Forgiveness… why is it so elusive to many of us? I believe our traditional definition of this word – in part – is one reason we have such difficulty with the concept. To forgive, according to dictionary definitions, involves some form of the following: “to give up resentment against or stop wanting to punish (someone) for an offense or fault”.
We think forgiving means accepting what has happened to us instead of accepting that it has happened. Furthermore, synonyms such as excuse, pardon, exonorate, and absolve hold a similar connotation of “okayness”.
But what if we could develop a new relationship with the concept of forgiveness simply by using a new definition?
Years ago a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show defined forgiveness in a most empowering way; one that transformed the lives of many – including Oprah’s – including mine:
“Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different”.
Forgiveness in this context is not letting the other person off the hook, it’s letting yourself off the hook. It doesn’t mean that what happened is okay, it means the past does not hold you hostage. You release yourself from the shackles. You accept that it has happened, not that it’s okay that it happened.
It is human nature to hold on to our past – to spin the same story repeatedly, re-living the injustice, the hurt, the anger as though it defines us. We fantasize about the way our circumstances “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” been different or better. Do we mistakenly believe that if we hang on to what might have been, we can actually change what happened? Clinging to this illusion is fruitless. And exhausting.
Horses, in stark contrast, are surprisingly adept at forgiveness. They’re wired in a way that prioritizes peace and neutrality. Like humans, horses are social animals – but unlike most humans, they’re always moving towards a state of balance. In a herd of horses, for example, there is an established pecking order similar to human social groups. And much like human groups, horses in a herd have ample opportunities to step on each other’s toes (or hooves, as it were).
Consider this common scenario – a stallion in the herd gets a little frisky with one of his mares. She’s in no mood. In an effort to brush him off she may rear up, kick out – and maybe strike him, and make a lot of noise in the process. This altercation may last a few seconds or even a few minutes. The amazing thing to watch is that mere moments later, she might be seen joining up with him for a nap under their favorite tree. Both of them neutral. No grudge-holding. No wishing it could’ve been different.
“Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different”
I invite you to try on this new definition of forgiveness, test it out on some long-standing beliefs you’ve had about certain individuals and circumstances in your past. Make room for the possibility that it could change your life for the better. It just might.