I used to think that forgiving someone was an event. You forgive someone. They get a clean slate. One and done. I don’t believe that anymore.
I have a deep and persistent fear of becoming a bag lady. As one of my friends asked incredulously, “Do you know how far you would have to fall for that to happen?” To change my way of thinking about money, I have been reading The Energy of Money by Maria Nemeth. I didn’t expect to stumble across a chapter on forgiveness in a book about money but it’s there. Principle #8.
I believe our brains are like soft earth and the thoughts we think are like rain that falls on the soft earth, making rivulets. Over time, persistent thoughts create deep troughs. (This is how the Grand Canyon was formed.) Some of these thoughts are helpful. “This thing that looks like a problem is actually a gift, I just don’t know what that gift is yet.” Some thoughts are not helpful. “I must be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving. Or I must at least be competent or talented in some important area.”*
What Nemeth has to say about what happens after you forgive someone has persuaded me that forgiveness is not an event but a process. To quote from The Energy of Money,
“It takes a while for your mind to catch up with your heart when you engage in forgiveness. Your heart forgives—and then your Monkey Mind sets in once again with a litany of all the terrible things it’s collected to prove the other person’s failings.
“What do you do when your mind will not stop? Answer it in the following way: ‘Thanks for sharing, but I have already forgiven this person.’”
Nemeth has a forgiveness exercise in her book. She recommends, “Begin with someone who is not a parent… You’re just learning to do this, and starting with someone who is simpler to forgive will give you a feeling of success. Please allow yourself to have that. Take that positive experience and let it help you with the more difficult cases in your life.”
I started with a former work colleague. I did the exercise described in her book. Then, a day or two later, something happened at work that reminded me of this person and I found the rain of my thoughts returning to the familiar ruts of criticism and judgment.
So, I did what Nemeth suggested and said to my Monkey Mind, “Thank you for sharing but I’ve already forgiven this person.” The wave of thoughts receded but remained, like a choppy sea. I added, “We are just two people on the planet, each doing the best we can.” The chop became small crests. I added, “I will not put anyone out of my heart.” The sea stilled.
This is why forgiveness is a process, not an event. The mud of the brain needs to be reshaped with new thoughts. The first challenge is to forgive. The more difficult challenge is to consistently think new thoughts after forgiving.
*Albert Ellis, A Guide to Rational Living, Irrational Belief #2.