So, why be forgiveness-centered rather than justice-centered? I think there are three good reasons that argue for forgiving as the go-to response to any act of meanness or neglect on the part of another person. But before I articulate those three reasons, I want to be completely clear on one point: forgiveness does not mean you allow a perpetrator to violate you again! If someone is dangerous, you keep a strong boundary and, if it is appropriate, make certain that others are protected as well. But most of the violations we experience day to day do not have such an existential threat, and it’s the day to day violations that can cast us into the downward spiral of anger and retribution seeking. With that in mind, here are my three reasons for making forgiveness your go-to response to those day to day violations:
First, having a basic orientation toward forgiveness is good for your body. Our friends whose primary focus is on getting justice have more frequent health problems in many areas including hypertension, digestive system problems (ulcers, IBS…), fatigue; basically any health issue related to chronically elevated stress levels. The second reason is that forgiveness is good for your mind. People who are forgiving by nature are much less likely to struggle with a host of neurotic disorders, beginning with depression and anxiety and including addiction and problems with impulse control. Finally, forgiveness is good for the soul. While we can certainly define the conditions that tend to reduce suffering, we struggle sometimes to understand the conditions under which people report deep satisfaction with life, finding serenity and tranquility that transcends body and mind. Try forgiving unconditionally and see how it changes you. Your body will be more relaxed, your mind will be at ease, but you’ll also feel something deeper, something that makes you feel more alive.
In a sense forgiveness is a form of love. When we choose to forgive we choose to turn the other cheek, to let go of the desire to strike back. Why bother? Martin Luther King, Jr. said it clearly: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” But it’s not only love extended to others; it’s love extended to ourselves. Alexandra Asseily, a Lebanese psychotherapist who advocates for forgiveness between the warring communities in Beirut, has said that “If we let go of the pain in the memory, we can have the memory, but it doesn’t control us.” This is our challenge: to love those who hurt us so that we do not condemn ourselves to being controlled by the pain they have caused.
This challenge encompasses adopting a different mindset than most of us have been taught. Once again I’d like to quote Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
I think we all love to put energy into discovering the mountains of good inside each of us, but alongside our self-esteem building I think it is also important to acknowledge the shadow side we all have, and lose any sense of self righteousness when faced with the shadow side of another. And if you think about it, isn’t your shadow side really just a reflection of those areas of your life where you’ve been hurt the most? Think about that for a second. There are parts of you that hurt people, or can be petty or greedy or inconsiderate or, at times, even hateful. When those little toads of ignorance come flying out of your mouth, isn’t that just the part of you that got badly hurt and doesn’t trust anymore? Perhaps just wants to protect you from more hurt? Well, if that’s true about you, then it’s true about the person who might have just hurt YOUR feelings! Wouldn’t it be easy to forgive if you saw the hurtful actions of another as evidence of their suffering instead of as evidence of their defective character? And if you recognized that this person in front of you who just hurt you is actually suffering, wouldn’t you want to respond with compassion, with forgiveness?
Why be forgiving by nature? Because we all need to be forgiven! Fred Luskin of Stanford University put it this way: “Forgiveness of self emerges when we understand that even with our own actions we do not have total control. Everybody makes mistakes.” If it’s OK for me to make a mistake, then the least I can do is forgive you when YOU make a mistake.
So here’s my advice if you want to be a more forgiving person. First, set the intention early in each day. Decide before you begin the work of the day that you wish to be forgiving today. Second, notice. Be aware of anger when it arises. Pay attention to how it changes your body and your mind. Then take a mindful breath, accept that your body and mind are in this state, and look outside of yourself for a moment. See the person in front of you as someone who has hurts and suffering all his/her own. Know that whatever that person just did, you might have done the same or something similar (it’s always dangerous to say “I’d never do that!”). Accept that person as he/she is; it’s not your job to change them. Then let this question guide you: “How can I help this other person to suffer less?” Perhaps it’s a simple “Are you OK?” Or maybe you simply say out loud that you can see that he/she is upset/angry/sad/afraid and “I don’t want to make this worse for you.” Or maybe you simply return a kind word, gesture, or action for the slight or insult.
Often, when in the moment that hurts, we don’t have the presence of mind to make a skillful response like I’m advocating for in the paragraph above. That’s OK; that just means that in our meditations or thinking through later on we go through the same process I’ve described. The key is to see this other person as someone who thinks and feels and acts much like any other person, including yourself. And then to remember that you have an opportunity to help through your kindness. Small thoughtful acts of forgiving will change the world one person at a time, beginning with yourself.
One final suggestion. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a book called “No Future Without Forgiveness” about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that then-President Nelson Mandela formed to begin the healing process in South Africa after the end of apartheid. If you don’t think forgiveness is possible or important, then please watch Desmond Tutu’s conversation with the journalist Bill Moyers. It’s only 10 minutes, but it describes the transfiguration that forgiveness brings about: