Stoicism and Genuine Forgiveness
How to ditch your emotional baggage in 2022 and soar in 2023
Olympic speed skating gold-medalist, Mark Tuitert, and NHS cognitive-behavioural therapist, Tim LeBon, author of 365 Ways to Be More Stoic, talked to me about how we can learn to let go of resentment and anger.
“Did you talk to your him about how you feel?”
“No, I don’t want to talk to my dad. He…ugh…he acts like there’s nothing to forgive."
I liken that brief conversation to this one:
“Did you see a doctor about that deep, infected cut?”
“No, I’ll just ignore it and hope it goes away.”
“That’s going to fester, though, and spread infection to other parts of you. That is pretty hazardous to you, isn’t it?”
“Nah. It’s easier just not to deal with it.”
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Resentment is an open wound that never closes because, well, we become comfortable with it. It has taken residency in our heart and mind and is seemingly easier to forget than deal with. It’s familiar and we feel justified in our anger. If this is where you’re at, how’s the workin’ out for you? Did the other person have a change of heart? Did they finally crash to their knees in a sobbing fit and apologize?
I’m being ridiculous, of course, but the point is that resentment is simply living in unchangeable past. Or, as the old saying goes, “Holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Unrelenting animosity is a result of a long-standing refusal to forgive someone. Some of us refuse to forgive because we feel to forgive says that the actions of the other person were justified. While it doesn’t say that, it is worth asking if a wise person would feel that this feeling is ever justifiable.
Resentment and Aversion
Resentment’s fertile ground is our own aversion. We build stories around it by saying things like “I forgive but I don’t forget.” This is to say that because these people have done us wrong, we are safe to assume they will do it again. We think this position is an emotional fortress that protects us from being hurt. Well, obviously, we’ve been hurt by others since then and will undoubtedly be in the future. This is because pain is simply an inevitable part of life. Everlasting indignation is the harvesting of our own suffering. The good news is that you can choose not to plant it at all.
Instead of facing our deep-seated disdain, we resort to telling others about it—sometimes for years. This is not only cowardly and avoidant but fighting injustice with injustice. Avoidance is a vice, a mind-numbing solution. Even if you spoke your peace and got nowhere, their reaction being something you don’t have much control over, you can walk away from the conversation knowing you did everything that was in your power.
If we can acknowledge realistically what’s within our power and accept that we cannot directly control the perception of others, then speaking our minds becomes easier. The best part is that regardless, we can ditch the pain and walk away knowing we did the right thing. This is the beginning of detachment from the affliction and we can begin to not identify any longer with what happened.
Forgiveness and Letting go
Forgiveness is interesting to me because after asking quite a few people, I’ve realized many of us don’t seem to know what the hell it is anymore. After suffering through a lot of pseudo-psychology from unlicensed, self-aggrandizing talk show hosts in my social media feed, I thought I’d ask licensed CBT professional and author of 365 Ways to Be More Stoic, Tim LeBon, what exactly is forgiveness? Later in this piece, I talk to Olympic speed skating gold medalist and author of Drive: Train Your Stoic Mindset, Mark Tuitert, about how his refusal to forgive his father put the brakes on his career for nearly a decade.
Our refusal to forgive creates the illusion that we have the upper hand, when we don’t and never did.
It’s understandable to feel angry or upset when we have been wronged or treated unfairly. It is not, however, generally considered justifiable to hold onto these feelings and allow them to turn into resentment. Our refusal to forgive creates the illusion that we have the upper hand, when we don’t and never did. If anything, we’ve handed our mind, heart, and any control we thought we had over to our initial impressions and the person we begrudge. In this competition to see who can dig their heels in harder, nobody wins. It is important to recognize the role of our own judgments and interpretations in creating these emotions, and strive to be detached and objective.
Q: So, what is forgiveness?
“Forgiveness is deciding to let go of negative feelings including anger and blame towards someone whom you believe has wronged you.”, says Tim LeBon.
“Forgiveness is classified as one of the top 24 character strength by the highly esteemed Virtues in Action team”, he adds. “it being part of the larger virtue of temperance. Each of the strengths benefits both society and the individual who possesses them. This fact is well worth remembering. Forgiveness benefits the forgiver and the person being forgiven.”
How can you say you’ve let go of the negative feeling if you don’t forget?
Q: Is it genuine forgiveness to say, “I forgive but I don’t forget”?
“I would suspect that the person who says this is still trying to punish the other person and hasn’t truly forgiven them. Indeed, given my definition of forgiveness, it’s a contradiction to say that you forgive and don’t forget.”, Tim says. “How can you say you’ve let go of the negative feeling if you don’t forget?”
