Learning to forgive is a life skill that tests us all, whether it’s a family dispute or a betrayal between friends. But for author and activist Deborah Jiang-Stein, forgiveness has been more than a life-skill; it’s been a life-saver, one that enabled her to emerge from rage and addiction to make a difference in the lives of others.
When she was 12 years-old, Jiang-Stein found a letter in her adoptive parents’ bedroom and learned that she was born in prison to a heroin-addicted mother. For two decades, she hid the fact that she knew, and in her recent memoir “Prison Baby,” she shared the destructive years that followed her discovery, and her slow, painful journey back from the brink.
Today, Jiang-Stein is the founder of the The unPrison Project, a national non-profit empowering incarcerated women and girls by providing them with mentorship and essential life skills. And in her new book “Women Behind Bars: Stories From Prison, As Told To A Woman Born Inside,” she shares a collection of her interviews with female prisoners around the country.
Here, Jiang-Stein explains what she’s learned about forgiveness, how to practice it, and the peace and freedom it provides.
I was born in a prison and for most of my life I held grudges and felt victimized. I used to believe that the “world owed me,” and big time. It took me years to build out a new view of my life story and to shift my thinking. One key factor in that transformation was learning to forgive.
I also work around the country as a speaker in prisons with incarcerated women, youth, and men. We often discuss forgiveness — for ourselves, from others, and offering it to those we have harmed, whether intentionally or not.
Forgiveness is hard. It’s something that requires practice. I’m not perfect at it, and it doesn’t come easy for me, but I know its value, because I’ve done many things in my life for which I’ve been forgiven. I choose to forgive because resentment is destructive, because I want to feel better, and because it helps me leave the past exactly where it is.
I don’t believe in absolutes, especially about a topic like forgiveness where it’s personal, private, and not about a right or wrong way, but in teaching myself how to move on from situations that have caused me great hurt and resentment, I have found these simple insights helpful.
Forgiveness Is Not A Trade
The origin of “to forgive” is to “bestow, grant.” For me, that means that forgiveness is about letting go of hurt without the expectation that another person is going to make up for what they’ve said or done.
Forgiveness Is Not About The Other Person
I used to think of forgiveness as a gift that I graciously gave to someone else, but now I realize that forgiveness is really not about the other person, it’s about putting down the burden of not forgiving and choosing not to pick it back up again.
One of the things that I’ve learned is that I can forgive regardless of how the other person responds or reacts, and whether they acknowledge the source of the issue or not.
One of the things that I’ve learned is that I can forgive regardless of how the other person responds or reacts, and whether they acknowledge the source of the issue or not. When you don’t forgive, and you hold onto the hurt and resentment, it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick. We must choose to stop because we’re hurting ourselves.
Forgiveness Is Not About Keeping Score
In order to forgive, we have to give up our judgments and stop keeping score. It’s not a contest; there’s no winner or loser. I think about this often when it comes to my birth in prison. Dwelling on the reasons that my birth mother ended up in prison gets me nowhere; it only leads to resentment, and that’s its own kind of mental prison. I choose peace and freedom from that.
Forgiveness Can Happen Now
This was one of the hardest things for me to learn, because I always wanted to know everything about a situation before forgiving it. I wanted to know everything that had happened behind the scenes, every detail of the other person’s motives, every one of their thoughts, and the entire history that had led to the moment where their words or actions had caused me hurt. But the truth is that none of that brings forgiveness; that’s on us as individuals.
The simple fact is that sometimes people just don’t think before they act, or sometimes they cause hurt without even realizing it. And if we’re honest, we all do it. I can’t let a lack of understanding keep me from forgiving.
Forgiveness Sometimes Means Moving On
I used to believe that if I forgave someone that meant picking up where the relationship had left off and just pretending the whole situation had never happened. But sometimes forgiveness means an ending. There are people and circumstances in life that can trap us in hurt, and in those cases we have to forgive and move on. Realizing that I could do this was incredibly freeing for me.
Forgiveness Means Taking Back Control
When we refuse to forgive someone, we allow them to control our emotions whether or not they’re still in our lives. Once I realized that, I found it easier to shift my thinking towards forgiveness.
Holding onto un-forgiveness is like carrying a boulder with two hands. It robs us of our strength and with both our hands occupied, we miss opportunities to reach out and grab everything else in life. When we let it go, we free ourselves to live in compassion, contentment, and in positive momentum. I have not mastered forgiveness, it’s something that’s an ongoing daily practice for me, but the freedom it has given me is worth the work.
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