The Serenity Prayer asks a higher power to help the person accept what they cannot change and let go, change what they can, and to be able to see the difference between the two. In grief therapy, patients are told their feelings are “normal” and eventually the final stage is acceptance and they start living again. In 12-Step programs they say Let Go and Let God. On a bumper sticker you might see Teach Tolerance. At church we are encouraged to forgive others and forgive ourselves. The messages are all around us. So why is it so hard?
I think sometimes we simply don’t want to let go. It feels like letting go or forgiving sends the message that what happened was ok. If someone hurts us, abandons us, cheats or lies or disappoints, holding the grudge provides us a sense of protection. I don’t ever want you to forget what you did because I want to make sure you never do it again. I don’t want to forgive or forget or let go because if I let my guard down, that would make me vulnerable and it hurt way too much last time. I’m not doing that again.
And yet, the longer we hold onto it, the longer it has a place in our lives, a grip on our heart. When I think about what happened over and over, I am subjecting myself to the pain over and over. It’s like opening a wound as a reminder that I was foolish for falling down in the first place. But the more energy and attention I give to the negative, the worse I feel. It keeps us anxious, on alert, and edgy.
Letting go does not mean we have to like it. If a spouse cheats or a loved one dies, acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t care. It doesn’t mean what happened is no big deal. You’re not going to forget, and you can’t go back to a time before it happened. Acceptance means we stop waiting to wake up from the bad dream. We no longer tell ourselves it’s too much, we can’t deal. We CAN deal with it. We are. Acceptance means moving forward with the knowledge that this hard thing happened and we don’t like it and we can’t change it. We incorporate this experience into our past and allow ourselves not to relive the pain over and over. It takes a while to get to that point and it is different for everyone. But once the denial and anger and resentment are released, there is finally room to breathe again. There is room for hope and peace.
I don’t have to like it. But I’m also not going to let it continue to run my life and deny me joy. Forgiving someone else is a gift we can give ourselves, to no longer be influenced by their misery. When I let go, I am back in control.