Moving from anger to forgiveness

Buddhism teaches forgiveness by showing us how to change the story.

Photo by Tim Gouw

When I’m angry at somebody, I get self-righteous — and that makes me angrier and more self-righteous. It becomes harder and harder to forgive the other person. So how do we break the cycle?

It’s hard. I sometimes manage to do it quite well but I fail miserable at other times. And sometimes, I don’t even try.

The best tool I know for getting past anger comes from Buddhism: Reframe the way we think about the situation and the person who angered us.

When we’re angry at what somebody did, we tell stories that justify and reinforce that anger. Part of the story is (hopefully) based on the facts of the situation — who did what when? But those facts just give us the outline, and we fill in the details about the other person’s motivation and character. If he made a racist comment, it is because he is a racist. If she did something mean, it was because she is mean. In our angry stories, we’re 100% right and the other 100% wrong. We’re good; they are bad.

Buddhism is helpful because it challenges this angry storytelling, pointing out that it’s too black and white. People’s characters are complex. Few of us are just mean and rude; we’re sometimes mean and rude and at other times kind and considerate. The situation, our physical state, and our mental state all influence our actions. A difficult situation or a tense mental state might make a person do things she otherwise would avoid, bringing out her mean side instead of her kindness.

So how does this help? It gives us a choice.

· We can tell the angry and self-righteous story that comes so naturally to most of us: The other guy is a selfish jerk who went out of his way to hurt me and that’s really all I need to know about him!

· But we also can tell a story where the other person is a fellow human being with a complex set of motivations, challenges and desires. In that story, he might be a more or less decent guy who had a stressful day and a headache and who interpreted my comment as an attack and then hurt me to defend himself.

The story we choose changes our feelings towards the other person and that changes how we treat her. The second story — or one like it — invites forgiveness; the first one makes it almost impossible.

The second type of story makes forgiveness easier, and it’s a useful corrective to the self-righteous anger we indulge in all the time. But if we’re not angry but instead blame ourselves too much, removing blame from the other person sometimes seems to make the self-blame worse. (“It’s not her fault that we’re fighting, so it must be my fault.”) In that case, don’t tell a story that makes it easier to forgive the other person. Instead, use the storytelling as a corrective to self-blame. Tell a story where you are the human being with a complex set of motivations, challenges and desires, and use it to help you forgive yourself.