Most people would agree that when we are wronged, it’s best to forgive and to let go of our anger, instead of brooding over a stale old grudge and allowing that stagnant resentment to suck the joy out of our lives. Of course, this familiar advice doesn’t in itself answer the question of how to go about it. Letting go of anger can be much easier said than done. A primitive emotion, anger has a basic survival function—when we’re attacked, it motivates us to fight and focuses our energy on defeating the attacker.
In the modern world, chances are high that we’re not going to have any life-threatening encounters with marauding attackers the next time we walk down the street or drive to the mall. We are far more likely to get angry at someone who is not really trying to do us any harm, such as a careless driver who gets too close. When such things happen, letting go of the anger generally doesn’t take long because a moment of reflection makes clear that there was no harm, either actual or intended.
Forgiveness becomes difficult not in these everyday situations, but when we feel that someone really was trying to harm us. Maybe we are just going about a routine day when we discover that we’ve been targeted by gossip. Even if no actual harm was done because it’s obvious nonsense and the bully who started it has no credibility, it still triggers the anger response in those primitive brain circuits: Danger! Attack! Enemy! Fight!
Though we’re probably sensible enough not to get into an actual brawl, the anger can last much longer than the incident itself. Months or even years later, we still feel that we have an enemy who means us harm and who chose to attack in such a nasty, unfair way—how is it possible to just let go of that and forgive?
One approach I’ve found helpful is to remind myself that I don’t have to own stories that belong to other people. If someone with an overactive imagination invents ridiculous conspiracy theories and puts me on their list of imagined evildoers, I don’t own those stories. They are no more relevant or meaningful to my real life than a tabloid paper at the bottom of the birdcage. I can choose to give them only the attention they deserve—which is to say, none.
And I don’t have to buy into the anger narrative by mindlessly slapping on the labels of “enemy” and “attack,” either. Most likely, even when someone is being nasty, it’s not because of a personal vendetta but just because of random stuff going on in their life. After a while, they may not even remember what they said. From their perspective, it wasn’t a malicious attack—just ordinary conversation, and not at all memorable. They’re not framing the situation in terms of having enemies, unless of course it suits their melodramatic worldview to have large numbers of enemies; and they couldn’t care less about whatever they might have said in the past.
So—if they don’t care, then why should anyone else? Forgiveness can simply be a matter of reframing an old incident as unimportant, rather than making heroic efforts to love one’s enemy. When the other person ceases to be seen as an enemy and becomes just another flawed human being who is trying to get through life, we’ve effectively let go of the narrative that fuels the anger. That gives us more room to increase our creative energy and to develop new, healthy, empowering personal narratives. As for other people’s silly old stories—time to put some fresh newspaper in the birdcage and take out the trash.