TIME Religion

3 Obstacles to Forgiveness and How to Overcome Them

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

'Forgiveness releases resentment in our own hearts and draws us closer to others'

Why is it so hard to forgive? When someone hurts us, we know that we should forgive, that it would make our own lives easier. But it’s not easy.

Forgiving makes our lives easier because we no longer expend the energy or feel the anger. Not forgiving someone, it has been said, is like swallowing rat poison and expecting the other person to die. They are often untouched by our grudge, but we are made less happy.

So why don’t we forgive, at times withholding even when the other has sought our forgiveness? Here are three reasons. Once we know them, perhaps we will find it a little easier.

1. To forgive, you have to relinquish the moral advantage.

So long as you were the one hurt, you are better than the person who hurt you. But if you truly forgive them, you restore moral parity. You can no longer say, “You know, I forgave you”—because even to hold your forgiveness over someone’s head is not truly to forgive. You must be equal again.

2. Forgiveness requires renouncing vengeance.

We can admire inspiring stories of forgiveness, but when we are hurt, we want to get back at the offender. When someone harms us, we have a powerful drive to harm them in return. Often we don’t forgive in the hope that our very anger will wound them. To forgive recognizes that vengeance is rarely noble and often unnecessary. It will not solve the original hurt. Besides, life will wound us all. No one escapes unscathed.

3. There is a pleasure in being a victim.

Many will not admit it, but being the one who is hurt has its rewards. There is something pleasant at times about being unwell or aggrieved. We will complain (read: boast) about not getting enough sleep or being injured—even at times of being hurt. It seems counterintuitive, but the victim has special status. If you forgive another person, that status vanishes.

Although this is the season in the Jewish year when we ask for and grant forgiveness, the obstacles make it a trial for most of us. But the rewards of forgiving are great. Forgiveness releases resentment in our hearts and draws us closer to others. And at times, it can change everything, as this story reminds us.

Walter Rathenau, Germany’s foreign minister before the Nazis took power, was murdered by three men. Two of them committed suicide. The third, Ernst Techow, survived and was imprisoned. Rathenau’s mother, Mathilde, wrote to Techow’s mother: “In grief unspeakable, I give you my hand. Say to your son that, in the name and spirit of him he has murdered, I forgive, even as God may forgive, if before an earthly judge your son makes a full and frank confession of his guilt…and before a heavenly judge repents. Had he known my son, the noblest man earth bore, he would have rather turned the weapon on himself. May these words give peace to your soul. Mathilde Rathenau.”

When Techow left prison in 1940, he smuggled himself into Marseilles, where he helped more than 300 Jews escape to Spain. Later, he told a nephew of Rathenau’s that his transformation had been triggered by Mathilde Rathenau’s letter.

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