I have long thought about and experienced forgiveness as something that arises when I have done my inner work around an old hurt. My own experience is that it is not so much that I forgive another (as an act of doing something) but that our essentially compassionate nature causes forgiveness to arise when healing has taken place. Choice is of coursed involved (I can choose not to forgive) but the act of forgiving is more an allowing than an act of will that can be insisted upon as a “should” or reached for as a spiritual ideal.
This morning, while doing my practise of prayer, meditation & contemplation I had a little “Aha!” moment about one hindrance to allowing forgiveness to arise:
It’s difficult for forgiveness to arise and expand within us if we continue to allow ourselves to be re-injured in the present by the one we want to forgive for past hurts.
Now that may seem painfully self-evident but apparently I needed to "get" it on a deeper level or in a clearer way.
This is probably easiest to see around physical abuse. Even now, thirty-five years later, I would not spend time alone with my first husband (who beat me) not because I do not forgive what was done, (I do) but because I would not put myself in a position to be hit by him again. I did not leave after the first (or second or third) time he hit me. He was remorseful and sought counselling, and I wanted to forgive him. But the physical abuse continued, and it became clear that if I was going to be safe, and if I wanted to forgive him for the injuries and pain already incurred, I was going to have to remove myself from the place where it could happen again.
It gets trickier when the harm is more emotional than physical- for instance when, in intimate relationship, someone we trust lies to us repeatedly. Forgiving the lying (and whatever inner or outer consequences may have resulted) is not really possible if the lying continues and we stick around for it, believing what we are being told again and again.
In fact, when the same person recreates the same or a similar injury as the original hurt, it inflames the old wound. Re-traumatisation interferes with the healing necessary for forgiveness to arise. If we want to forgive another, we cannot allow ourselves to be repeatedly harmed in the same way by the same person again and again.
This may or may not involve removing ourselves physically. We may have good reason to continue contact with someone who has stolen from us, but we do not need to invest in his or her latest money-making scheme. We may not want to end contact with a family member who has repeatedly lied to us, but we can remember to verify information they give us before we act upon it. And, of course, only we can evaluate whether or not we have the energy and desire to continue boundaried contact with someone. Sometimes it is necessary and desirable to simply withdraw.
We can and do forgive each other for injury- intentional and unintentional, conscious or unconscious- all the time. It’s one of the wonderful things about us- we are beings within whom forgiveness arises as healing happens. But when we remember to include not just others but ourselves in our own hearts, when we treat ourselves with the same tenderness and compassion we wish to extend to others, not allowing on-going mistreatment and/or choosing to boundary or step away from potentially (and somewhat predictably) injurious situations, the fullness of our capacity to be compassionate and forgiving can arise unencumbered.