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How to Forgive Like Nelson Mandela

Here are nine steps to forgiveness.

Nelson Mandela was many things: a change agent, a revolutionary, and for 15 years the first Black President of South Africa chosen through a transformational, multi-racial, democratic electoral process.

Equal to his many historic achievements, including his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, is his legacy as a sage. Through word and deed, Mandela was a living embodiment of forgiveness and reconciliation.

As is well known, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment as punishment for his efforts to ban apartheid and his unwavering advocacy for human rights. He served 27 years of that life sentence, nearly three decades spent locked away in a South African prison.

His suffering was long and deep. Yet as the doors to Mandela’s cell in Robben Island prison were thrown open, he was asked if he harbored resentment toward his captors. In response, he famously said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

He later wrote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”

John-Paul Henry/Unsplash
Nelson Mandela.
Source: John-Paul Henry/Unsplash

Today as the world grapples with the stress of a global pandemic and Americans confront both a harsh racial divide and political strife, the lessons garnered from Mandela’s life could well serve as a bridge to unification and peace.

What Mandela innately understood is that when choosing between revenge and forgiveness, it is only forgiveness that will lead to peace. He knew that dwelling on past transgressions is a path to discord, anger, and thoughts that stalk the mind like tiny frittering demons.

Forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself. Those who embrace the importance of forgiving understand that forgiveness does not erase the past, but rather brings solace to the present and can surely bring forth joy in the future. Forgiveness is central to successfully navigating life’s troubles and fundamental to spiritual growth. It is essential to happiness.

If one thing is certain, it’s that painful experiences are a part of life, and how we deal with sorrow, loss, and the hurtful acts of others is central to resilience and necessary for positive change and growth. Forgiveness offers a new and valuable perch from which you can view you the world.

As the Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi so sublimely said, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”

When a person hurts you, whether it’s a minor offense or a horrifying calamity as Mandela experienced, the event itself passes immediately. What remains is simply a thought or a feeling—a stubborn memory of the hurt. Nursing that thought or grievance carries lingering pain.

Clinical psychologist and author Everett Worthington has studied the act of forgiveness, and what he calls “unforgiveness”—the amount of grudge, bitterness, and resentment we hang onto over days, months, or even years. In one experiment, he asked participants to recount a specific personal offense. In these subjects, their blood pressure rises, and their heart rate increases. Stress levels rise while the story is being told. However, over time, these biological markers of rancor decrease to normal. Some people, he learned, can return to a normal state much faster than others, indicating that there is a biological predisposition to people’s ability to forgive.

Whether because of a unique genetic nervous system structure or due to social upbringing, there are definite psychological and physiological differences in letting go of bitterness and grudges. Worthington notes that many have a tendency to ruminate upon grievances, trotting them out to repeatedly mull them over every once in a while. This habit serves to keep the pain on our minds and in our hearts.

Forgiving is not an easy process. It takes preparation, patience, and practice.

The founder of Tiny Buddha says you first have to forgive yourself and release yourself from the painful story.8

Here are the steps.

1. Move on. Remember that the offense is in the past, and it can only affect your happiness if you carry it forward.

2. Shift your focus from blame to understanding. Allow the full range of feelings—from pain to understanding to positivity—to permeate you, but do not judge them. Simply feel what you wish to feel. Author Wayne Dyer said, “Shift your mental energy to allowing yourself to be with whatever you’re feeling—let the experience be, without blaming others for your feelings.”7

3. Avoid telling others what to do or how to react to the incident. This will make forgiveness less necessary, as people will not offend you with falling short of your expectations. Remember that people are perfectly capable of making their own decisions, and if they offend you, might it be possible you have made yourself into an easily offended person?

4. Be like water. Do not dominate or try to change the people. Try to bend with the wind, flow around the stones, and roll with the punches. Accept that humans are flawed, and we will inevitably hurt each other, even by accident.

5. Take responsibility for your part in the offense. This will keep you from further victimizing yourself. If you had a hand in the offense—even minor—forgive yourself. If you truly did not have a hand in the offense, take responsibility for letting it go.

6. Be kind instead of right. A Chinese proverb says if you’re going to pursue revenge, you’d better dig two graves. If you choose to carry resentment about something a person has done or said, and if you act on that resentment in any way, you will not be righting the wrong. You will simply double the amount of resentment stemming from the offense. Kindness is an active choice that relegates the hurt to the rearview mirror.

7. Think like a social creature. Remind yourself of how much forgiveness would mean to you if it were you who made the mistake. Putting yourself in the shoes of the person who hurt you can go a long way toward aiding understanding. Consider that this individual who hurt you may have life pressures you know nothing about. Can you find empathy in your heart for this individual?

8. Don’t look for occasions to be offended. Those who look for offense will always find it. It is helpful to assume the best of people. Don’t assume they are acting out of malice. Often people have personal motivators that are unrelated to you. Most people are not consciously trying to harm others with words and actions, and this is especially true for those you love. As is often said, most people carry a burden you know nothing about.

9. Send love. No matter what, love will always feel better than hate. If you decide to love the person you are harboring a grudge against, it will lighten your own heart and the hearts of those around you. After all, isn’t removing the hurt exactly what you want? Who wants to relive the slight over and over again? Giving and receiving love is a cleansing process that reduces stress and eliminates resentment. It is difficult to be angry with someone while thinking loving thoughts about them. This is a gift to yourself, the offender, and others who share in the pain.

Theologian C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” He could have been referring to Nelson Mandela whose abundant success came from working with those who had damaged his life and the lives of so many others in an effort to correct the legacy of past injustice. It may well be that the seeds of your destiny will also be found in the grace of your forgiveness.


Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela