The Real Reason Why You Can't Forgive Him (or Her)
1. The Pleasures of Resentment
There can be something delicious in holding onto a grievance, in mulling over someone else's wrongs and failings and viewing him through the lenses of condemnation. We could call this "the thrill of righteousness." Unfortunately, righteousness is the most dangerous of all weapons to wield. It's easily turned against the user. Say one of your fellow employees is regularly late for work. You find it delicious to contemplate this poor fool's tardiness and to congratulate yourself for your own punctuality. Then one day, for some reason or another, you are late for work yourself. The boss yells at you in front of everybody, including the co-worker you've been so comfortably despising.
Sometimes, we also refuse to forgive because of our sense of justice. A recent study looked at how people differ from chimpanzees in their approach to fairness. Scientists tested this by means of the ultimatum game, which has two players: a proposer and a responder. They have to divide a quantity of goodies (which could be anything from cash to chocolates). The proposer chooses how much will go to him and how much to the responder. The responder has no choice but to take or leave the offer.
You might expect that the responder would accept any offer, no matter how small; after all, even a little is better than nothing. That's what chimps do. But humans don't. Human responders will generally reject any offer smaller than around 20 percent—even if that means they don't get anything at all. They do this, it seems, to punish the proposer for his greed. (So, in a way, chimpanzees turn out to be more rational than humans.)
No doubt this sense of fairness has something to do with our reluctance to forgive. We want to punish someone who's gone beyond the bounds of fairness—but unfortunately, we want to keep on punishing. At some point, this "punishment" starts to go on and on in our own heads. We rehearse the wrong that we have suffered, we stew over it, we brood and we sulk. And we do this even when the offender is nowhere in sight. Again, the punishment is turned against the punisher.
2. Our Need for (Treacherous) Armor
Possibly the most important reason that we hold on to grievances is that we believe they offer something to us. And what they offer, or appear to offer, is protection. Think about it. To be free of grievances is to be innocent. And if you go around with your innocence exposed, you believe all the buzzards of life will suddenly swarm upon you to pick your bones white. Your grievances are like the hard face you wear when you're making your way through a bad neighborhood. They are your shield.
There is a grain of truth to this idea. All of us, as living beings, have a basic need to preserve ourselves. We react—sometimes violently—to anything that threatens our survival. Fear and anger are common types of this kind of reaction. These responses are useful up to a point, but there is a problem: They continue long after the threat has passed. We often carry this fear and anger with us for a long time afterward—possibly years, or even decades—long after the emotions have outlived their value. These retained feelings can take the form of grievances and resentments. They do not help us survive. They are debilitating.
In fact, your grievances are your weak spot, the open wounds that anyone can prod to put you on the ground in an instant.
3. Our Grievance Identities
Let me approach this reason by telling a story. This took place during my micro-career as a financial adviser. One day, we were all shepherded into a day¬long seminar, and asked to think of a symbol for ourselves. My boss then went around the room and asked the 40 or 50 participants to think of personal symbols for themselves. About half could think of nothing more original than the logos of their favorite sports teams.
Of course, many fans genuinely identify with their teams. Up to a point, this is all harmless enough. But for many people, being a fan is not only loving your own team—it's hating the other team. Sometimes, it looks as if hating the other team is the most enjoyable part.
So, we have a curious little dynamic going on here. You don't know who you are. Maybe, in your own mind, you're your team. You are caught up in not only its triumphs and defeats, but also in its grudges and grievances. In other words, you have identified yourself with grievances. You have become these grievances.
4. Our Biggest Victim
You probably hold as many, or more, grievances against yourself than you do against the rest of the world combined. Usually we don't think in those terms; but, in fact, guilt and shame in most of their forms are nothing more than hostilities that we hold against ourselves. They can also take the form of regret—punishing yourself over and over for a bad decision you have made or think you have made. The grudges and resentments and hostilities that we go around with do us no good at all. We would be better off without them. To let go of these negative emotions is...to forgive. Well, then, isn't it time you get on with it?
This is an adapted excerpt from The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness by Richard Smoley by arrangement with Tarcher, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2015 by Richard Smoley.