“Carrying a grudge against someone or against life can bring on the old age stoop, just as much as carrying a heavy weight on your shoulders would. People with emotional scars, grudges, and the like are living in the past, which is characteristic of old people.” Maxwell Maltz: Psycho-Cybernetics
When bad things happen, bad feelings can be created. Very often, one of the greatest challenges to dealing with adversity is finding forgiveness. In many respects, the quality of our lives will be determined by the extent to which we are able to forgive – forgive ourselves, our parents, other people, and even God.
One time I’d been fired from a job in such a way as to create a lot of bad feelings and painful emotions. (A friend of mine says that if you haven’t been fired at least three times, you’re not trying hard enough; at least on that score, I was an overachiever!) My anger was so toxic that it was driving out every positive emotion, and bubbled so close to the surface that it was making it almost impossible for me to effectively search for another job. I was living out the classic definition of a grudge: drinking poison in the hopes of hurting someone else.
While this was going on, I happened to visit my good friend Vern Herschberger (an incredibly talented artist and cartoonist). I told Vern that even though I knew this hateful grudge was darkening every corner of my life, its hold was too strong and I simply could not let go. I couldn’t fight it, and I couldn’t run away from it. Even as I recognized my lesser self of ego suffocating my better self of soul, I could not chew off the paw and move on.
“The solution is simple,” Vern told me. “You’ve got to pray for the success of the person who fired you.”
I thought about that for a moment, then replied, “I can do that.” I closed my eyes, folded my hands, took a deep breath, then said, “Dear God, please make that man be very successful... at stepping in front of a speeding dump truck.”
“No, no, no!” Vern exclaimed. “You’ve got to pray for him to be successful according to his definition of success, according to God’s definition of success. What you just said sounds more like the devil’s definition.”
I shook my head. “I can’t do it, Vern. It’s not in my heart to pray that prayer.”
“That doesn’t matter,” he replied. “You just say the words. Say them every day, as if you mean them. Saying that prayer will break the ice. Keep at it, and eventually the ice will melt.”
Vern was right. It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually the grudge released its hold on me. In The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum wrote that forgiveness is a miracle, because it’s not something you can will upon yourself. It certainly felt like a miracle to me the day I realized that my prayer had been granted. I had no idea whether the man who’d fired me was successful. What I did know was that I genuinely hoped he was successful. I had forgiven him. He might not have cared a whit whether or not I’d forgiven him, but that didn’t matter. For me, the peace I’d gained meant everything.
This miracle of forgiveness brought in its wake the blessing of clarity. As I began to see through the anger and hostility, several other things became clear to me. First, I not only needed to forgive, I also needed to ask for forgiveness. I’d been fired for a valid reason (I wasn’t really cut out for that job), and for my part had not handled the separation in a particularly graceful manner.
Equally important, with forgiveness came the realization that being fired really was the proverbial best thing that ever could have happened. The reason I’d been fired was that I was trying to pound the squiggly peg of me into the square hole of a career for which I was unsuited, and which I was pursuing for all the wrong reasons. Being fired liberated me from the treadmill; forgiveness (including forgiveness for myself) freed me to find a new path in life, a path with heart (to borrow the memorable phrase of Carlos Castaneda).