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A Season of Endings
There is never a time that’s not appropriate for forgiveness. But fall seems particularly appropriate for working on forgiveness. Fall is all about endings, about wrapping up loose ends and letting things that need to die do so. And that’s quite a bit what forgiveness is about as well. To forgive is to let go of the past that could have been. Like a tree dropping leaves who have served their purpose, when we forgive (ourselves or others) we too are letting go of things that are over and done with.
But forgiveness isn’t always easy (you can say that again).
Good Endings vs Bad Endings
How often has this happened to you. You’ve “moved on” from a past hurt, but you find yourself laying in bed replaying that moment over and over in your head? (That’s not just me folks, admit it!) I spent about ten years replaying one stupid mistake in driver’s ed (I got yelled at, pretty much death for a people pleasing perfectionist like moi!). It was mortifying and my poor heart and soul could not let that go. I tortured myself with it. Even years after I’d gotten my license and had zero accidents or issues, that moment would replay randomly and I’d flush with shame and hate myself a little.
That’s a bad ending folks, it’s an indication that there’s still work to be done around something. A good ending helps us move on, it allows us to heal whatever relationship was damaged (with ourself or others), let go, and go on. We don’t replay these incidents like a bad movie on late night repeat. We don’t find ourselves being ambushed by hurt or shame years later, because somehow (by luck or design) we had a good ending with those moments and they are firmly part of our past.
The Power of Forgiveness
That’s the power of forgiveness, it allows us to move on. Forgiveness is often misunderstood as being about the person who wronged us, but it isn’t really. Forgiveness is first and foremost about freeing ourselves from being trapped in those broken moments in time. I can forgive and move on even if the other person involved has not changed their ways. The aftermath of that sort of forgiveness probably looks different (it may not involve reconciliation, instead it might mean I end that relationship) but I am freed to move forward with my life.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we forget what has happened, despite the old saying, forgetting isn’t really healthy. Forgiveness rather is about making whole again something that has been broken. We remember the past, and therefore we can learn from it and grow beyond it. This is most powerful when the person with whom we have experienced a break is directly involved, but that isn’t required. Often forgotten in talk of forgiveness is what goes hand in hand with the practice.
Repent, Reconcile, Forgive
There was a time when a rift between two people was called sin. It simply meant that a mark had been missed, someone had done something to break a relationship. Simple as that (literally to sin means to “miss the mark” as in missing the target in archery, nothing mystical about it.) In order for real forgiveness to occur in that circumstance (in other words for the break to be fixed or the mark to be hit) the person who missed the mark in the first place had to repent. Repenting literally means to turn around and go the other way. Basically, to acknowledge that we’ve done wrong (missed the mark) and make a change.
Once repentance happened then the two parties could reconcile, they could agree on how the relationship would be mended, usually by the person who broke it in the first place doing some real work. And finally, once things had been mended, forgiveness could happen. But we tend to skip all of that these days. We demand a forced apology from our kids (“Say you’re sorry!”) and move on. Or we give a halfhearted “I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again” (but take no steps to follow up). No one changes, no one learns a thing, so real forgiveness isn’t possible. That’s what certain Christian theologians call “cheap grace” and it doesn’t get us anywhere.
Ancient Wisdom for Modern People
Most religions have a norm for repentance, reconciliation, and forgiveness. There’s a reason for that. Such rituals help us navigate the seriously choppy waters of hurt and disconnection. When we have a formula to lean on it’s easier to do the hard emotional work of healing a relationship, and that’s just as true if the person you need to forgive is yourself. In fact, forgiving ourselves is often harder than forgiving others. Most of us will cut other people a huge amount of slack, but ourselves? We expect near perfection from ourselves.
Borrowing the wisdom of ancient peoples for our modern world can help us. There is good reason basically all religious traditions have rites for renewing community bonds and letting go of hurts. Reconciliation and forgiveness are absolutely essential for human community. When we lose those things, we lose the ability to be in real healthy relationship with each other and ourselves. Meaningless apologies, forgive & forget, none of it is helping us, and it’s absolutely hurting us.
Rituals for Living
If you are part of a religious community you almost certainly already have a ritual for repenting, reconciling, and forgiving. If you don’t know what it is, ask the leader of your religious community! (We’re geeks for this stuff, they will be absolutely over the moon someone is interested!) My tradition has two separate ways of working through this process. First, we have a short ritual that is used every week by the gathered community to repent of our communal sins, of the ways that we as a group have missed the mark and broken relationship. Messing up is human, it happens all the time, so being in the habit of admitting such out loud, as a people is powerful. It gets us in the habit of admitting our mistakes (we don’t have to be perfect y’all!), saying as much out loud (we don’t have to pretend we’re perfect) and accepting forgiveness (from each other and our God(dess)).
Because that last part (accepting forgiveness) is often the most difficult.
My tradition has a whole separate ritual that an individual can use to repent of something they have personally done, reconcile, and receive forgiveness as well. It has much the same structure as our communal confession, but it allows the individual to unburden themselves more privately. For those of you who don’t have such a ritual built into your tradition (or don’t have a particular religious tradition) I have created a ritual to help you work through forgiveness for yourself or others. It is best done with a trusted spiritual friend or advisor but can also be done by yourself if necessary.
Mending Relationship: Forgiving Ourselves
When you’ve had practice, and with relationships of deep trust, it can be very powerful to be done with the person you have wronged. But do this only with those you trust deeply and well. Fill out the form below to get the ritual delivered straight to your mailbox. (My email list is never shared or sold, there’s no spam here.)
What about you friends? What is your experience with forgiveness. Do you have stories of the ways forgiveness has healed your relationship with yourself or someone else? Please share your experiences or struggles below!