How to Forgive: Finding Peace From the Inequity of Life

Saturday, May 27, 2003, is the most important day in Mike Caceres’s life. It’s a day he remembers in a heartbeat.

How to Forgive: Mike and Marrianne in 1990.
Mike and Marrianne in East Meadow, New York in 1990.

The phone rang in his Vallejo, Calif. home at around 11 p.m. The late-night call interrupted a movie-watching session between Mike and two visiting cousins. Wayne’s World starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey was on.

When Mike picked up, his dad was on the other end. His father uttered four words that changed this shy, anxious teenager’s life forever.

“Your sister is gone,” said Mike’s dad, calling from a local hospital.

Marrianne Caceres was only 18, less than a year removed from high school. Until that fateful night, she had plenty of life to live. But a dispute between two brothers cut short what should have been a bright future.

An altercation had erupted at a family party between Mike’s father, and uncle, Romelo Caceres. Mike knew there had been tension between the two that had lingered for some time. But that night, frustration reached a tipping point.

Pent-up anger had pushed Romelo far enough over the edge. He was willing to take the life of his own niece just to prove his point.

Confusion sunk in as Mike learned the traumatic details of his sister’s death. He had trouble fathoming what happened as his dad explained over the phone. A flood of thoughts and emotions clouded his mind.

After breaking the news to his cousins, he went to his parents’ room to be alone. In this solitary moment, he got down on both knees and did the only thing that made sense.

He prayed.

“I was in shock,” Mike said, as he recalled that night more than a decade later. “I was in denial. In my mind, I couldn’t get the picture.

“I was processing,” he added.

Hours passed before his parents finally came home. Mike’s dad was still wearing a white hospital gown, nursing his own wounds from the altercation. Meanwhile, Mike’s mom was in tears and in a state of disbelief. That night became one of the first of many sleepless nights to come.

“My First Best Friend”

Marrianne was three years older than Mike, but he always felt close to her. They fought and bickered, like most siblings do. But their squabbles were no match for the unshakable bond they shared with each other.

Mike learned plenty from his sister. She taught him how to dress since he had little sense for fashion. She also taught him about music, taking him to his first live concert (N Sync in Oakland) in 2001. His sister influenced pretty much everything he knew.

When he looks back at his youth, Mike can’t imagine what his life would have been like without her. He grew up as a quiet kid with very few friends. Marrianne was one of the few people he could trust.

“She’s in my heart,” Mike said. “I don’t know, maybe she’s here, her soul.”

Emptiness Ensues

In the year that followed his sister’s death, depression took hold of Mike. He didn’t eat much and lost most of his appetite. Insomnia also became a problem because sleep was a catch-22.

“It was tough, because I couldn’t sleep,” Mike said. “But if I slept, I would dream of my sister, like she was still alive, like she was still there in my presence.”

How to Forgive: Mike and Marrianne in 2002
Mike and Marrianne in 2002

Mike also withdrew from people, often keeping to himself at school. During lunches, he would retreat to Gibson, a building on our high school campus, to spend time alone.

“I needed space,” Mike said. “I needed to contemplate about life.”

Mike’s depression made him feel ashamed and embarrassed. Insecurity overwhelmed him. To protect himself, he doubled down on his silence. He hoped it would hide his pain from both teachers and classmates alike.

“I felt like I was too vulnerable to open up,” Mike said. “I was so worried about what other people thought. Like if I said something [weird], they might think I’m crazy.”

Mike thought about taking his own life, too. Suicide would have been an easy escape. But he couldn’t muster up the wherewithal to do it.

Why?

“I realized I had people that loved me, too,” he said. “If I killed myself, it wouldn’t go anywhere.”

Despite his will to keep living, Mike still harbored anger about the harsh reality of his life. That manifested into resentment that Mike often kept hidden from plain sight.

A Quiet Rage Builds

For years, learning how to forgive was the furthest thing from Mike’s mind. Instead, contempt metastasized in him like cancer, growing deep beneath the surface. The symptoms took shape in the form of hateful grudges he held against “enemies” like his uncle.

Mike would tally every slight and note every wrong that happened to him. Disrespect him once, and you were out. It wasn’t hard for Mike to cut ties even with a few long-term friends.

When Mike held a grudge, he never make a spectacle. In fact, if you met him, you would never notice his frustration. But Mike admits he was about as unforgiving as they come.

For a long time, Mike carried a heavy burden of distrust. Considering how he lost Marrianne, could you fault him? After all, it was his uncle, a man who sometimes lived with him and his family, who ended his sister’s life.

In the years that followed Marrianne’s death, Mike’s uncle paid the price for his crime. From jail, he sent letters to Mike and his parents, hoping to receive forgiveness.

