Learning How to Truly Forgive in your Heart
Anger / Essays 2018 / Personal Growth
Human emotions are complex. A range of so many different feelings come and go throughout your day. You feel excitement, disappointment, anticipation, happiness, anxiety, sadness, hope, fear, and despair…etc. they typically pass. But those feelings of anger and resentment just seem to linger in your heart and remain there forever. Being hurt by someone you know, especially when it’s someone close whom you trust, can cause feelings of depression, confusion, anger, and vengeance. There are countless different approaches and methods out there promising to help you. But in fact, so many of them are actually detrimental to your soul and just pushing you further away from the purpose in which you were created. This essay will expound on Chasidic teachings, specifically chapters 12 and 32 of Likutei Amarim Tanya to help you learn how to truly forgive others in your heart.
Anger is detrimental but you are unable to let go
You have experienced being hurt, taken advantage of, and being betrayed at least at some point in your life. After processing what has transpired, you develop feelings of deep anger and resentment towards those people who have upset you for all the pain they’ve caused. You might find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness. To make matters worse, instead of letting go of the experience so that you can begin to heal, you create quarters in your heart in which you secure those people in and permit them to live there rent free so that they can continue to haunt you. You return to those rooms during the course of the day or from time to time and as a result repeatedly regenerate those wounds and give strength to those negative feelings of bitterness and hostility. Rationally you know you need to let things go so that you can heal, but on a practical level there’s just no way you can forgive and forget, and bear no grudge. Forgiveness makes you feel as if you condone the person’s bad behavior, and there’s just no way you can allow him/her that pleasure.
Anger and bearing a grudge has a negative effect on a person not only emotionally but physically as well. Mayo Clinic determined that holding a grudge appears to affect the cardiovascular and nervous systems. In one study, people who focused on a personal grudge had elevated blood pressure and heart rates, as well as increase muscle tension and feelings of being less in control (1). You recognize that feelings of anger and vengeance are harmful, but on a practical level how can you learn to wholly forgive those who’ve hurt you? Is it even possible to truly forgive without holding a grudge?
A Chasidic Approach
G-d gave the Torah to each and every Jew, which means that each and every Jew is capable of keeping the laws and performing the mitzvos. So when it comes to the mitzvah ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha love your fellow as yourself (2), it is obviously achievable. This pertains to people who’ve hurt you as well. The Tanya in Chapter 32 and chapter 12 teaches you how this is possible.
All Jewish souls are actually fragments of a single soul, the soul of G-d. G-d is our father and we are his sons in a very literal sense. Our souls bind us all together making us in essence one, only our bodies are distinct from one another. According to this principle, if you focus primarily on your soul and view your body as secondary, there is no need for you to put effort into trying to love others; it’s the most natural thing to do. As it is the soul that unites us and our bodies that disconnect us, the greater value a person puts on his body, the more cognizant he is of the differences between himself and others. Therefore, love between people who consider their bodies primary is based on external, motivating factors. Their love dissipates as soon as those factors are no longer pertinent.
There seems to be a contradictory statement in the Talmud which states that if one sees his friend sinning, he should hate him, and should also relate the fact to his teacher so that he too will hate him (3). It is explained that this principle only applies on condition that you have rebuked him repeatedly, and that he is of your equal stature in the study of Torah and mitzvos; at this point it is a clear and deliberate transgression. Even in such a case, your hate must only be directed towards his sin, and you must love his divine soul, thus treating him with love. How is it possible to treat such a person with love? The answer, the Tanya explains, is compassion. Compassion drives out hatred and arouses love. You must learn to treat every sinner, even those who’ve wronged you, with compassion (4)
The Tanya describes a spiritual level called beinoni, a level which can take a lifetime of arduous spiritual work to achieve. The “beinoni” describes a person who has a constant struggle in his heart between his nefesh habhamis- his animal soul, and his nefesh elokis- his G-dly soul. Such a person has very strong desires to do, say, and think evil. Evil according to chasidis, involves anything that is not done absolutely for the sake of heaven; for G-d Himself. Evil for instance can mean enjoying an appealing piece of meat for the sake of pleasure, gossiping, fantasizing about sin, or even thinking negatively about someone. A Beinoni has all those desires, but exhibits complete restraint and never gives in to his wishes. He constantly strives to devote each breath for G-d and pushes away any sinful thoughts. In a situation in which someone hurts you deeply, even if it was intentional, you must strive to react like a beinoni. The self-mastery of a beinoni demands a positive, loving response, devoid of any anger or resentment. He must tolerate the pain to extreme limits and refrain from repaying the wrongdoer even if it’s purely for justice. He must rather repay him with positive acts. The Talmud states that everything that G-d does is for the good (5), so then you must make a paradigm shift to realize that in reality G-d wanted this incident to happen; the antagonist was only sent as a messenger. For this reason, when someone is mean or hurts you, remember this is only happening because G-d felt it would be a valuable experience for your soul. You must never hold a grudge or seek revenge against people who’ve hurt you, rather be grateful to them for helping you grow as a person. (6) (7)
On a practical level
Now let’s look at real life examples and see how these Chasidic concepts fit in:
Scenario 1- It takes you hours upon hours to work on a ten-page college report. A day before the report is due you send a copy of your nearly complete report to a fellow classmate as she begged you to see it for reference. She plagiarizes your report and submits it with her name on it before you get a chance to submit yours. You need to recreate your report in a limited amount of time.
