The Link between Gratitude and our Willingness to Forgive.

by Ralph Lelii, English department

Back in 1997, the faculty had an opening day retreat which centered on the idea of forgiveness and its difficult and elusive nature. I remember distinctly a weighty colleague, no longer here, who spoke with great sadness about her inability to forgive her ex-husband, so great was the hurt she had sustained from him. What was so profound in her witness was her awareness that in holding back from forgiveness, she was draining the joy from her own life, had been for over ten years. She cried in front of all of us, her misery was palpable, yet she said, “I just cannot do it. I cannot bring myself to forgive him.” Many people in the group nodded their heads in sympathy and in agreement, I think, because forgiveness is a difficult virtue to practice when the hurt is minor, and an often debilitating task when the hurt is deep and incurred at the hands of a loved one.

When I reflect about the gratitude I feel during this season, I sometimes see a link to a lesson I took from that work day years ago. There is, I believe, a strong link between gratitude and the willingness to forgive. When we are deeply centered in gratitude, a state of mind that is difficult to sustain, at least for me, the chains that seem to bind us immutably in regard to forgiving the trespass of others are weakened.

Perhaps there are evolutionary reasons for our difficulty in feeling sustained gratitude; maybe the focus on the future spurs us to achieve in ways that make possible a safer and more predictable life. It seems also possible that we find gratitude difficult to sustain because the world that we inhabit seems normative and therefore we take it for granted, seeing primarily in its shadows only what needs to be corrected, what is missing. Whatever the reasons, when we are divorced from the grateful appreciation of the simple miracle of our lives, the fact that there are other people who love us, who will care for us when we fall, of the miraculous capacity of our minds, we seem less able to forgive.

There is a tendency I think to see the act of releasing that anger, of giving that precious gift of forgiveness as weakness, as a loss of power and stature, of permitting someone to get away with something. It seems almost unjust to forgive. We are less likely, it seems, to realize the many hurts and disappointments we ourselves may have brought to the lives of others, and how deeply we too are in need of forgiveness. When we are hurt or damaged, it creates a kind of righteous narcissism, I think, a condition that causes us to prize our suffering, and to be blind to its pernicious effect on our interior lives.

On those rare occasions when I feel suffused by gratitude, I am paradoxically made aware of my relative powerlessness in the world, the random and blessed and graceful mystery of my existence, most of the conditions of which I did nothing to earn, certainly nothing to deserve. This Thanksgiving I will remember that I did nothing to warrant life in a country where the bombs never fall, where medicine is just a short drive away, where I have work that fills my life with meaning. In many service trips around the world, I have seen countless men and women whose lives are full of endless suffering and despair, again, purely the result of chance.

I am trying this holiday to give thanks, and in so doing, to offer the gift of forgiveness to someone from whom I have withheld it. It is so very difficult to forgive, but gratitude is the catalyst that might help me to answer one simple yet profound question: Who am I not to forgive?

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