A woman erupted in a fit of hysteria at the retail store I managed. She and her husband were in the middle of a bitter divorce and she arrived at the store while his girlfriend was there. I had been chatting with the girlfriend, who was a frequent shopper with us. As soon as the girlfriend walked out the door, the wife stormed up to me shouting at the top of her lungs, “I see you’ve met my husband’s whore!”
I tried to quiet her down, but she continued to scream, “That’s just one of his whores. He’s screwing seven other whores in seven other states! Why would you allow her in this store?”
People in the checkout line were transfixed. One customer said, “Is she off her medication?”
“That’s entirely too much information for me!” somebody else remarked.
We were all dumbfounded.
Instead of feeling the sympathy I normally would have felt for the wife of a cheating husband, I felt attacked for talking to the girlfriend, whom I happened to like, and dismayed that such a scene had played out in front of so many customers.
The wife finally left, but I heard later that she went to another store and almost got arrested.
She had plenty of reasons to be enraged, but her bitterness was only hurting herself. The divorce was almost final, she and her husband hadn’t gotten along for years, and they fought in public whenever circumstances threw them together.
I’ve seen people move beyond bitterness to live happy, fulfilled lives, even when bitterness was a warranted response to their circumstances. I’ve also seen people give in to anger and bitterness that eventually destroyed them.
Unforgiveness grows a root of bitterness that sprouts branches of anger, negativity, unhappiness, disrupted relationships and loss of opportunity. Forgiveness, on the other hand, frees us from the past and from another person’s hold on our emotions.
It isn’t only big injustices like infidelity and abuse that make us bitter. Sometimes little things prey on our minds and we find ourselves dwelling on them until we’ve developed a negative mindset. In these circumstances, when there is nothing huge looming between people, we might not even realize we need to forgive. Instead, we let those little things fester until we’re nurturing an ongoing resentment.
I get angry at people who are moody or taking advantage of my friendship. I had one friend who was fine as long as she called me, but every time I called her she said, “You’re interrupting me and I’ve got a lot going on. I can’t talk now!” She always sounded exasperated, like I was bothering her.
Another friend borrowed money from me, even though she had a better paying job. We would go some place she recommended, she would forget her wallet and I would end up paying. When I tried to get her to pay me back, she clammed up and looked resentful. Sometimes she even denied she owed me anything.
In both these situations I brooded and thought angry, negative thoughts, which upset my stomach and made me bitter. It finally dawned on me that I needed to forgive my friends, because my resentment was ruining my attitude. But I also needed to take preventative action against this kind of treatment, because forgiveness doesn’t mean being a doormat or allowing yourself to be taken advantage of.
I stopped calling the friend who was impatient. When my phones calls ceased, she started calling me more often and we’re still friends today, even though we live in different states.
The next time I went out with my other friend, the one who borrowed money, I conveniently forgot my wallet and she paid. When she asked me to repay her, I told her we could call it even, since she still owed me. I know this was somewhat passive aggressive, but direct confrontation hadn’t worked and she never borrowed money again. My resentment disappeared and we remained friends.
I chose to continue those two friendships because there was a positive history that outweighed the negative aspects of the relationships. But there are other times when we need to remove ourselves from toxic people and toxic situations. Forgiveness doesn’t mean maintaining a relationship with someone who is harmful to our mental or physical well-being. Forgiveness in these instances means that even if we can no longer have a relationship, we get rid of the hatred, negativity and resentment that surfaces when we think of that person.
Forgiveness is for our own good, because unforgiving attitudes spread in our soul like weeds, camouflaging and eventually destroying the beauty and positivity that could flourish.
There’s a bible verse that says, “From the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” What this means to me is, we are eventually going to go in the direction of our thoughts, even if we try not to, so we had better get our internal thinking right. The sentiments that overflow in our hearts will erupt sooner or later, whether for good or bad.
I realize forgiveness is easier said than done. We have an innate desire for justice and sometimes we can point to a long list of grievances that have already taken root. But I believe deciding to forgive whether we feel like it or not eventually leads to true forgiveness.
One day recently my sister-in-law said, “My mother was so mean to you.”
I honestly didn’t know what she was talking about. My mother-in-law passed away years ago and I thought we had a good relationship.
“Remember how she criticized you and got mad when you wrote that book?” My sister-in-law continued. “She was always saying things behind your back.”
Suddenly my sister-in-law’s words brought back the rocky times in my relationship with my mother-in-law. When my husband and I were first married, she would say things that upset me and I would stomp off to another room to read. If I opened the curtains, she told me to close them. If I gave her a gift, she said “Why would you pick out something like this?”
But I decided to forgive her, for my husband’s sake. Despite everything else, she had raised him to be a kind, caring person. Holding a grudge against her would put him in the middle.
Forgiveness can be hard, but there are steps we can take to cultivate a forgiving mindset. First, if we need to put some distance between ourselves and a toxic situation, we should do this. Remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean being a doormat or being taken advantage of.
Sometimes it helps to try and understand where people are coming from. My friend who was aggravated at my phone calls was overwhelmed at home taking care of small children. My mother-in-law was unfiltered and said exactly what she felt. She was a blunt New Yorker and I was a soft-spoken Southerner, but we eventually began to appreciate each other.
Another thing that helps us forgive is refusing to take things personally when people are depressed or going through a hard time. Sometimes moodiness can be misinterpreted as rejection and give rise to hurt feelings.
Occasionally people act in a hurtful way because they are jealous. If that’s the case, we should be grateful we don’t harbor such an envious, destructive mindset.
In cases when the offense is major, as in the case of the husband who left his wife for his girlfriend, the only option is to move on without cultivating bitterness. The wife needed to reclaim the part of her personality that would allow her to get past hatred. Otherwise, she might continue to lash out and alienate everyone, even those who sympathized with her.
There’s one more important step I take when I’m trying to forgive someone. I pray for them. If you’re not a praying person, you can still be intentional about directing positive thoughts toward the person you’re trying to forgive. It becomes more and more difficult to feel bitterness while wishing positive things for people.
There’s wisdom in these words, “When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.” (Matthew 5: 43–47, The Message).
My mother-in-law and I ended up having a wonderful relationship and I miss her to this day. For this, my husband is grateful. I don’t know what happened to the wife of the board member, who is now married to his girlfriend, but I hoped she moved on and found joy and happiness.
Forgiveness is for our own good, and that’s why we need to forgive, even if they don’t deserve it.