“To be more charitable, though”, he adds “they might just be trying to protect themselves. But it’s a very passive-aggressive way of trying to achieve this, and is just likely to make the other person feel bad.”
Q: What can we attribute the inability to forgive to?
“I think that forgiveness doesn’t come very easily to many people.”, Tim replies. “To nurture forgiveness, we need to cultivate empathy, compassion, understanding, love and wisdom.”
“If someone shows an extreme inability to forgive”, he adds “then indicates a lack of these qualities. Narcissists often struggle to forgive others, because they lack empathy and our so caught up in thinking about things solely from their own point of view.”
So it’s possible to forgive someone when think they haven’t done anything wrong…
Q: Is it possible to forgive those who thinks they have done nothing to forgive?
“Yes, because forgiveness is mainly about an internal decision.”, he says. “So it’s possible to forgive someone when think they haven’t done anything wrong, or even when they haven’t done anything wrong, and you’ll still reap the benefits!”
Tim goes on to say “When it comes to expressing forgiveness externally - to the person who you think has wronged you-things become more complicated. If they aren’t asking for forgiveness, there’s a risk this will come across as acting superior and will be resented. If, however, they are asking for forgiveness, then forgiving them is an act of kindness to them, and to yourself.”
“But what, I hear you ask if they did mean you harm”, he notes “and what they did is something that is normally considered, well, unforgivable? Well, then Marcus Aurelius’s most famous quotation, Meditations 2.1, comes to the rescue, as it so often does.
Q: How can we begin to forgive?
“I think Stoicism is one of the most helpful frameworks for cultivating forgiveness.”, Tim replies.
“In my recent book 365 Ways to be More Stoic, we asked contributors for Stoic success Stories, and a surprisingly large number were about forgiveness. One of my favourites was about a young Stoic trapped in a deep cave who forgave the person who had accidentally removed the rope which would have enabled him to leave the cave. How did Stoicism help him to forgive? Because Stoicism teaches you to judge someone by their intentions, their character, not by their actions. So the first question to ask yourself is —did the person mean to do me harm?”
Tim also suggests Seneca’s On Anger for further guidance:
“Seneca’s On Anger also has some great tips that can be applied to forgiveness. One of the most useful is to plead the case for the defense, not the prosecution. What are all the reasons that someone might not be as bad as you imagine, what mitigating factors need to be taken into account?”
“But what, I hear you ask, if they did mean you harm”, he notes “and what they did is something that is normally considered, well, unforgivable? Well, then Marcus Aurelius’s most famous quotation, Meditations 2.1, comes to the rescue, as it so often does.
To paraphrase, he says that people do harm because they don’t know any better. We can rise above any negative feelings we have towards them, and turn towards them rather than away from them—because that is what as good human beings we can do, if we are the best versions of ourselves.”
I said in my previous article about Stoicism and Codependency that once you do a deep dive into your unhealthy habits and traits (that have directed your life in various ways) many of your aha! moments may be linked to your upbringing. Once that happens, your knee-jerk reaction will be to stomp, holler, and point a finger. I imagined myself doing this, though, and it only make me angrier. Blaming didn’t make me alleviate anything.
So, because I couldn’t control the past, what could I control? Well, my perception of it. How? By acknowledging that they were doing the best with the emotional intelligence that was handed to them. They felt justified, like they were doing the best for me, and anything else that happened wasn’t intended to have an affect on me. Like Tim encourages us to ask, was there any harm intended? No, absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite.
And hey, now I have the opportunity to shamelessly wave around my mommy and daddy issues if only to help others with mommy and daddy issues. Healing by encouraging others to heal is rewarding, and a healthy use of my otherwise emotionally destructive trait. Just as Mark Tuitert will tell you that his daddy issues were a catalyst to his becoming the best father he could be.
He had trained himself relentlessly to the point of being hospitalized for crippling exhaustion. All of his insurmountable talent, though, which should have been enough, wasn’t.
Mark and the Brakes on his Drive
Resentment has damaging and potentially detrimental effects on our mental and emotional well-being, as well as on our relationships with others. It can create toxic patterns of thinking and behavior, and can lead to chronic stress and anxiety. This in turn can have emotional effects on our subconscious and control our future, as I learned was the case with Olympic speedskating gold medalist, Mark Tuitert.
Back in September of this year, I attended an event held by the Young President’s Organization and the Aurelius Foundation, at the original site of Plato’s Academy in Athens. It was there that I met Mark and heard him speak for the first time. He introduced himself to the crowd and spoke briefly about his athletic career. As he went on, he talked about how despite his rigorous training and phenomenal recorded timings, his journey to the Olympics was stalled, twice.
