Learning to Forgive
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.
Learning to Forgive Part II
In my first post on forgiveness I focused on anger and its consequences. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m against anger as a human experience. Anger happens, it’s what our bodies do when we perceive an injustice. The issue isn’t finding some magical way to never FEEL anger in our bodies but rather the issue is to find the most skillful means to work to relieve that anger. Anger hurts; anger perpetuated hurts badly. The health consequences (see the video link in the previous post) can become catastrophic.
I believe it is important to look at anger as a sign that your body gives you to act, in the moment, to correct an injustice. But it’s important to know that there are many options to consider, not just to act aggressively through a loud voice or a pounding fist or a threatening stare. If you think about it, learning to diminish your bodily anger will enable your mind to diminish its emotional reasoning, which inevitably leads to the adoption of a broader cognitive perspective. So if you can diminish your bodily anger, not only will your body fare better from a health perspective, but you’ll be able to think more clearly and resolve the injustice with greater skill. I’d call this a true win/win!
So, the first step in the forgiveness process is simply to notice when anger is arising, and adopting the intention to diminish its strength. This is where our mindfulness practice is essential. When the body gets revved up in anger it can be very difficult to begin to relax. If you have a mindfulness practice you know that simply taking a mindful breath, perhaps with your eyes gently closed, and redirecting your anger-focused attention for a few moments to the peacefulness of your breathing can immediately help your body to stand down. A simple mindful breath, for one who meditates regularly and has learned to be present non-judgmentally, will slow the body and the mind down to a manageable speed.
With our bodies and minds moving a bit more slowly, the process of cognitive widening occurs. Now we are able to take perspective, to see a bigger picture. We can look at the event provoking our anger and ask a few simple questions: Does this truly concern me? Has this person intentionally acted to cause pain and suffering? Can this problem be corrected? Is it MY job to correct it? Should this person be punished for what s/he has done? Or should I let go of this and move on?
Notice something: I’m not talking about a major event, a lifetime transgression, something traumatic. I’m talking about the day-to-day events that happen without warning, and cause annoyance. The customer service representative who treats you rudely. The boss who criticizes you publicly. Your wife/husband who forgets to do something you needed him/her to get done. Your son/daughter acting disrespectfully. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.
It’s helpful if we can correct the transgression, and make right whatever has gone wrong. But now I think it’s essential to decide, in the course of a day-to-day annoying event, do I put my energy into punishing this person, getting justice, or do I forgive instead? We can spin our wheels and expend a lot of energy being the arbiter of justice, and God knows there are plenty of opportunities, if we so choose, to act as judge and jury. But in this world of small annoyances, what good does this really do for you? Has your day gotten better because you were able to tell the customer service representative what a jerk he is? Or told stories about your boss behind her back to make her look foolish? Or made your wife/husband feel defensive with a cutting remark? Or made your child feel small and powerless by exacting punishment for every mistake he makes? I can only speak for myself, but being focused on BEING RIGHT is exhausting and, frankly, not a very skillful way to living a life worth living.
If you’re like me, you want to be more forgiving than judgmental and punishing. But it’s not always easy to do so. It requires that you work at it, work that, in my opinion, is very spiritual work. It requires that you see things from the other person’s point of view, understand how their actions made sense to them in the moment they did them, and make a conscious effort, set a mindful intention, to not act toward that other person with anger. Instead, to act toward that person in kindness, with compassion, to demonstrate your caring and concern for them, over and above yourself.
Well, that’s counter-cultural! And can be controversial if not fully understood and accepted. More to come in my next post! But until that time, please take a few minutes to read and watch about Forgiveness and Justice. I think you’ll see where I’m going with this if you do. Here’s the link: http://www.thepowerofforgiveness.com/understanding/index.html#
Learning to Forgive Part III
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: