Forgiveness: A healthy choice

Forgiveness helps you clear your mind by releasing negative feelings and thoughts

Special Feature on the occasion of International Forgiveness Day

Thinking about forgivenessA friend of mine just got over her fear of the number seven. It took her five years to overcome the panic attacks that would creep on whenever she heard of an event taking place on the seventh day of a month, or in the seventh month, and so on. In all fairness, her affliction was not a phobia that she picked up during her childhood, nor was it a figment of her imagination. It was the price she paid for the trauma she went through in the seventh year of her marriage—being let down by her husband, a divorce and losing custody of her only daughter.

Forgiveness is strength

Five years on, she is a changed person, and I'd say for the better, not worse. Since having come out of the shell she retreated in when the unhappy events transpired, she goes all out to help others in similar unpleasant situations. She is motivated to share her experience, as she believes that she would have recovered faster, if only she had been clearer about the meaning of forgiveness.

"I used to think that forgiveness means pardoning another persons' wrong-doing," she recently confessed, "and I found that very hard to reconcile with, as I am a firm believer in a supreme power and in the law of karma, also known in some circles as the law of moral cause and effect". I would expect the law to apply, favourably or otherwise, and thus colour events unfolding after a deed or misdeed. So, I would wonder, "how can a mortal being pardon another's transgressions? Isn't that something for God to do?" Feeling victimised, and not being sure of what was expected of a victim-like me, made it all the more difficult to recover."

Her perspective led my friend to question whether humans have any role to play in pardoning a person who has done them wrong.

British poet Alexander Pope's much quoted saying—to err is humane, to forgive, divine —could be interpreted as being suggestive of the strength within humans that enables pardon.

Forgiveness is good for health

The benefits of forgiveness include improved health and wellbeing.

  • Researchers at the University of Tennessee, Drs. Warren Jones and Kathleen Lawler found that harbouring anger and resentment tends to increase blood pressure. Forgiving seems to have overall cardiovascular benefits.
  • A study conducted at University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that forgiving others was linked with better self-reported mental and physical health.
  • Dr. Fred Luskin's research with the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, suggests that forgiveness skills can be learned. Those who took the training achieved decreased levels of stress and increased levels of optimism.

— Team CW

Forgiveness is an art

In truth, human existence is dominated by a myriad of emotions, which are in nature, constructive or destructive. When you have been at the receiving end of something hurtful, it is natural to feel pain and anger, and even harbour destructive thoughts of revenge. It takes great strength of character to go beyond this emotion, when you are transgressed against.

Yet this 'higher' response, if you will, is not out of your reach. It follows from an understanding deep within, that the executor of the misdeed was at the moment of crime, under the influence of a weakness of human character. Put differently, this means that both the performer and you were victims of human failing.

With this understanding, you can put to rest your inner turmoil and shed any feelings of unkindness. Forgiveness, then, is but this neutral, resolved state of mind wherein you no longer feel victimised, nor do you desire the same shadow of negativity to be cast on the life of a person who has done you wrong. Endorsing this viewpoint, Shruti Kalra, consultant clinical psychologist, VIMHANS, New Delhi says, "Forgiveness does not imply that you forget, reconcile or excuse your offender from the responsibility of his or her actions. Rather, it revolves around you, and involves your understanding and hence, you letting go of negative thoughts and feelings."

Forgiveness is a virtue

Since human nature has a threshold of endurance, forgiveness is also suggestive of moving on. As long as you are hurting within, it would be immensely difficult to restrain from the desire to inflict damage on another. The longer you hurt, the more torturous it would be to hold back. As a practical state of mind, then, forgiveness means that you cease to wallow in self-pity, accept the inevitable, put an end to hurting, reconcile yourself to the changed circumstances and move on.

"Forgiveness reduces the offensive act to a neutralised past event," says Dr Kalra, "which no longer has the power to determine your actions and your life."

Forgiveness is undoubtedly, a virtue that is easier to talk about than to put into practice. And yet, every effort made to rise to the challenge and forgive, is worth it. My friend learned this the hard way. It was bad enough for her to neglect her health during her hour of crisis. To make matters worse, her constant dwelling over 'things that might have been' and questioning 'why did I have to suffer' led her deep into a powerful vortex of depression.

"This isn't surprising," Dr Kalra adds. "The negative emotional states associated with the feeling of being victimised frequently lead to a decline in the wellbeing of an individual, and cause stress, anxiety and depression. On the contrary, research studies have found that forgiveness enhances both physical and emotional wellbeing."

Fortunately, the tender loving care of her family helped my friend recover. Her inherent strength and matter-of-fact approach also helped her widen her horizons. That is, that every individual is part of a greater plan, and when things don't work out the way you desire, there may be something better in store for you.

