To err is human, to forgive divine.
Mahatma Gandhi taught us a lot of things about non-violence, about civil disobedience and about self-governance. However his most important teaching is the art of forgiving which holds special significance in today’s turbulent world.
Forgiveness has been a cherished value for centuries and is propounded by all world religions. Religions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity have all stressed the importance of forgiveness, although these religions conceptualise and address forgiveness in different ways.
All of us without exception have experienced in our lives being wronged by someone or the other. The individual offender could be a co-worker, a friend or a family member. We are also exposed to incidents of spouses who are unfaithful, parents who mistreat or abuse their children, people who killed for the sake of money etc. Whenever such things happen, we tend to seek severest punishment to the perpetrators of these wrong doing and generally forgiveness is the last thing that will come to our mind.
The following story, therefore, should come as somewhat of a surprise.
Everett Worthington had been studying forgiveness for more than a decade but one day, suddenly, he was faced with the worst possible opportunity to put his research findings to the reality test. His mother was murdered in a home invasion. Though police identified the perpetrator, the man was never prosecuted.
“I had applied the forgiveness model many times, but never on such a big personal event” says Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “As it turned out, I was able to forgive the young man quite quickly.”
It is notable that Worthington never described himself as a superstar forgiver. He attributed his action to the skill he developed and practiced over many years, which made this forgiving very easy.
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
Let us first get clarity on what we mean by forgiveness.
Forgiveness is defined as an internal process through which an individual gives up all feelings of resentment and anger towards someone who has wronged him and at the same time feels absolutely no need for any revenge and retribution.
Thus forgiveness is not just about saying the words ‘I forgive’ but is an active process in which we make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the offender deserves it or not. As we release the anger, resentment and hostility, we slowly begin to feel empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the person who wronged us.
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was actually you
Louis B. Smedes
For forgiveness to occur, it is not essential for us to forget, justify, condone or absolve the actions of the offender. What is required is a shift or change in how we feel about the offender. Forgiveness enables us to accept the offense against us without excusing it. This requires us to alter our motivation from one of avoidance or retaliation to one of empathy and reconciliation.
It is worthwhile remembering that we have no control over our memories, but we do have capability to introspect and control our thinking. While our anger may be justified when the event happened, retaining this anger over a long period of time is harmful to us. We must realistically acknowledge that we can not change what transpired in our past but we do have the power to stop events of the past affecting our current lives.
While we generally think that forgiving as a kind and selfless act, the reality is that it is a very selfish act which sets in motion the process of self-healing, self-empowerment and self-liberation. As Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s former Anglican archbishop and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, said, “We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest.”
From all the above, we can have a fair appreciation of what forgiveness is not.
- It is not approving the offence.
- It is not excusing the action or denying it or overlooking it.
- It is not forgetting or pretending that it did not occur and to just moving on.
- It is not justifying the offence or relinquishing possible action for justice.
- It is not just calming down and ceasing to be angry.
- It is more than being neutral towards the offender.
- It is more than making oneself feel good.
- It is one step towards reconciliation, but it is different from reconciliation, which requires a sincere apology from the parties concerned.
- It is completely independent of the person/s being forgiven. Consider Corrie Ten Boom, who forgave the Nazis after losing her family in the Holocaust, or Marietta Jaeger who, after her daughter was kidnapped and brutally murdered, was able to forgive. Thus people can forgive, even when the person who wronged them is unknown or dead.
- It is not a onetime event, but a process with several steps and repetitions.
- It is not a restoration of full trust on the offender (trust takes time to develop or to be reinstated assuming that the other party is interested too).
Bob Enright, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, who pioneered the study of forgiveness three decades ago says true forgiveness covers lot more ground by generating positive feelings like empathy, compassion and understanding towards the person who hurt us thus making it a powerful construct in positive psychology.
Let us now examine the need to forgive.
Tyler VanderWeele of Harvard School of Public Health says “When you learn to forgive, you are no longer trapped by the past actions of others and can finally feel free.”
This is illustrated by the Tibetan Buddhist story of two ex-prisoners of war who meet after many years. When the first one asks, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” the second man answers, “No, never”. “Well then,” the first man replies, “they still have you in prison.”
An fMRI study by Italian researcher, Pietro Pietrini, demonstrated that anger and vengeance have negative implications for us as they inhibit our rational thinking. Conversely, the steps that are involved in the process of forgiveness positively activate the areas of our brain which are linked to problem-solving, morality, empathy and cognitive control of our emotions.
We need to appreciate that the part of the brain that is associated with resolving anger is also the same part that is involved in empathy and regulation of our emotions. Research shows that there is a strong neuronal foundation for the idea that resolving conflict and granting mercy do good to our brains as they enhance positive emotions in us.
