Being Free of the Past: How forgiveness transformed my life
If you keep telling the same sad small story,
you will keep living the same sad small life — Jean Houston
Learning how to forgive didn’t come easily for me. But I’ve discovered over the last 3 years that forgiveness transforms.
For so many years, right into middle age, I told the sad and small story of my life to anyone who would listen.
My story isn’t really sad and small — it was, and is, a story of genuine struggle, trauma and hardship. Whose life hasn’t been?
But I told a story about these things to make people feel pity for me. To see just how victimized I’d been.
It was the story I told about it all that made me sad and small. It was my excuse, my justification for not having fulfilled my potential as I thought I should have, for not having stood tall in the world. For not having followed the path that had called my name for years. For failing to live fearlessly and greatly. For not living daringly. For not living authentically.
My sad and small story about my past became wrapped tightly around me. It boxed me in. The longer I was trapped within it, the more claustrophobic and painful it became. And eventually, there just wasn’t enough room for me in there any more.
It wasn’t as if I’d grown. That definitely hadn’t happened. Instead, I’d shrunk to the size of my story. The story had become tighter and tighter so that all I was, was the story.
I was trapped in this box, shackled to my perception of the past. Until one day, realising that I was drowning in a mud-puddle of my own making, I made the decision to be free.
I made the decision to release my story. To leave it in its proper place — in the past. I decided to stop telling it the way I had been. I had to do this if I was to live. At the time I first made the decision, I knew that my life needed this to get better.
But then it really became a matter of life and death. When I was diagnosed with the lymphatic cancer, I knew that my sad small story had been eating away at me.*
I decided to rewrite it — to see it as an asset, a gift, an opportunity for growth and a chance for spiritual transformation. I decided that perhaps the past had unfolded the way it did just so that I had this chance. That it was the key to opening my heart and mind, to myself and that finally, it was something I would be able to share to help alleviate the suffering of others who, like me, were imprisoned in their past.
A jailer is not free, for he is bound together with his prisoner. He must be sure that he does not escape, and so he spends time in keeping watch on him. The bars that limit him become the world in which the jailer lives, along with him. And it is on his freedom that the way to liberty depends for both of them — A Course in Miracles.
In making the decision, I began the process of forgiving all those things outside of me that I believed defined me. I began to write my own story from the inside. I created a new interpretation that came from within.
Because there is nothing in the past, except what we believe is there. In many ways, it’s just an illusion. Even this present moment, once we begin to think about it, is gone. And once it is gone, we can choose to see it anyway we like. And who can refute our perception of it? Since our perception is very subjective, personal to us. Who can argue how it really is when it is no longer there … or here?
In making that decision, I decided to reclaim my power, and to find out who I am without that sad, small story. Gradually, the process of forgiveness was revealed to me. And I learned to see the value of those things that had haunted me for so long.
Piece by piece, the box of my sad small story, made up of resentment and blame, fell away. I was able to unfurl myself and step out into the brilliance of who I really am, right here, right now — a child of the Universe.
Forgiveness has two parts to it. First, it’s the decision to end our imprisonment by the past. To stop allowing things that are not within our control, things we cannot change (and let’s face it we definitely can’t change the past without a time machine), to affect how we are in this present moment.
It’s a decision to accept everything that was and is. To stop fighting. Or as Lily Tomlin said “forgiveness is letting go of all hope of a better past.”
But as we know from the story of the 3 frogs -
There were 3 frogs on a log and one decided to jump. How many frogs were left on the log? 3. The frog had only made a decision to jump. It hadn’t actually jumped
- the decision alone is not enough. Leaving the past where and as it is can be a long and arduous process. Not always. Sometimes, the decision and forgiveness can be instantaneous.
In my case, it was far from instantaneous. It required daily action. Writing, meditation, sending compassion through gritted teeth, weeping, affirmations (I AM a forgiving person), more writing and much more meditation.
And then one day, I was out the other end. I couldn’t tell you exactly how and when it happened. But there was a moment I realised that I could reflect on past events without falling into a quagmire of self-pity.
In fact, quite the opposite — I felt gratitude for those events. That they had brought me to this point of divine and radiant acceptance of all that I am. The realisation dawned that I could never have got here if those things had never happened. And here, right now in this place, in this moment, is the only place I want to be.
Misfortune is never mournful to the soul that accepts it; for such do always see that every cloud is an angel’s fire — Lydia M. Child
In case you’re wondering, there was a particular person involved who was the primary actor in the story and who was the object of this process. But their actions are no longer part of my daily narrative and I don’t need to share what they did here. To do so would simply be a return to my sad small story, to try to engender your pity or to feed my ego by saying “look at what I’ve overcome.” I’m not special. Or put another way, I am no more or less special than you are. We are all special.
What I can say is that slowly I came to see that they were suffering too. That what they did actually had nothing to do with me. Their actions were the consequence of the way they saw the world, their perception of it. And I didn’t have to take any of that personally.
