in the present. Is the madness of this line of thinking starting to sink in? Let me mark it off by itself so it’s super clear:


The logic of holding on to grievances is that in order to avoid suffering in the future, I have to choose to suffer now by remembering that I suffered in the past.


If that sounds absolutely bonkers and totally insane to you, that’s because it is. It’s an innocent mistake that we tend to make as children and hold on to for years into adulthood, but it’s crazy nonetheless.

Forgiveness: A Sane Solution to an Insane Problem

Thankfully, this insane situation has a sane solution: forgiveness. It’s clear that when I hold on to grievances, I obsessively hold on to the past. And when I hold on the past, I reinforce its hold on my present. Therefore, the only logical thing to do is to make a different choice. Instead of choosing to hold on to the grievance, I choose to lovingly let it go. I learn from my past pain, but I also lovingly release my hold on it and thereby, release its hold on my present.

Forgiving can seem difficult, if not even counter-intuitive, but deep down, I see that it’s what I really want. Why? Because I want to free now. I want to be joyful now. And I want to be peaceful now. And if I’m holding onto a grievance, then I’m filling my now with memories of the past and constantly recreating feelings of past pain in my present. And if I fill the present with past pain, that past pain becomes present pain. As a result, conflict covers up my peace, pain crushes my joy, and the past weighs heavy on my freedom like a tremendous burden. These are the logical results of holding on to grievances.

Therefore, I want to forgive. Why? Because if I forgive, then I get to release my past pain into the past and let it stay there so that an old chapter in my life’s story no longer determines what happens in its present. I release the conflict and turmoil that grievances introduce into my present. I release the grievances that keep me tethered to the past and thus, bound in the present. Choosing forgiveness isn’t foolish; it’s wise. It isn’t weak; it’s strong. Choosing forgiveness isn’t giving in to those who hurt us in the past; it’s ensuring that they don’t continue to hurt us in the present. In short, choosing to forgive is choosing to be free, happy, and peaceful here and now. Regardless of what happened in the past.

Grievances Weaken; Forgiveness Empowers

We might feel that giving up our emotional hold on past wrongs or past pain decreases our power or takes away some of our control. Thus, forgiving can sometimes seem scary. It can seem like if I hold on to the pain I felt in the past and the blame I feel towards the person who inflicted it on me, then I get to keep some power over that grievance. I get to keep a sense of control. However, is this really true?

When I hold onto the memory of past pain, I continue to suffer in the present. I literally extend my past pain into the present. If what I really want is the power to be peaceful, happy, and free in the present, then holding onto grievances isn’t really an act of asserting power at all.

Instead, holding on to grievances forces me to surrender my power over my present freedom, peace, and happiness to the grievance. I give my power to the grievance, to my blame, to my abuser, to the person who hurt me, to my past pain, and empower it to continue to make me suffer in the present. By empowering the grievance, I weaken myself. In short, by holding on to grievances, I give up or abdicate my power over my present experience to my grievances about the past.

If this fact sounds negative, take heart: it has a positive implication. If holding on to grievances surrenders my power to the past, then forgiving grievances reclaims my power over my present. Thus, forgiveness literally empowers us. By taking my power over my present back from my past and focusing it in the present, forgiveness empowers me to be free, happy, and at peace here and now. And that is what I truly want, so forgiveness is what I truly want as well. It’s the empowering means to a powerful end. Thus, grievances may weaken, but forgiveness empowers.

Freedom from Identifying with Victimhood

This already potent idea has an even more powerful and empowering implication, for forgiving releases me from identifying as a victim. How is this possible? It’s possible because I identify as a victim for as long as I continue to hold onto a past in which I was victimized. When I hold onto a past in which I was victimized, I hold onto a grievance. And when I hold onto a grievance, I hold on to the pain of that past and let it run and define me in the present. Thus, because I was victimized in the past, I come to identify as a victim in the present. 

In contrast, if I forgive, including forgiving myself, then I lovingly release the past’s hold on me. And as I release my emotional hold on the past, then I also release its power over my present. I empower myself in the present by choosing to not let myself be defined by victimization in my past. Therefore, when I forgive, I lovingly release my identity from being bound to past victimization. If I do not hold on to the past, then I cannot see myself as a victim. And thus, having forgiven the past, I find myself free in the present.

Of course, forgiving doesn’t mean that we can’t also pursue legal consequences for abusers or hold them accountable for their actions so they do not continue their pattern of abuse with others. It only means that we release the emotional hold of the past on our present so that we can be empowered and discover the peace and joy that are rightfully ours in the now. We see that having been victimized in the past doesn’t mean I need to see myself as a  victim in the present. I can choose to be free. Forgiveness is the choice.

Conclusion

Thus, forgiveness involves the empowering act of choosing to lovingly free my present from the hold of my past. It frees my present from bondage to past pain, and thereby opens up the freedom to be at peace and happy in the now. In closing, as forgiveness releases the obstacles to my awareness of peace in my present, it gradually reveals peace where I would have seen conflict, joy where I would have seen past pain, and freedom where I would have seen bondage. In this illuminating way, it releases my past to liberate my present and show me that I am free.

***
For more on forgiveness, see “Forgive and Be Free: The Liberating Power of Forgiveness,”

For a poetic reflection on the challenge of forgiving when we’re tempted to blame, see “The Light of the Mind.”

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