The act of forgiveness seems to run totally contrary to natural human instincts. As humans, it is normal for us to feel anger and resentment towards someone who has treated us unfairly, hurtfully or spitefully, or in extreme cases even harmed us in ways that may have damaged our psyche or ruined our life. We want to avenge their damaging acts, we want justice and punishment for the offender. “An eye for an eye” makes perfectly good moral book-keeping sense, it seems.
But it makes terrible practical sense. You never do get even. You remain trapped in the bitterness of the past, with its unrelenting anger that’s burrowed so deep that it’s virtually controlling your life. Because you do not heal, you cannot move forward into a liberated present.
But forgiveness is not at all easy at the emotive level. That is why the effective route to forgiveness must be a rational, analytical one. By rationalizing the answers to two questions, it becomes possible to see forgiveness as the most obvious step to liberate ourselves from powerful, locked-in, self-destructive feelings. The two questions are:
Why forgive? `The rational answer is: Not because your religion tells you to forgive those who cause you hurt or harm; or because you consider it your “duty”, a box on a checklist to be ticked; or because it will make you feel like the “bigger person”. But simply because it’s in your self-interest to do so – because holding in hurt and anger only punishes you, not the one you are angry with; because you have already seen the consequences of that subterranean anger; because you are tired of being a prisoner to your negative emotions; because the only way to heal the pain that will not heal itself is to forgive the person who hurt you. The question that it comes down to is, “Is this fair to yourself – this wretched justice of not forgiving?”
“Forgiveness therapy” as it’s come to be called, has long since earned its scientific spurs. Counsellors have used it successfully for many decades – not only in anger therapy, but also to treat depression (and suicidal tendencies), anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders and a host of other gremlins of the psyche.
What’s more, the scientific technique for using this powerful tool has also been tested in controlled studies. We now know the right way to go about using it. Which brings us to the second question and its answers.
How to forgive? Not by deciding to “let go” of the hurt, or to ignore or “forget” it. That will lead to failure. The key is not to “Forgive and forget”. It is to “Remember – and forgive” (Forgetting deep hurts is, in fact, neither possible nor even necessary).
Nor should you get emotional about forgiving the other person – e.g., “She’s my own flesh and blood, so I have to forgive her.” These are quick fixes that only mask the anger. It will re-surface.
The route to forgiveness that works is based on reasoning and driven by self-preservation, and here are the steps forward:
After rationally determining that you have been unfairly treated, you forgive by wilfully abandoning resentment and anger (to which you have a right), compassionately putting yourself in the offender’s shoes, and then extending forgiveness based on the moral principles of generosity of spirit, understanding and unconditional worth (of the other person).
You may consider that impossibly difficult to do in the case of those whose acts have caused terrible and lifelong damage – for instance, habitual sexual abuse by a parent. It becomes less difficult when you realize this truth: that, very often, the offender is himself coming from an area of darkness and pain. As just one example, research finds that a significant number of male perpetrators of abuse have themselves been victims of sexual abuse in childhood. Nothing comes from nothing. Just as the person that you are today is the product of “where you’re coming from”, so too is the wrong-doer the product of “where s/he is coming from”. Trying to identify those formative circumstances (which include genetic inheritance, early upbringing, financial circumstances and life experiences, among other things), trying to step into the other person’s shoes and to see what those shoes feel like – that is what is meant by empathy. Ask yourself, also, this question: Had I been in their place, might I not have become what they became? Everyone deserves compassion and understanding. And true forgiveness comes only with such understanding.
It’s important to make the distinction between the deed and the doer. Forgiving someone who has caused you deliberate hurt or harm is not about saying that what he did was okay. You do not condone the deed, you recognize it as wrong, but you then attempt to go beyond it, so as to restore your relationship with the person who did you wrong.
That, of course, sounds like an even taller order than the act of forgiveness itself. But, healing the relationship by reconciling with the offender is like underwriting the act of forgiveness. It is not always possible to do this -- sometimes the person may have died or moved, or may adamantly resist an interface. But, when it is possible, such an interface is the final step in the process of liberating yourself. The idea is not to get into a confrontation. It is, rather, to try and understand better what they did – to unravel the particular web of their personal circumstances that trapped them in damaging attitudes and behaviour.
There’s no betting on the outcome of this meet-up, but if and when it happens, although it can be a painful experience for both, you and the wrong-doer, it can achieve two very important ends – enabling you to empathise even better, and also bringing much-needed release for the wrong-doer.
These are not hypothetical musings. People in real life have forgiven and reconciled with the person who harmed them, and many of their stories are out there on the Net.
Once you get used to viewing forgiveness from a rational and self-preservation perspective, it becomes possible to forgive anyone. Anyone? What about Hitler? Hitler, too. Without condoning the horror and enormity of his deeds, it is possible to try to understand the forces that shaped him into the person he became – and to forgive him. As Rabbi Harold Kushner said at the release of his small book, big best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “Yes, I’d forgive Hitler. It doesn’t mean that what he did was ok. But when I let the resentment go, it means he can no longer make me contribute more to a Holocaust memorial than I do to Jewish children.”
One last point: don’t kid yourself that forgiving someone who has hurt or harmed you is a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. And when you forgive, you are the biggest winner of all.
(The author, a former editor of Health & Nutrition magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)