They never replied.

As a result, guilt paired with loneliness drove Mike’s uncle down a deep, depressive spiral. On June 17, 2008, his uncle chose to stop his pain by ending his life.

When he found out his uncle died, Mike got his wish. This, though, didn’t change the fact that his sister was still gone. In fact, his heart continued to ache after his uncle’s suicide. And for a long time, he couldn’t understand why.

To Learn How to Forgive, the Past Is Remembered

How to Forgive: Mike, Marrianne, and their Uncle Romelo in 1992.
Mike, Marrianne, and their Uncle Romelo in 1992.

For anyone who’s suffered trauma of great extent, it can take years to acknowledge. Mike’s experience wasn’t any different. For more than a decade, he struggled to accept his sister’s passing.

In 2016, Mike took his first step toward learning how to forgive. He decided to start a blog, which helped him soften his approach.

Mike admitted that he’s never been much of a writer. But through his blog, Mike learned to express his feelings into words. Instead of running away from vulnerability, Mike leaned into it.

Much of what he wrote was very personal. For some people, it was too much. But the opinions of others didn’t stop Mike from keeping at his new practice. Writing gave him power to open up about what mattered in life. That included acknowledging what happened to his sister.

“I need it,” Mike said of why he continues to write. “It’s my therapy. Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am, who I am right now. It’s key to who I am.”

An Open Letter to His Uncle

About a year and a half into writing, Mike mustered the courage to blog about his uncle. But instead of harboring hate towards him, Mike chose to remember the good.

In his post, he remembered a man who was more like a big brother because of their 15-year age difference. He reflected on their mutual passion for basketball, and how his uncle taught him the game.

Mike also tried to place himself in his uncle’s shoes. He thought about what struggles his uncle, who immigrated to America at 21, might have faced. Mike knew his uncle felt pressure from family to follow certain orders and demands. He knew some of their relatives were skeptical that his uncle could find his own way.

“​You [were] a good man,” he wrote. “You did not mean to do it. You were in shock, like everybody else, when you saw my sister slowly dying on my dad’s arms…”

The open letter Mike wrote taught him how to forgive. He didn’t excuse his uncle from his horrible act. But, he did conclude for himself how someone he loved could snap.

Learning How to Reconcile

Forgiveness is one thing, but reconciliation is another. To do the former doesn’t need your transgressor, while the latter does. Mike discovered the difference between them thanks to two life-changing experiences through travel.

Before his sister’s 15th death anniversary, Mike was in the middle of a 40-day trip through China. At a hostel in Shanghai, he crossed paths with an older woman from the United Kingdom named Liz. She shared a story with him that showed him the worth of reconciliation.

Liz told Mike about her relationship with her father. It was wrought with resentment, because he always told her what to do. That tension caused a rift between them for much of her adult life.

When her father passed away, Liz became responsible for everything he left behind. While rummaging through the things in his home, she found an unsent letter. She noticed it was for her.

An apology letter to Mike from his uncle.

The content of the message left her moved. It caused her to think twice about holding onto resentment.

“It made her [ask] is it worth holding a grudge with somebody?” Mike said.

Mike also visited the Philippines that summer, reconnecting with family he hadn’t seen in years. One of his relatives made a shocking revelation about his Uncle Romelo.

According to this cousin, his uncle wrote letters to members of their extended family, too. They were like the ones he and his parents received, but never replied to. The letters expressed remorse, regret, and sadness for the pain he had caused. For Mike, this uncovered his uncle’s desperation to find reconciliation.

“Everyone ignored him,” said Mike, who also visited his uncle’s grave during that trip. “Because I guess when you kill somebody, you [become] a villain. That’s it.”

A Second Chance to Reconcile

Liz’s story and the new wrinkle about his uncle’s pleas for reconciliation left a mark on Mike. He had forgiven his uncle, but because he had died, Mike couldn’t reconcile with him.

He thought about many of the strained relationships he still had. Mike started to wonder if he could make any of them right.

One of them was with an old mentor. Mike met Willie Vallejos in 2008, while playing tennis with a college friend at a local park. Willie saw potential in Mike and approached him with the idea of becoming his coach.

From there, the two built a connection that transcended the game. They spent time with each other off the court, breaking bread at restaurants around the Bay Area. Willie often shared stories about his life and family, while Mike eagerly listened.

But in 2015, their friendship took a turn south. Mike had heard from some people close to Willie that his old coach started to criticize him behind his back. Willie wasn’t a fan of some of the choices Mike made with his dating life.

Rather than confront Willie about whether this was true, Mike chose to cut him off instead. He decided that harboring a grudge was the best solution.

Mike, his cousin, and Willie having fun at a Golden State Warriors Game.