And just the other day, during yet another inward journey, they presented themselves to me as my guide. As the person or being who had taken on the responsibility of ensuring that I took the path to where I am now. That despite the way everything seemed, everything they did was with my higher good in mind. I know that sounds a little out there, even to me and I’m still digesting it. But it’s possible. And if it’s true, then I can only have gratitude …
Forgiveness is seen as a weakness in our society. It belongs to those who are a bit “other worldly,” who can’t really make it in this dog-eat-dog world. Because if you forgive, you are seen as someone who can be taken advantage of.
But let me tell you, I know this to be wrong.
Forgiveness is for the strong.
Forgiveness requires true inner strength.
It requires courage and conviction. Because it is stepping up to the plate and saying “Enough. I can’t live with this any longer. I no longer blame others for my own shortcomings or for the fact that things haven’t turned out the way I wanted them to. I am now responsible for all that I am.”
Forgiveness is an act of grace.
I couldn’t force it or bestow it. I couldn’t pretend to forgive, no matter how much I wanted to. I couldn’t struggle to forgive — the more I struggled to forgive, the harder it became. And I learned it can never be a purely intellectual exercise. It must come from the heart.
All of this is difficult if, like me, you consider yourself to be a “spiritual” person. A good person. I so wanted to forgive. I really wanted to be able to forgive. And I set the bar of forgiveness so far above my own head that for some time, I just kept falling short. I was constantly disappointed in myself, until I could forgive myself for not being able to forgive … yet.
Forgiveness is not about forgetting or denying the past.
Healing cannot happen when we do any of those things. Forgiveness required me to bring light to my darkness. To look at it directly so that I could learn from the past and perhaps even prevent certain things from happening again, to me or to others.
Forgiveness is not condoning what happened.
Forgiveness is a gift to myself and not the other person. It is not saying that what happened is okay. Marianne Williamson often says that saying no can sometimes be the most loving thing in a particular situation.
People need to learn the consequences of their actions and that can’t happen if we sweep things under the carpet. I have been clear with the other person that I did not condone what they had done. I invited them to seek help. To take the opportunity for their own growth.
What was important in doing this was my own motivation. If I had been hell bent on revenge or vindication, then clearly I hadn’t forgiven. But I was detached from the outcome, remained firm within my boundaries without becoming emotionally entangled. I no longer had the emotional charge and I knew that I didn’t need things to go one way or another. I would be the same no matter what.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation.
Something that I really struggled with is whether once we have forgiven someone, we have to reconcile with them. And have a relationship with them. If there is no remorse, or desire to make amends, then the most loving thing to do in that situation might be to protect yourself. Reconciliation will usually be a two way street, an exchange.
Forgiveness is much more personal and the other person doesn’t even need to know that it has happened.
Because ultimately, what is important is what is in your heart and mind. What is your attitude to the other person? If you can speak of them without malice and wish them well (even if it is well away from you), then you are free of the past.
I have no contact with those I have forgiven. There is no need. But I pray for them daily, and I send them compassion and loving kindness. And I patiently wait for a sign as to whether there will be a reconciliation or not. But for now, I am complete.
When I allowed the past to define me and clung to my sad small story, I permitted forces outside of me to determine who I was and to create my limits. I told myself that I was lacking. That I was small enough to be damaged. Even by a person or thing that may have long gone or no longer exist.
Through forgiveness, I reclaimed my power.
I stand tall with my feet firm and know that so-called justified anger and resentment will never be the keys to my happiness. Dwelling in the past and replaying the footage over and over again will never make me happy.
Happiness can only ever be found here now. Right here in this moment. As I stop looking outwardly and turn my attention within. And in this moment, the past just does not exist.
That is the single liberating thing about forgiveness that I have had the joy to experience. I now know that the past can ONLY exist in my mind. And thankfully I can change my mind. And I have.
I am free of the past. Forgiveness transformed me.
Have you struggled to forgive someone for something they did a long time ago? Or have you been able to find forgiveness within? Do you consider forgiveness weak or an act of strength? I’d love to hear your experiences and as always, feel free to comment below, like and share.
Be happy. Be well.
And so be it.
Forgiveness Resources I’ve Used
- A Course in Miracles
- Forgiving the Unforgiveable by Master Charles Cannon
- You Can Conquer Cancer by Ian Gawler
- The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindess and Peace by Jack Kornfield
- Radical Forgiveness by Colin Tipping
- Radical Self-Forgiveness by Colin Tipping
- No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu
- The Book of Forgiving by Desmond & Mpho Tutu
- Forgiveness by Iyanla Vanzant
*During my exploration of forgiveness, I found many references to a link between a lack of forgiveness and cancer. Living in the past and the resulting emotional stress can create chronic low grade physical stress in the body, leading to inflammation, one of the pre-conditions for cancer. Ian Gawler provides forgiveness exercises in his book You Can Conquer Cancer. Colin Tipping, the author of Radical Forgiveness and Radical Self-Forgiveness actually came to his work in the field of forgiveness as the result of seeing how important it was for his clients challenged by cancer.
He says this:
“People with cancer are brave souls who have come to the physical plane with a mission to demonstrate the futility of projecting anger and war on the body and our ourselves. Their mission is to help us understand that the only answer to any situation is love. Our gift in return is to hear their loving message.”
The original version of this post appeared on my website Essentially Being.