I think that “forgiveness” is one of the most misunderstood words I’ve encountered in my work as a pastoral therapist. Sometimes the reaction is astonishment: “you want ME to let HIM off the hook!” Sometimes the reaction is anger: “how DARE you suggest that HE is not responsible for what he DID!” And sometimes, regrettably, the reaction is shame: “I guess it really WAS my fault.” Each of these reactions comes from a common misconception about forgiveness: that it absolves the offender from responsibility for his/her actions. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To forgive is to decide to seek relief from the consequences of your own anger at another person through engaging a process that includes letting go of some aspect, perhaps all, of your right to retribution against the offender, coming to a clearer understanding of this other person, and performing some act of kindness either directly toward the offender or, if that would be inappropriate, then indirectly in some symbolic way. Allow me to explain.
When someone offends me in some way anger arises. That’s what anger is about: my body’s reaction to a real or perceived offense. The next time you feel angry (i.e. your body experiences this affective state) take note of exactly what is happening to provoke the feeling and meditate on how it is that you perceive that event as a violation. If you cannot find the violation, then consider the possibility that anger may not be an appropriate response! In any case, you’ve begun the journey to forgiveness with a simple, mindful action: you’ve noticed the feeling, and noted the provoking event. Great start!
The next step on the journey is to notice the consequences of anger. Some of them are good. Anger generally is an energizing emotion, one that makes one’s physical response stronger and swifter. For this reason football coaches have been getting players angry at halftime for as long as there’s been organized football! But notice, also, the downside of the anger response: cognitive narrowing. When you’re feeling angry at least two cognitive phenomena occur: the first is that it is very difficult to think of anything other than the object of your anger. If this process persists you’ve entered into the act of “perseveration” (a $10 word if there ever was one!), meaning you’ve become preoccupied with the anger-provoking event. This perseveration can be tricky: as a result of your preoccupation you may initiate a feedback loop. The more you think of the event, the angrier you get. The angrier you get the more you think of the event. Now you’re really suffering.
The second typical cognitive phenomenon that occurs when we’re angry is “emotional reasoning.” I’ve posted on this before; it’s simply the logic that proceeds from emotional states. When angry, we think thoughts that illustrate and confirm that we’ve been violated. But the problem with emotional reasoning is that it has a bias built into it. If your body FEELS it, then it MUST BE TRUE, or at least that is what your body wants you to believe.
So there you are, some of the problems that anger can cause. Something happens, you perceive it as a violation, your body becomes aroused, you start to get over-focused on the event, you start thinking “angry thoughts,” which cause more anger, and you conclude that you must be right. All in all, a formula for suffering. These are the consequences of anger if it is not managed with skill and self-compassion. It’s a very seductive emotion; anger feels strong and if we have a history of being violated it can become the “go to” emotion, being felt when no violation has been committed. Anger ruins relationships, cardiovascular health, digestive health, spirituality, families, and lives. The prevalence of anger in our society (go ahead, watch an evening of network television, and see how much of what passes for drama and comedy is based on anger) calls for a commitment to forgiveness, the surest antidote to the suffering of anger.
In this series of posts I want to make the case for considering forgiveness as a process to embrace when you feel angry. In order to do so you need a definition of forgiveness. This definition is a good one in my opinion:
Forgiveness is a conscious, willful choice to turn away from the pain, hurt, resentment, and wish for revenge that arises from a betrayal, offense, injustice, or deep hurt. Forgiveness involves a willingness to see the transgression and transgressor in a larger context, and to replace negative feelings with compassion and tolerance. (from Robert Enright, PhD)
Please note that this definition is not about the offender, and not about the offense: it is about YOU! Forgiveness is about a change to your perspective, your point of view, and as a result of that shift a change in how you feel. Forgiveness is about finding relief, and being able to love in greater freedom.
I hope that you are able to see clearly how the anger process works in you and what price you pay when you hold on to that anger toward another person. I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that people who hold on to anger suffer greatly, and that people who are able to forgive suffer less. If you’re unsure of this, take a moment to read this information concerning forgiveness and health, and watch the three brief videos on this website page:
The journey to forgiveness will continue with my next post.