I learned about forgiveness from a friend of mine. She told me her husband was having an affair. Her first reaction was to leave him, but she had a strong sense that leaving was the wrong thing to do.
Weeks passed. He told her it was over, she found out it wasn't. He told her it was over again, she found out is wasn't, again. It went on like that. All the while we wondered together why she didn't think leaving him was what she was supposed to do. It must have been six months in. She was catching me up on the situation and she realized why it had been so important for her to stay.
She needed to forgive him.
In 2006, when the Amish people forgave the man who murdered their children, they didn't do it for him. They did it because they knew that if they didn't forgive him, it would destroy their community. Their anger would rip them apart. They needed to be freed from it, and from him.
Forgiveness isn't for the culprit, it is for the victim. Forgiveness is a way for us to disconnect ourselves from the actions of others. When I forgive someone for some wrong they have done, it is not because I think what they did was okay. Its because there isn't anything I can do about it now. Carrying my anger has no effect on the person, or what happened, it just weighs on me. Forgiveness is how I drop the burden that anger hefts on my shoulders.
Forgiveness is also a way for me to disconnect myself from the past. Having not lead a life of perfection myself, I can get focused the unintentional effects my actions have had on others. Endless guilt and shame, however, is useless to them, and keeps me locked in the past, where I am powerless. Forgiving myself allows me to bring my focus back to the present. In the now, I can commit to actions that are testament to the mistakes I have made. I can't undo my errors. They live in the unchanging past. The best I can do is to live my life today, founded in the lessons I've learned, so I don't make the same mistakes again.
My friend still hasn't left her husband. Though he says the affair is over, she can not know for sure. What has changed is that she is no longer tied to his mistakes. The anger and frustration his actions caused is melting, like old snow in the spring sunshine. Through her forgiveness, she has returned her focus to her path. I count this a victory for her, since that was all she was responsible for in the first place.