People are prickly about forgiveness.
They often resist it because they think forgiveness means letting someone off the hook.
But it doesn't.
Forgiveness is simply giving up the hope that the past could have been any different. (I heard that on Oprah so it must be true.)
Forgiveness expert Dr. Fred Luskin says, "Forgiveness does not mean condoning hurtful things that people have done."
Luskin has found that people often have a harder time forgiving ex-spouses than they do violence.
Luskin, who runs the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, has done forgiveness training with Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland who lost family members to political violence. After a week of training, even mothers who lost a child showed less hurt, depression, stress and anger. They also showed more optimism and forgiveness.
The women returned to Northern Ireland and six months later still reported all the positive changes in mood and outlook.
During my interview with Luskin, I asked him who had a harder time forgiving, mothers who lost a child or people harboring a grudge against their ex-spouse?
"Hands down," he said, "people with the ex from hell have the hardest time."
Luskin says that when you get someone who is just coming out of a raw place, like a grieving mother, they're more open to help. But a person who spent the last five years ruminating about what a miserable so-and-so their ex is has emotional baggage invested in their story line.
Luskin says, "The story is so well-rehearsed it serves secondary goals. People want to demonize the other person so they can do harsh things. It's a story line that doesn't ask them to do much thinking."
He says, "Even if my ex-wife was the worst person on the planet," he says, "and I'm still bad-mouthing her to my kids. I'm the one who is still bad-mouthing her to my kids."
In his best-selling book "Forgive for Good," he writes, "Forgiveness helps people control their emotions so they maintain good judgment. They do not waste precious energy trapped in anger and hurt over things they can do nothing about."
Forgiveness doesn't mean condoning people's actions, but it does mean taking control of your own reactions. Your dysfunctional parent or lying business partner may have been the devil incarnate. But how much more brain space do you really want to waste nurturing your grievance?
On his website (www.LearningToForgive.com), Luskin outlines a nine-step forgiveness process.
Steps include sharing your feelings with a few trusted people, making the commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better, getting the right perspective on what is happening and giving up expecting things from other people, or your life, that they do not choose to give you.
Luskin writes, "Remember that a life well-lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power."
You can't change the past, but you can change how you deal with it. Luskin says, "If you can't resolve disappointment without bitterness, it chokes off happiness."
We all have disappointments and hurt. But if mothers who lost their child can reclaim an element of optimism in their lives, surely the rest of us can rise above whatever past hurts we've suffered.
The past is the past. The best gift you can give yourself is to move forward.