Researchers have collected massive evidence to clearly prove that forgiveness is linked to positive mental health outcomes such as reduced anxiety and reduced propensity for getting into depression or other major psychiatric disorders. Stress relief is the most significant benefit of forgiveness and we are well aware that chronic stress is highly detrimental to our health.
Let us also look at the enormous price we pay by not forgiving. Anger is a form of stress, and so when we hold on to anger it is as though we are turning on our body’s stress response. Berkeley scientists looked at the levels of the stress hormone cortisol , in people who did and did not forgive the faults of their romantic partners. They found a spike effect in those who could not forgive such faults in their partners. Cortisol peaks are generally associated with chronic stress which is one of the nastiest ways in which we can hammer our own body from the inside out. Johns Hopkins Hospital warns us that carrying grudges poses ‘serious and enormous’ physical burden on us.
In the turbulent days we live in, the world is suffering enormously for lack of forgiveness as we remain chained to the past. Whether it is the war on Iraq or the conflicts in Syria or elsewhere in the world, all of these are fuelled by hatred and the need for vengeance. Collectively, humanity needs to learn forgiveness, to end the cycles of retribution and violence which are becoming a daily headline news.
While there are a lot of approaches to the forgiving process, the following four step process with some variations appears to be more prevalent.
The Uncovering Phase. During the first phase of forgiveness, we need to improve our understanding of the injustice, and how it has impacted our life.
The Decision Phase. During the second phase, we need to gain a deeper understanding of what forgiveness is and make the important decision of choosing the forgiveness option rather than vengeance.
The Work Phase. During the third phase, we need to start looking at the offender in new ways, which will allow us to reduce our negative feelings and promote positive feelings toward the offender.
The Deepening Phase. During the final phase of forgiveness, we need to further decrease the negative emotions associated with the injustice. We may, in fact, find purpose and meaning in these experiences and recognize that in some ways we have become better persons as a result of these experiences.
Here is a wonderful story of how Buddha reacted towards an offender.
A Lesson on Forgiveness
Buddha was sitting under a tree talking to his disciples when a man came up and spat on his face. Buddha wiped it off and asked the man, “What next? What do you want to say next?”. The man was puzzled by this reaction as in the past the insulted people invariably became angry and reacted strongly unless they were cowards and weaklings. But Buddha reacted so differently asking him matter-of-factly “What next?”
But Buddha’s disciples became angry, and they reacted. His closest disciple, Ananda, said, “This is too much. We cannot tolerate it. He has to be punished for this act, otherwise everybody will start behaving like this!”
Buddha admonished Ananda saying “You keep silent. He has not offended me, but you are offending me. He is a stranger who does not know me. He must have heard from people something bad about me, that I am an atheist or a dangerous man who is throwing people off their track or a revolutionary or a corrupter. And he may have formed in his mind some idea or a notion of me. Thus he has not spit on me but on his notion. He has spit on his idea of me. As he does not know me at all, how can he spit on me?
“If you think about it deeply,” Buddha said, “he has spit on his own mind. I am not part of it, and I can see that this poor man wants to say some thing and this is his way of saying it. Spitting is a way of saying something. There are moments when you feel that your language is inadequate to convey your feelings like when you are in deep love or in intense anger or in hate or in prayer. When the language is impotent, you have to express your feelings some other way. When you are angry, intensely angry, you hit the person or you spit on him conveying your feelings. I can understand him. He must have something more to say, that’s why I’m asking him, “What next?”
Learning to forgive everything.
And Buddha said to his disciples, “I am more offended by you because you know me, and you have lived for years with me, and still you react this way.”
Puzzled and confused, the man returned home. He could not sleep the whole night. Again and again he was haunted by the experience and could not explain to himself on what had happened. Buddha had shattered his whole working of his mind and his whole pattern of thinking.
The next morning he went back and threw himself at Buddha’s feet. Buddha asked him again, “What next? When you come and touch my feet, you are saying something that cannot be said using words as they are not adequate for you to express your feelings clearly.” Buddha said, “Look, Ananda, this man is again here and is expressing something. This man is a man of deep emotions.”
The man looked at Buddha and said, “Forgive me for what I did yesterday.”
Buddha said, “Forgive? But I am not the same man on whom you spit. The Ganges goes on flowing, it is never the same Ganges again. Every man is a river. The man you spit upon is no longer here. I look just like him, but I am not the same and much has happened in these twenty-four hours. The river has flowed on so much. So I cannot forgive you because I have no grudge against you.”
“And you also are new. I can see that you are not the same man who came yesterday because that man was angry and so he spit, whereas you are bowing at my feet, touching my feet. How can you be the same man? You are not the same man, so let us forget about it. Those two people, the man who spit and the man on whom he spit, both are no more. Come closer. Let us talk of something else.”