March 22, 2011
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” ~ Lewis B. Smedes
Why is forgiveness such a loaded topic? Because many believe that somehow the victim has to be the bigger person, raise himself up to a higher standard than the perpetrator and make amends to reach the Kingdom of Heaven.
Forgiveness is a process that can sometimes take years. And it is the key to personal liberation.
Betrayal, violence, neglect and abuse are the themes of Helen Whitney’s book Forgiveness: A Time to Love & A Time to Hate, which grew out of her upcoming film on forgiveness, which will be broadcast on April 17 and April 24 on PBS.
Forgiveness is a vastly misunderstood theme that deserves our renewed attention. As the world’s uprisings, both natural and man-made, have recently shown us, there is no better time than now to understand the healing powers of forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not mean you have to reconcile with the perpetrator or condone their behavior. I am certain there are many who find Gaddafi unworthy of their forgiveness, for instance. But, as Dr. Jane Greer, New York-based psychologist and author of How Could You Do This to Me? Learning to Trust After Betrayal, so aptly stated in a phone interview, “Forgiveness is the resolution of your rage.” There is a time for wrath and a time for warmth. It is about coming to terms with what has happened in our lives, acknowledging our anger, releasing it to feel the depths of our despair, only to realize it has its limits, too.
Then, once felt, the gaping, lingering wounds of our years can seal.
We have all experienced some level of betrayal in our lives. We think we cannot bear the searing rod iron-hot pain so we develop coping mechanisms such as self-abuse, angry relationships and continued drama cycles. In many of the personal stories Ms. Whitney conveys, people held onto their pain for years. In the book, she illustrates the story about a fugitive responsible for the death of a policeman in the face of anti-Vietnam protests who didn’t fully accept responsibility for her acts until well after she had handed herself in to the authorities two decades later. It wasn’t until she released her anger toward the U.S. government from the 1960s that she could apologize to the family whom she had caused so much pain.
“Apology is necessary to begin the journey of forgiveness within a relationship,” claims Dr. Greer. But what happens if you do not receive that apology? In many cases, the victims in Ms. Whitney’s book did not. She interviewed people from Rwanda and Nazi Germany who experienced so much sorrow. Millions of people died at the hand of a few. It is only now that people can speak of the abomination they experienced.
Without apology relationships cannot thrive. And so how does one go about forgiving someone who does not wish to be forgiven? The relationship ends, if there ever was one. That is where self-healing comes into play.
“[F]orgiveness in no way means you have to reconcile with someone who badly treated you,” states Dr. Frederic Luskin, head of The Forgiveness Project at Stanford University and author of Forgive For Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. “If you were the recipient of childhood abuse or are in a harsh relationship you can forgive the offender and as part of that choice make the decision to end or limit contact. Forgiveness is primarily for creating your peace of mind. It is to create healing in your life and return you to a state where you can live capable again of love and trust.”
Roxanne Renée, author of Laughing Again: A Survivor’s Guide to Healing Depression, says that “[t]he one who hurt me does not suffer the destructive, internal physiological effects of my sustained anger; I do. When I practice forgiveness, I engage my “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) nervous system, triggering myriad calming and healing physiological changes in my body. When I forgive, I am the one who is set free. “
In fact, forgiveness begins and ends with us.
Our misconception of forgiveness lies in our belief that we someone should ‘forgive and forget’. The truth is we will never forget, although we may suppress memories that bubble to the surface, oftentimes decades later. The pain is expressed either way. Sometimes it comes in the form of an illness. What the mind ignores, the body absorbs.
Forgiveness is not about reconciliation. We may never wish to see the perpetrator again. Dr. Luskin says there is nothing wrong with that.
“Another misconception about forgiveness is that it depends on whether or not the abuser or lying person apologizes, wants you back or changes his/her ways,” says Dr. Luskin. He cautions about making someone else’s behavior the determinant for your healing and happiness. “[Y]ou can forgive you ex spouse for their insulting speech and even for abandoning you and your children… but forgiveness in no way means you do not take the ex to court to make sure your children get their support payments to which they are entitled. Forgiveness and justice are not the same. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. Forgiveness and condoning are not the same.“
At this point in my research, I was quite relieved to learn the distinction between forgiveness and what our religious traditions have us believe is forgiveness. Ms. Whitney’s book features the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shootings in which the parents of the children killed by the local milkman turned gunman promptly forgave him, even though he was dead. They reached out to his widow and found comfort in their God that says you will enter His Kingdom if you forgive. Ms. Whitney raises the question of whether suppressing one’s natural feelings without allowing for a certain level of unforgiveness is healthy.
There’s got to be grieving at your own pace.
But perhaps Ms. Renée is right when she says “As we vividly remember the hurtful encounter again and again (practicing un-forgiveness by holding on to our hurt and anger), we trigger the same fight or flight response that we initially experienced. When we stay angry, we keep our sympathetic nervous system constantly engaged. In this state, we are trapped in a place of unrelenting stress. Because humans were not designed to live this way, the ultimate result over time is quite harmful — systemic inflammation leading to a host of chronic, degenerative conditions.”
Many studies have been conducted about the health benefits of forgiveness, including lowered blood pressure, slower heart rates and decreased cortisol levels. Dr. Philip Carlson, author of Love Written in Stone, pointed me to one such study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine that claimed study participants who learned to forgive experienced significant increases in blood flow within the areas of the heart where it had been previously impaired due to damaged tissue resulting from a heart attack.
Whether we choose to forgive or not needn’t be a loaded question. It is our choice whether we wish to carry the burden of a heavy heart or to nurture it with forgiveness.
Forgiveness heals. Unforgiveness destroys. When we forgive, it is much like love. We are all entranced by its power and through it, we are set free.
Listen to my podcast with Dr. Frederic Luskin to learn more about what forgiveness can do for you.