Reconciling Before It Was Too Late

Three years had passed since they last spoke, so Mike trod with caution in his effort to reconnect. After confirming that Willie still had the same phone number, it took Mike a few days to find the courage to call.

When he finally did, Willie didn’t answer, so Mike left a voicemail. In his message, Mike apologized. He was sorry for the grudge, sorry for the resentment, and sorry for cutting Willie off. He asked if they could reconnect.

Willie returned his call and agreed.

They met for lunch at Melo’s in Pleasant Hill, one of Willie’s favorite restaurants in the East Bay. Over pizza and beer, they talked. They cleared the air about their rift.

“After hearing all these stories,” said Mike, referring to the ones he heard in Asia. “I went to him and said, ‘I’m sorry.’”

Willie was glad to have back his old student and friend. He even praised Mike for how much he had grown since.

Their reconciliation came at an opportune moment. Three months after rekindling their friendship, Willie passed away. Mike felt grateful they got a second chance.

Why Forgive?

Forgiveness is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. It took Mike 15 years to finally forgive with his uncle over his sister’s death. Once he did, Mike let go of much of the pain that weighed him down.

Forgiving his uncle also opened him up to the idea of reconciliation. As a consequence, he was able to reconcile with a friend like Willie before it was too late.

Many people equate the concept of forgiveness with weakness. Forgiving someone who did you wrong, for some people, is a relinquishment of power. It’s a signal to the rest of the world that you’re a doormat, ready to be stepped all over.

But that isn’t true. One can forgive and still have strength. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you absolve your offenders of their actions. In fact, the act of forgiving is more about you than it is about them.

Psychologist Michael McCullough has studied behavioral concepts like forgiveness for years. Much of his research aims to discover connections between human behavior and evolution.

In 2008, McCullough published Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. In his book, he argues that forgiveness is fundamental to human nature. Without it, evolution wouldn’t be possible.

Knowing how to forgive allows people the ability to keep valuable relationships. That, in turn, allows cooperation to exist. Without cooperation, societies, cultures, and technology would have zero chance to flourish.

These things come to be through collective, not individual, wisdom. When these things do thrive, they push humanity forward.

“To forgive a friend is to salvage a vital resource,” McCullough wrote. “Preserving a relationship of trust and goodwill is much more efficient than developing a new one out of thin air.”

Does Revenge Serve Any Purpose?

Mike and Marrianne in their home in 2001.
Mike and Marrianne in their home in 2001.

We can’t look at forgiveness without also considering revenge. Is there a time and place to set aside the former in favor of the latter? Based on his research, McCullough found that there is.

Like forgiveness, McCullough makes the case that evolution baked revenge into us. Revenge has helped humans survive through its resolution of conflict. It’s within our instincts to destroy potential threats.

So, if you’ve ever felt vengeful, don’t feel guilty. You’re not alone. When you feel the urge for revenge, you’re experiencing a normal, human feeling.

“The capacity for revenge is a universal human trait, because natural selection specifically crafted it for its ability to help humans’ ancestors to solve social problems that threatened their survival and their ability to produce descendants,” McCullough wrote.

But when matched with forgiveness, the tendency for revenge, deep down, often loses out. People generally desire to forgive rather than avoid or retaliate against their offenders. Through forgiveness, strained relationships often come out stronger than they were before.

“People we care about are inevitably going to harm us,” McCullough wrote. “and we’re inevitably going to harm them. We can’t repair all these breaches, but we repair many of them.”

How to Forgive: 9 Stress-Tested Steps to Ending Resentment

As McCullough argues, forgiveness is an instinct. But that doesn’t mean it always comes easy. Like most things in life, learning how to forgive needs time and effort.

“It takes a willingness to practice forgiveness day after day to see its profound benefits to physical and emotional well-being and to our relationships,” wrote Fred Luskin, Director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. “Perhaps the most fundamental benefit of forgiveness is that over time it allows us access to the loving emotions that can lie buried beneath grievances and grudges.”

The Stanford Forgiveness Project provides ongoing training on how to forgive. It also conducts research into the effectiveness of the action. If you want to move forward from past resentment, it has stress-tested methods that can help.

Luskin’s tested his theories by working with some of the most hardened people. Among his research, he’s studied the effects of forgiveness on victims of The Troubles in Northern Ireland as well as 9/11.

More often than not, Luskin’s research has come to the same conclusion: forgiveness works. It reduces stress and lowers blood pressure. Learning how to forgive also diminishes anger, depression, and hurt. By forgiving, we can become more optimistic, hopeful, and compassionate. Knowing how to forgive allows us to enjoy more physical vitality.

Here are the steps he’s distilled, paired with examples of them at work in Mike’s own life.

