Gratitude and Forgiveness: A Heart-healing Process
By Alison Hilber
I believe that the two most powerful tools in any heart-healing process are gratitude and forgiveness. This is true whether we are healing spiritual wounds, personal wounds, or cultural wounds. My life’s work is about helping heal the personal wounds caused by a thin-obsessed, patriarchal culture seemingly bent on destroying the self-esteem of its women in order to support a large portion of the economy. Specifically, my work is about guiding women on the path to self-love and acceptance of our bodies as they have been gifted to us, without the requirement of spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours and interminable energy on trying to look like someone else’s idea of beautiful. The wounds our culture has inflicted in this regard are deep and difficult to overcome. They have left many of us living in a place of shame, guilt, blame, and self-hatred. The journey to love, acceptance and strong self-esteem requires courage, strength and faith. It also requires gratitude and forgiveness. I don’t believe you can have one without the other, although they may not occur simultaneously or in any pre-ordained time frame.
It is hard to know which comes first; perhaps we must just begin with one, and the other will follow naturally. I choose to begin with gratitude, because it is a more tangible process than forgiveness. It is, for me, easier to grasp, easier to understand, easier to integrate. In Neale Donald Walsch’s Friendship with God, he states that “gratitude is the fastest form of healing.” I have this affirmation posted in my house, as I do so many others. The truth of this phrase, however, is one that must be experienced (as is the case with all things if we are to achieve full integration). It requires not only reading the affirmation, but practicing the concept. It requires that we be grateful for everything that comes into our lives. It requires that we be grateful for the annoyances, the frustrations, the pain, the anger, the disappointment, and the sadness, with as much soulful acceptance as we are grateful for the joy and love and delight we receive. As soon as we can view a situation from a place of gratitude, all the drama and chaos melts away into acceptance. And only from a place of acceptance can we hope to come to forgiveness. Gratitude is key in all things if we are to find the path to living in joy.
Forgiveness is, as I said, a less tangible concept. It, unfortunately, gets tangled up with the ego and one’s need to be right, or one’s need to seek justice or revenge, or even one’s need to stay miserable. It also carries with it a load of dramatic religious baggage. It comes wrapped up in concepts of God and saints and holiness. When asked to practice forgiveness, people often think it is something beyond our spiritual capabilities. It is not. In fact, it is vital to our spiritual health and growth. We must free ourselves of these preconceived notions before we will be able to experience the profound freedom that comes with forgiving.
Forgiveness is a very tricky thing because, like all healing, it must first begin within. Self-forgiveness is the starting point. We cannot give to others what we do not have ourselves. We can’t give love if we have self-hate, we can’t give joy if we have self-loathing, we can’t forgive others if we haven’t forgiven ourselves.
Forgiveness often takes much longer to find than gratitude. First of all, we often believe that forgiveness of a certain behavior equals validation of that behavior. If these two things remain connected, forgiveness becomes impossible. We must be able to separate the two concepts. When we forgive, it is not about validating the act, but about letting go of the power that act has in our lives. This is particularly important when it is our own act that we must forgive. Those people who understand the necessity of taking responsibility for their choices and actions are always harder on themselves than on anyone else. We often hold ourselves accountable to a much higher standard. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can become damaging when we are unable to forgive ourselves for what we perceive to be our transgressions.
I don’t like the concept of “mistakes,” but for the purpose of this discussion, let’s use it. Everyone makes mistakes. If we had the manual for life and knew all the answers, it would be pretty boring. Since we don’t, we are doing the best we can with what we have, with what we know, with what we are taught. We take risks and often must go forward without all the necessary information. Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, says that soul work is messy. It doesn’t happen in neat, organized little boxes. There will always be things that happen, things we do, things we say that turn out to be, at best, less than helpful, and at worst damaging to ourselves or others. Our job then is to recognize it, redefine who we want to be, and forgive ourselves for being human. It doesn’t mean we condone the action; it means we have the ability to tap into our own divinity, learn the lesson, and move forward on our path in a healthier, more enlightened, more loving manner.
When the act of forgiveness involves another party, we often believe we are doing it for the other person. Although the other party might benefit greatly from our act of forgiveness, it should not matter to us one way or the other. Forgiveness is about us. Until there is forgiveness, our hearts are held hostage, and thus we willingly perpetuate the pain of the original offending event. The act of forgiveness is about freeing ourselves from our own grip, our own belief that we must live miserable and damaged lives because of whatever has occurred. We do not. We have the choice, in every minute we live, to move into forgiveness and free ourselves to be joyous, loving, happy people, no matter what circumstances have occurred in our lives. Our forgiveness does not require the participation of anyone but ourselves. No one else has to forgive us for our transgressions, and no one has to accept our forgiveness of theirs. It is a solitary endeavor, engaged in solely for the purpose of freeing our own hearts and spirits of unnecessary burdens. It is an act of self-compassion.
The path of gratitude and forgiveness is a much smoother one when we learn to stay more in the moment and not wander into the nether regions of the past or the unknown of the future. Nothing keeps us more grounded in nonforgiveness than holding on to past behavior or events. You can’t change the past, yours or anyone else’s. You can, however, learn from the past. It has many, many lessons. To forget the past is to put our Now in peril, because we will be doomed to relearn the same lessons over and over. Learning from the past is essential. Living in the past is fatal. The Now moment is the only one we really have. It is the only place we have any control. It is the only place from which we can create. Regrets of the past and fear of the future are our greatest enemies. We must be present, aware and awake in the Now moment, or we are not living our lives to the fullest. Eckhart Tolle explains this concept beautifully in his book, The Power of Now, and I recommend it to everyone.
Traveling any path is about putting one step in front of the other. If we worry about where our last step was, we will miss the step we are taking, which could mean stepping where we should not. If we look too far at the many steps we have ahead, then we will become fearful, and may stop taking steps at all. Never was this concept so apparent to me as when I recently participated in a firewalk. Much of the preparation for walking the fire deals with the act of moving forward, through fear of the future, through fears the past has laden us with. One step in front of the other. The step into the fire is no different than the last step taken; it continues to move you forward. But stepping into the fire proves that we can move through the veil of limitations and boundaries we convince ourselves are impossible to overcome. Nonforgiveness is one of those unnecessary limitations we place on ourselves that keep us rooted, and make it impossible to take the step into the void. But once you make that commitment, you have no choice but to keep going forward, and suddenly you find yourself able to fly, seeing a whole new world, filled with unimaginable possibilities. This is the power of the firewalk; this is the power of forgiveness.
We all have spiritual wounds; places in ourselves that have been hurt so badly, or beaten down so far that they are now hidden away, fearful of coming into the sunshine. The wounds women have endured, and continue to endure, in the face of stringent beauty standards in this country can be healed. But it takes a great deal of awareness, diligence, and self-determination. We do have the power to change our lives; to change how we take things in; to replace self-hatred with self-love, pain with joy, feelings of loathing with the reality of knowing our own beauty. A large part of that path is forgiveness. Forgiving the patriarchy that created the standard, forgiving the men who have been taught to perpetuate and believe it, and forgiving ourselves for continuing to cooperate in helping it thrive. But wounds can only be healed in the light. They need air and acknowledgment and awareness in order to fund the healing power we all have inside ourselves. Walking the path of gratitude, forgiveness, and living in the present moment is a life-altering, life-affirming and celebratory journey. I highly recommend it.