The Fine Art of Forgiveness
I was doing some paperwork one evening earlier this month with the television on, news running in the background. Stories came and stories went. As I finalized a document by adding my signature with the flourish of a pen, one story in particular caught my attention. A young man, only 18 years old, was on the stand delivering a victim-impact statement at the sentencing of the woman convicted of killing his older brother. He was anxious, tugging several times at his collar to loosen the grip of the tie around his neck. As he spoke, he told the woman that he forgave her and wished no harm to her. His words wobbled with emotion. Towards the end of his brief statement, he expressed that he loved this woman, held no animosity towards her, and asked the judge if he could embrace his brother’s killer.
Surprisingly, the judge agreed to his request. The courtroom fell silent except for muffled sobs as the two embraced. The sight itself was raw and emotional. Even looking back at it now, I can feel the intensity of it.
This tender moment was excruciatingly poignant, particularly set against the backdrop of a society which feels as though it has forgotten the art of forgiveness. It feels as though every effort is made today to embrace animosity, hatred, indifference to others, and in finding new ways to be offended. It feels as though precious little time is spent on breaking down walls, finding commonality, and forgiving those who offend us.
Though the mention of the word forgiveness tends to carry religious or spiritual overtones, there is an element of forgiveness which ties directly to psychology: to our mental health and well-being. There is a growing body of empirical research studying forgiveness, led by clinical psychologists like Everett Worthington. Research shows that people who forgive those who offend them report decreased levels of anger, anxiety, and depression as well as increased patience and improved satisfaction with relationships. Research also shows that the process of forgiveness is stressful and requires work before being able to fully reap the benefits.
So, what is the secret to forgiveness? Why does something which carries with it such positive rewards so difficult to accomplish? I believe the answer to these questions, and the answer as to why society feels as though it is eschewing forgiveness in lieu of anger and vengeance, lies in the understanding of what forgiveness is and what it is not:
Forgiveness is a process.
Forgiveness takes time and energy and work.
Forgiveness is a willful conscious choice, not something that just “happens.”
Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. Anyone who has forgiven another for wronging them understands that it requires great strength and courage to do so.
Forgiveness is not about absolving or pardoning the offender or forgetting what was done to you. In fact, if the offender is a dangerous or toxic person, it is not advisable to reinsert yourself into that person’s life in order to demonstrate that you have forgiven them. It is always important to protect yourself from further offense.
Forgiveness does not require the offender to apologize or ask for your forgiveness. In some instances, the offender is quite unrepentant and would keep offending if given the chance. It is much simpler to forgive a person who asks sincerely for it; it is far more difficult to forgive a person who refuses to accept responsibility, is not contrite, and who even blames you for “causing it in the first place.”
Forgiveness is all about you. Not about them.
When we are on the receiving end of a verbal, emotional, or even physical offense, there is a lot of negative emotion tied to it. We will likely become angry and may harbor feelings of resentment, hurt, or even hatred towards the offender. And rightly so. These emotions are quite normal responses to being hurt. They tend to be powerful and are supported by natural desires for revenge or justice. When we are slighted, we are tied negatively to the offense and the offender. We may think about it frequently, almost obsessively. In psychology, this is referred to as rumination. We may reach out to others in order to validate our anger, or we may turn inward and try to find a reason why we deserved such treatment. The more frequently we ruminate, the strong our tie is to the offense. That tie becomes thick and heavy, like a rusted metal chain which binds us. The longer we ruminate, the more we feed negative emotions. And in the end, we are what we eat.
If we feed negativity, it will grow within us. If it grows, it will eventually spill out into other parts of our lives, impacting our mood, our relationships, and our health. The chain we carry binds us to the offense. As we move throughout our day, we are reminded about it continually with each step, reliving the moment and continuing to feed our anger, animosity, and other negative emotions associated with the offense. The weight of such a burden can be almost overwhelming.
This is where forgiveness can benefit us most. Remember, it is a process. Forgiveness includes defining the offending behavior. It entails examining all our emotions tied to the offense, bringing them to the surface to explore and process. This is the difficult part where many get stuck. Processing pain might require some assistance from someone else if you feel stuck. It is sometimes preferable to do such exploring in a safe environment with a therapist who can guide you through the process and help you make sense of the senseless.
This process may help you find that the chain which binds you to the offense is not fastened securely to your ankle or neck, locked and immovable. Upon closer examination, you may find the chain is held in your hand. You might be more affixed to the chain than the chain is affixed to you. Forgiveness, in its basic form, is about consciously deciding to release yourself from resentment and anger. It is a process which takes effort and strength and courage. When you are ready, you will be able to let the chain drop free from your hands. The burden of rumination replaced with peace. That peace is yours and is not contingent upon the offender at all. Forgiveness is for you, not anyone else.
Thankfully, we will likely never have to face the prospect of forgiving someone for killing a loved one like the young man from the story above. But even if this were the case, his example was inspiring in that it demonstrated the potential power for healing within us all. We have the keys to happiness within us. We have the keys to unlocking the chains which bind us.
As originally seen at JFS Orlando.