Scenario 2- You build up a small business from scratch, you invest all your effort, time and money into it. You have one trusted employee who has access to important, sensitive business information. He resigns with no notice and opens a similar business taking many of your contacts and clients with him.
Scenario 3- Your high school classmate spreads a malicious rumor about you, and word gets out fast. You are so embarrassed to show your face in school to the point in which you need to transfer to a school in a different city.
Scenario 4- You grew up with an abusive father who criticized your every move and constantly put you down with snide remarks, he completely shattered your self-esteem.
How can you forgive your college mate, your former employee, your high school classmate, or your abusive father?
- Most importantly, think about why you were created in the first place: : to do the will of G-d, get closer to Him, and to turn this ugly, lowly world into a holy dwelling place for G-d. This is a prerequisite to all further steps in healing.
- Make the paradigm shift: It is not the antagonist who hurt me, it is G-d who is trying to send me a message. Designate a few minutes every day, whether it’s while you prepare breakfast, on your commute to work, or before going to bed, to talk to G-d. Talk to G-d about your pain and about the people who’ve hurt you. Verbalize your forgiveness towards those people and thank G-d for all the good He has given you.
- Think about the incidents and your pain and try to internalize what G-d is trying to tell you or teach you.
- Fill your heart with pity and compassion for the antagonist:
- “my classmate is so incompetent, she must not be very bright or capable, she can’t even get herself together to work on a report” ,
- “my worker is so sly and dishonest, he must be eating himself up inside for all that he’s done to me, he probably can’t sleep at night or enjoy his money without a guilty conscience”.
- “My classmate must be in a lot of pain to make up such rumors and spread them. This must be the only way she gets anyone to give her the attention she so obviously is desperately missing.”
- “My father is so emotionally and mentally unhealthy; it must be torture for him to live with such an ugly self every day of his life.”
- Fill your heart with thoughts of positive repayment towards the antagonist:
- “My classmate is not managing her work, maybe I can reach out to her and ask her how I can be of help; maybe I can share my notes or arrange to study with her”.
- “My ex-employee does not know how to acquire customers on his own, maybe I can let him in on new opportunities that arise.”
- “My classmate is in dire need of attention, maybe I can reach out to her by phone and make friendly conversation once in a while”.
- “My father must have such a difficult time living with himself, maybe I can send over the grandchildren for short visits so that he can bring out the good side in himself.”
-Note: those are only thoughts of compassion and positive repayment you can strive to have towards them, to help you forgive them and see them in a different light. You don’t actually have to reach out and help those who’ve hurt you, but of course you would have to help if they reached out to you, so as not to transgress “It is forbidden to bear a grudge” (8) and “It is forbidden to take revenge” (9).
- Pray to G-d for those people who’ve hurt you. Pray for their welfare, their happiness, and their success.
The takeaway message
All that was created was actually intended for human beings to help us fulfill our mission on earth: to do the will of G-d, get closer to Him, and to turn this ugly, lowly world into a holy dwelling place for G-d. G-d has created this world in a fashion in which He has given us free choice to choose between good and evil, and has made it very easy to confuse the two. There are so many different definitions of morality and “normal” all which are just getting more confusing as we come closer to the final redemption. The only way we can truly distinguish between what is really good and evil, is to listen to G-d’s word, He who has created the concept of good and evil.
If your negative emotions such as anger and resentment towards others, including any other negative emotions are bogging you down and not letting you live the life you want to live, you know you have a problem. Don’t confuse yourself by coming up with irrational theories, excuses, and plans of retaliation; such thoughts are not coming from a good place. Your problems are very fixable if you just refocus your mind to internalize your purpose.
As soon as you stop thinking about yourself, and focus on G-d, you will be able to see things clearly and objectively and you will be able to solve your emotional problems. You will be able to feel compassion and even gratitude towards those who’ve hurt you. Keep in mind that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting what has happened to you, on the contrary it is a growing experience helping you to act G-dly and fulfill your existence on earth.
2 – Vayikra 19:18.
3- Cf. Pesachim 113b.
4- Tanya chapter 32
5-Talmud, Brachos 60b
6- Tanya chapter 12
7- Miller, Chaim (2016). The Practical Tanya: Part One The Book for Inbetweeners. Brooklyn, NY: Kol Menachem