Forgiveness is one of the most beautiful words in the English language, a term that represents grace, tolerance, and love. I have heard the word all my life, particularly in church, a place where it is sometimes in short supply. But, forgiveness can be easy to promote and difficult to practice. At least, that’s been my experience.
I didn’t focus much on forgiveness myself until about ten years ago. I always knew it was a good practice, but my anger, desire for revenge, intolerance, or competitive spirit blocked my better nature. And I always thought forgiveness was for the other guy—why did I want to help someone I perceived had wronged me? I didn’t.
Over the last decade, though, I have discovered the power of forgiveness. To practice it is an exhilarating and liberating experience. I can illustrate with a single example.
Late in my working career, I wanted to expand my scope of authority and take over another department. I desired this in part because I didn’t approve of the way the other department was being run. I lobbied with the president, but because the department I coveted was under the authority of another senior executive, he declined to intervene. When I went to the other executive directly, she protected her empire, not agreeing with my point of view. So, the war began. The battles were subtlely fought, but the end game was to undermine the other manager. As you can imagine, our competition led to mutual dislike and lack of cooperation. The war never ended and no one ever won.
Mutual forgiveness was probably the prescription for healing such strife, but we never forgave one another and we never spoke about it. After I left the company, I reflected on how silly and dysfunctional that war had been. It had also been hypocritical of me to expect anything else, because I wanted forgiveness for my mistakes, yet was reluctant to forgive others.
With the passage of time, I lost all animosity toward the other manager and “forgave” her. But, since we hadn’t had a conversation regarding my forgiveness or my need to forgive, it went unacknowledged. Then a revelation struck me. Forgiveness wasn’t for the other person—it was for me. I had forgiven the most difficult person to forgive, myself, for conniving, thirsting for power, and attempting to undermine. The burden of those mistakes was thereby lifted, and I suddenly felt a certain love for the other person.
Now, for the postscript. Years later, for a business class I was teaching, I needed a copy of The Fish video, ironically a video about teamwork. To rent the video would have cost me almost five hundred dollars. Then it occurred to me that this former adversary might have a copy on hand, so I asked. She did and was willing to loan it. I arrived at her office to pick it up, and she came to the lobby to meet me. We had a brief conversation—not about forgiveness, but about her job and I told her how much I appreciated the loan. It may have been my imagination, but because my feelings toward her had dramatically changed, the atmosphere felt like one of gratitude and acceptance. I sensed that she might have been a little shocked at my newfound warmth toward her, and maybe I was wrong about that too, but it still felt good.
One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, characterizes forgiveness best: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Not forgiving is in fact a poison, the poison of hate and anger. It will eat at your soul.
Forgiveness is always about you.
Doug Gehrman teaches transformational leadership at Houston Baptist University. He had a 40-year corporate career in energy and financial services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.