by Richard B. Patterson

Perhaps, during the course of your own journey, you have crossed paths in some way with a person who seemed capable of forgiveness at a truly impressive level. For me, Terry Anderson is such a person. Terry Anderson was kidnapped by Shiite extremists in Lebanon and remained in captivity for close to seven years. His story, retold in his book Den of Lions, is one of many horrors. Yet Mr. Anderson has worked actively on forgiving his captors! Would I be so forgiving? Or would I instead allow myself to become bitter, resentful, dwelling on the status of victim?

That resentments are harmful to our health was discussed in an earlier article. Forgiveness is the solution to resentments. But the process of forgiveness is no simple matter. It is more helpful to think of forgiveness as an on-going process rather than an isolated incident, particularly when what we are trying to forgive is part of a pattern rather than an isolated relationship. Many of us struggle, for example, with forgiving our parents for various omissions or even for patterns of abuse and neglect. Such a task for forgiveness will likely be an ongoing process.

The first step on the forgiveness road is to decide if we even want to forgive. Resentments, after all, give us a sense of protection from those who hurt us. They serve as a type of armor. When considering dropping our resentments, we may feel vulnerable. But forgiving does not automatically mean that we remain in or renew a relationship. If the patterns that we are trying to forgive are still there, it may in fact be better for us to forgive while at the same time removing ourselves from the relationship.

We also hesitate at the doorway to forgiveness because we may believe that, if we forgive, we are saying that the offense is no longer a big deal. In other words, we may assume that forgiveness includes condoning. But it is possible, even important, to forgive while at the same time continuing to hold the person accountable. This is a variation on the old adage "Hate the sin, love the sinner."

Sometimes, too, we get caught on the folk saying "Forgive and forget." Again, this may not be a good idea, particularly when dealing with a person who remains at risk to hurt us again. I can forget something in that I allow it to become part of history, something which is in the past and no longer has any power over me. But I remember it as a reference point if the offending person continues the pattern which hurt me.

Power is a key to understanding forgiveness. If I still resent someone, then that person still has some power over me. For example, if, when I think of a bully who beat me up when I was twelve and can still feel a knot of anger in the pit of my stomach, then that bully is still in charge. But when I forgive, I reclaim the power which was stolen from me by that bully. Thus, forgiveness benefits first and foremost the person doing the forgiving!

We cannot forgive something without acknowledging what was done to us. For example, if I was badly abused as a child, I cannot reach a point of forgiveness unless I reach a point where I can acknowledge the abuse. This may seem straight forward but many adults who were abused as children remain protective of their parents, minimizing what was done to them or blaming themselves ("I was bad and deserved what I got.") To forgive, I must face the reality of what was done to me.

This facing of reality also includes facing feelings about what happened. This may include accepting anger or beginning a process of grieving. If I face my parent's abuse of me, then I may need to grieve over the parent I did not have.

The path of forgiveness will be explored further in a future article. At this point, you may have a sense that it is a difficult path. I tend to be wary of persons who claim to have forgiving a terrible affront within minutes of it happening. Such flippancy minimizes the offense and, most likely, is part of a pattern of denial. Because the path is so treacherous, it is one that sometimes should not be traveled alone. It is a path that may benefit from the companionship of a pastor or rabbi, a good friend, or even a counselor.


Richard B. Patterson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in El Paso, TX. He is the author of three books on psychology and spirituality.