You can’t forgive without loving. And I don’t mean sentimentality. I don’t mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, ‘I forgive’. I’m finished with it. – Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was brutally raped as a young girl by her mother’s boyfriend. Growing up poor and black, in an era of racial discrimination, she was looked down upon and treated with contempt. Like so many young African American women, she seemed destined to live a life of early pregnancy, marriage and more abuse.
Yet Maya Angelou became the most celebrated and inspirational writer and poet of our time. She wrote several books and volumes of poetry as well as movie screenplays. She became an activist for civil rights. In 1993, she stood before worldwide audiences and recited poetry during the inauguration of US President Bill Clinton. Her words and poetry are still widely quoted to this day.
How did Maya Angelou rise above her circumstances when so many of us could not, and would not?
The key factor is Forgiveness with a capital ‘F’. Maya Angelou did not let her past haunt her. Instead of dwelling on the injustice and the harm that she suffered; instead of railing against the cruelty of men – she chose to embrace Life and Forgiveness.
Forgiveness frees your mind and spirit from regret, revenge and guilt. As imperfect human beings living in a broken world, we will inevitably come across people and even those close to us, who hurt us with their abuse, mistreatment, contempt, manipulation, anger, ungratefulness and so on.
On the other hand, there are times when we hurt ourselves too – causing pain and regret about what we have said, done or left unsaid. Our pain is understandable. There are wounds that go so deep that healing them seems impossible. But heal we must. Otherwise, the burden of painful memories that we carry will eventually turn into a huge immovable iceberg, hardening our hearts and overshadowing our lives.
Think of it this way – is your whole life going to be dictated by the pain that you experienced, or can you move beyond that to embrace a new life?
Desmond Tutu, who spoke out against apartheid in South Africa put it this way:
Because forgiveness is like this: a room can be dank because you have closed the windows, you’ve closed the curtains. But the sun is shining outside, and the air is fresh outside. In order to get that fresh air, you have to get up and open the window and draw the curtains apart.
So Forgiveness is a choice and an act of your free will. You choose to forgive, by choosing to get up and draw open the curtains of your heart and mind to let in the fresh air. It is the ultimate act of self-preservation and love.
The road to Forgiveness starts with the following:
Knowledge – Imagine you are writing your story in a novel. It doesn’t have to be perfect or polished. Start by journaling – pouring out your emotions, your pain and your thoughts – in bad grammar, bad spelling or whatever. Don’t censor, clean up or edit your story because what you really want, is to achieve a state of catharsis. It’s a fancy word meaning that you have released all your toxic emotions and developed some perspective.
Acceptance – Accept that the painful experience has changed you – not for the worse but for the better. You have been tested and you are now stronger. Accept that what has happened is history. Mentally create a filing cabinet named ‘Forgiveness’ in big bold letters and file your memory there, telling yourself that you are moving on to get some fresh air.
Taking Action – Channel your pain into positive action to help others. For Maya Angelou, her brutal rape as a 9-year old did not stop her from loving books, reading and writing throughout her life. She was able to turn her pain into art by writing her autobiography I Know How the Caged Bird Sings, a bestseller that has inspired millions of women.
Taking these steps won’t be easy. But look around you and you’ll notice that the most passionate advocates for women are those who have been raped and abused.
The kindest and most compassionate among us are those who have experienced suffering.
And the bravest among us are those who have failed and messed up but choose to stand tall and forgive.