One of the slides in his presentation featured a mind map of the situation, with one of the bubbles labeled anger towards my father. Later on at the hotel bar, after not having practiced enough temperance, I approached him and said, “Sorry to hear about your daddy issues.” Of course, I was teasing and I was relieved to get a chuckle.
That particular part of his story stuck with me, though: his anger towards his father resulting in a near decade-long stall in his career. Someone with all the proven Olympic-level skill couldn’t quite get to the Olympics because of their emotional baggage. This baggage wasn’t a lack of ambition. He had trained himself relentlessly to the point of being hospitalized for crippling exhaustion. All of his insurmountable talent, though, which should have been enough, wasn’t.
Q: Mark, how did you come to realize that it was your resentment that had become a roadblock?
“It was when I missed the Olympic Games for the second time, at 25 years old, that I began to do some heavy introspection.”, he began. “I was wondering how it was possible that I've trained for so long, for eight years, and still not get there. I tried everything I could, but I still wasn’t succeeding. The numbers were all there: how fast I was skating, how I was sleeping, how I eating… I had all of the boxes checked, all the lights were green, and all the numbers were perfect. Yet, I failed to qualify to compete in the Olympics.”
“My mentor asked me how I was doing”, he continued “and of course I began to analyze my athletic performance. I didn’t realize it at first but that wasn’t the real question. So he rephrased it, Mark, how are you really doing? That’s when the weight of this invisible anchor inside began to pull me towards the earth. It was heavy and his question about my genuine well-being finally had me focused on the me that wasn’t an athlete. At first I replied, ‘Well, I’m doin’.’ Then, in almost the same breath, I’m angry at my father spilled out.
I then realized that for six years, where I thought I was simply choosing not to speak to him, really, I had only traded our communication for choosing to be actively engaged in absolute disdain…and I only suffered for it.
“By this time, I hadn’t spoken to my father in six years.”, he said. “I blamed him for the agonizing divorce from my mother and the state it put me and our family in. Instead of facing him, it just seemed easier to go without a father. That quick reflection told a six year-long short story. I then realized that for six years, where I thought I was simply choosing not to speak to him, really, I had only traded our communication for choosing to be actively engaged in absolute disdain…and I only suffered for it. I wanted to blame someone for the pain I was feeling, for the hurt I felt, for my father and mother fighting each other and not being there for me always.”
"Once I found the source of my personal and professional hindrance”, he continues, “I decided to give my father a call. That was the first step. Forgiveness only happened, though, over time when I began to view him and the situation through a Stoic lens. It was my judgement that he was a bad father. Whether he was or wasn’t, recalling that did not change the past, something out of my control. What I really had to ask myself was if I was a better father to my children now in the present, something I could actively control.”
After having carried that anger towards him for so long, I realized he wasn’t the roadblock. It was my judgement about him and my refusing to forgive him, that kept me living in the past.
He concludes saying, “We often judge people how they hurt us. After having carried that anger towards him for so long, I realized he wasn’t the roadblock. It was my judgement about him and my refusing to forgive him, that kept me living in the past. It was only when I began to change how I viewed him and the situation, that I was able to detach myself from the pain instead of clinging to it. That’s when the process of forgiveness began and I felt I could move forward, no longer shackled to days long gone.”
Mark’s book Drive: Train Your Stoic Mindset is currently being translated into English.
In 2023, if your plans include “catching flights and not feelings”, remember that your resentment baggage exceeds the weight limit. With it, you may never fully get off the ground in your emotional, relationship, or even professional development. True freedom starts when you stop treating active avoidance of the issue as if it provided a means to an end. It doesn’t and won’t. A healthy coping strategy is the path to ending your own suffering. When you confront your pain, and the offender, do not expect to hear an apology. Instead, make it your end goal to exercise one of the few things you do have control over: the releasement of your anger. Their perceptions and reactions are not up to you, but you recognizing that even your sages have faults is.
Forgiveness does not mean your feelings were ever null and void or that the other person was “right”. It does mean that you have chosen not to be angry anymore, and not to let pain control your perception of what happened or your life. Do this, and you’ll have chosen freedom from your own suffering.
Note: If you have been abused or are currently being abused, this article is not suggested to be applicable. For those who grew up victims of child abuse, we highly suggest seeking professional help. If you’re in the US and are currently in a dangerous situation, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, available 24/7, at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. Live chat is also available on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website. If you’re in the UK, call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline at 0808 2000 247, or click here to chat online.