Jesus, the neuroscientist, on forgiveness:
Are you breathing? Are there people in your life? Then no matter what faith tradition you do or do not practice, I’m going to guess you have been hurt or betrayed or let down by someone, once or twice. And then what? Well, the story goes that if we don’t forgive, but instead carry around all that hate and anger, it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick. Okay, so we should forgive, right? At least that’s what the Bible says Christians should do. And seems most world religions agree that forgiveness is a good thing to do. Jesus says forgive 7 times 70 times. All this time I thought Jesus meant that’s how many sins we should forgive, or how many instances of sinning. But Jesus the neuroscientist might have something different in mind. What if forgiveness was a matter of rewiring our brains?
We hold onto our grudges and hurts – they stick in our brains – because we are wired to learn life threatening lessons really well. It’s like an insurance policy to make sure we don’t forget that person hurt us. So the grudges stick. But they can atick around long after the expiration date, can stick around long after it’s usefulness, until we are miserable. And then we get to the point it feels bad to us, and we’re ready to let go and move on, but just telling our brain, “Okay! You can let go now!” doesn’t work. We can’t just tell our brain, “Time to change the wiring!” Instead we have to actually replace old thoughts with new ones. That’s how rewiring happens.
A man went to see his therapist because he desperately wanted to forgive someone who had hurt him badly, but no matter how much he wanted to forgive, nothing was changing. His therapist told him to spend 5 minutes each morning and 5 minutes each evening imagining that person being held in the light. When angry thoughts came, notice them, then say to them, “I hear you, but right now I am holding this person in the light. Right now I am not going to argue whether or not he deserves to be there. Right now I am not going to worry about whether or not he deserves to be forgiven. I am not forgetting, I am just holding him in the light.” Then
the therapist told him to come back in 3 months.
Remember how you weren’t supposed to cram for exams, but study a little bit each day? Our teachers and parents swore we would learn the information better. They were right. A few minutes every day is how we rewire our brain. What if Jesus meant we had to literally, intentionally, forgive someone for how they hurt us 240 times over say 120 days in order for us to truly forgive? (And I don’t mean “forgive and forget forgiveness” nor the ” turn a blind eye forgiveness” nor the assume they will never hurt you again forgiveness. I mean the letting got of the all-consuming energy it takes to NOT let go.)
Practicing spirituality, or faith, or compassion, or however you define an intentionally life, takes repetition, daily, over and over again. We know this about athletics, or speaking another language, or playing a musical instrument, or even learning calculus. It’s not a “one and done” thing. Why would forgiveness be any different? So, be gentle with your brain. But let your mind take it kindly in hand for 5 minutes in the morning and 5 at night. It might take 3 months; there might be what Baptists call backsliding. It’s okay. You’re just practicing forgiveness. But you are practicing, right?