Step 1: Acknowledge, Articulate, and Share

Luskin stresses acknowledging how you feel about the injustice that offended you. Next, learn how to express what was wrong about the situation. Once you’ve done that, then you can open up to others about your experience.

For Mike, this step manifested itself through his blog. Writing is an effective way for him to reflect on the experiences of his life, including his sister’s passing. Mike’s blog has given him a forum to learn how to question and articulate his feelings. It’s also provided a space for him to share those insights with people as he found out how to forgive.

Step 2: Forgiveness Isn’t for Anyone Else but You

When you forgive someone who has wronged you, it’s not about them. The act of forgiveness is actually about you. Luskin recommends committing to forgiveness as a way to feel better.

In Mike’s case, we return to his blog. Aside from being an outlet for expression, Mike considers his blog to be therapeutic. He maintains it for the sole fact that writing feels good. Anything else, like the positive feedback he receives from readers, is a bonus.

Step 3: Understand That Forgiveness and Reconciliation Are Similar, but Different Things

Forgiveness and reconciliation are two sides of the same coin. Forgiveness is the act of moving forward from an offense alone. Seeking a response from your transgressor isn’t required. Reconciliation, meanwhile, is the act of resolving the conflict with your offender. To reconcile, though, doesn’t always mean that you forgive.

Mike forgave his uncle long after he passed away. Because Romelo chose to end his life in 2008, they couldn’t reconcile. But finding inner peace was something Mike could only achieve on his own. No one, not even his uncle, could give him that.

Step 4: Reconsider Your Perspective on the Moment at Hand

To feel slighted by an offense requires us to dwell on it. Most of the time, we don’t allow ourselves room to detach from our feelings and emotions. That pain in the moment caused by that stressful event in the past? If we can change our perspective, we’ll realize that they’re two separate things.

Over time, Mike accepted the loss of his sister. He knew he couldn’t rewrite history and change what happened. What he could control, though, was his response to the resentful thoughts that he had toward his uncle. Instead of letting them take over, he was able to step back and distance himself from those emotions.

Mike and Marrianne at Busch Gardens in 1990.
Mike and Marrianne at Busch Gardens in 1990.

Step 5: Learn Simple Techniques to Relieve Stress When It Comes

Whenever you start to feel upset, it helps to have some protocol to help soothe your anxiety. Luskin suggests learning stress-management tactics like deep breathing. Focusing on our breath is something we all know and can do. But, it’s something we often overlook. Consistent practice can make it a habit.

Mike focuses on getting out of his head and into his body. He works out at the gym, not only to improve his fitness, but also to shake off any lingering negativity. Also, basketball and tennis have always been sanctuaries for Mike to shield against stress.

Step 6: Give Up Expectations

Learning how to forgive requires letting go of expectations of others and yourself. Forgiveness requires knowing that others won’t always behave the way you want them to. Rather, you can only hope that they do. Knowing how to forgive includes having the humility to accept that an outcome isn’t guaranteed.

These days, Mike practices this step whenever people come to him for advice. He shares his ideas but never pressures others to use them. This wasn’t the case before he knew how to forgive. In the past, he’d often get upset with those who didn’t take his advice. Mike’s learned that it’s up to others to make their own choices.

Step 7: Shift How You Use Your Energy

Don’t allow yourself to dwell on the experience that damaged you. Instead, take that energy you’ve invested in a grudge, and look for opportunities to use it in a positive way. Understand that it’s a choice to mentally replay the hurt you experienced. Forgiveness requires you to remember the past, but always charge forward.

When Mike realized that he held too many grudges, he sought to change. Instead of continuing to resent Willie, he chose to try and repair their relationship. Mike’s timing couldn’t have been better since Willie passed away not long after they reconciled.

Step 8: Live Your Best Life; It’s the Best Revenge

The best way to get back at anyone who’s hurt you is to live life to the fullest. Instead of directing attention to your offenders, remember what you have: your life. Practicing gratitude will help you see that you’re so much more than your pain.

Even after cutting them off, Mike admits that he would often wonder about those who slighted him. He compared himself to them, playing a competitive game of Am I Better Than My Enemies? He later realized that this game was pointless and found himself unhappy even when life was good. Knowing how to forgive taught him how to improve what matters most: himself.

Step 9: Reframe Your Narrative

Luskin’s last step on the path to forgiveness is to change the story you tell yourself. Start including that you’ve accepted and acknowledged what’s happened to you. Give yourself credit for learning how to forgive, because it’s something most people never do.

“I feel a lot better,” Mike said of the effects of forgiveness. “I feel like my heart was wounded at those times when I would have grudges with people and built more enemies. Now, it has been healed.”


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Jon is a freelance writer who authors this site. Learn more about him here. You can also follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram.

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