The larger picture has a strong connotation with forgiveness, which is different to what is slowly becoming a pervasive view in less tolerant circles that forgiveness should be shunned, as it also means letting go of justice. If you move on, you would no longer be motivated to invest time and energy in revisiting what you look upon as a closed chapter. And then, the wrong-doer would be let off the hook.

Forgiveness is courage

Some people are wary of forgiveness because they believe that it means starting a new chapter [relationship] with the transgressor. This is far from reality. "Forgiveness does not imply that you have to renew your relationship with the person who hurt you," advises Dr Kalra. Nevertheless, as a neutral state of mind, it empowers you to interact with the person without experiencing any past pain.

Here is a rule of thumb about forgiveness and interacting with a transgressor—can you look into the transgressor's eye and feel nothing? If you can, you may congratulate yourself on having successfully forgiven. Now, even if circumstances out of your control compel you to interact with the person, be cordial. Engage as you would with a stranger you have just met. And don't worry about being taken for a ride again. In truth, no one can take advantage of you if you remain on guard. It is not as though you will be considered weak or someone who can be played around with, if you forgive an offender. "Forgiveness takes great inner courage. It should never be looked upon as a compromise imposed on you by religion, society or any significant people in your life. It should be your choice, and lead to empowering yourself to let go of past emotional baggage," advises Dr Kalra.

Forgiveness at work

Modern day workplaces are extremely competitive spaces, where it isn't uncommon to hear of stories of employees being side-stepped for promotion, perhaps because a more assertive colleague managed to convince the boss that s/he was better suited for the position. Dr Ashwani Kumar, executive director, Santulan EAP, a pioneer in providing employee-assistance programmes [EAPs], has a suggestion for people who may have found themselves in such a sorry situation. He says, "Ask yourself if you were not sufficiently assertive? Realise that it is none other than you who chooses to behave assertively or submissively. So take responsibility for your own behaviour."

Dr Kumar also cautions that it is important to avoid a grudge against a colleague who proved to be more assertive, or even with whom you have other scores to settle. "If you," he explains, "avoid resolving small problems, you may find yourself facing deeper issues. Acknowledge that it is a liability that may harm you, the longer you let it fester. Problems with colleagues must be brought up and resolved."

Dr Kumar explains how to handle such situations:

  • Approach the person and fix a time to talk, outside your place of work
  • Talk about the issue in a manner that shows you take responsibility for your emotions. Instead of saying, "you did this", and "you did that", say, "I feel as such."
  • Justify your words, by explaining why you felt so.

Celebrate forgiveness day

The first Sunday in August, which this year falls on August 2, is celebrated as International Forgiveness Day by the World Forgiveness Alliance. Taking inspiration from this community, make this August your month of forgiveness. Use these tips to forgive wrong-doers who have hurt you:

  • Devote some thought to the fact that while the misdeed was not of your doing, your present state of mind is in your control. Consider that you have limited time in this world, so it makes sense to take responsibility for your own emotions for your remaining period. Don't project your past suffering onto your future.
  • Acknowledge the health benefits of forgiving grudges or past injustices. Accept that you owe it to your body to forgive wrong-doers.
  • Don't wait for the 'right' occasion to forgive or to experience closure. Waiting will prolong your suffering and only harm you more.
  • Since being hurt, have you shared your feelings with a sympathetic friend, or have you bottled them up? Whatever be the case, express your feelings with a new resolve—to forgive. Write about how you feel, talk to a friend or simply allow yourself to acknowledge the way you feel. During this process, acknowledge all your feelings, even if they are negative.
  • If in all honesty, you believe that you were partially to blame for the transgression, even if your role was very small, as a starter, forgive yourself. The truth is that we all do things that we are not proud of. As long as you are hard on yourself, you will not be able to forgive the other and move forward. Concede that you did the best you could at the time, under the given circumstances.
  • Acknowledge that you too, are not faultless. We all hurt someone at some point in our lives. Make a list of all of the people you may have hurt along the way. How will this help? It will help you realise that you have probably been forgiven by others in your life, albeit for difference reasons. Consider that being forgiven helped you put an end to uncomfortable guilty feelings. It is time to return that kindness.
  • Now actually forgive the person. Close your eyes and visualise the person standing in front of you. Say [aloud], "I forgive so-and-so for hurting me," and take a deep breath.
  • One belief is to 'forgive and forget,' while another is to 'forgive, but never forget.' Irrespective of what you choose to do, take steps to ensure that you cannot be hurt again by the same person or in a similar way by another. In other words, introspect about the cause of the unhappy events. Identity character traits that you need to work on, to improve your relationships.

Evidently, forgiveness is not for those who are weak of heart. It is for brave hearts who do not believe in carrying deadweight along the remarkable journey called life.

The nature of forgiveness

  • Frederic Luskin, a Stanford researcher who studies the effects of forgiveness, defines it as, "The moment to moment experience of peace and understanding that occurs when an injured party's suffering is reduced by the process of transforming a grievance they have held against an offending party."
  • Forgiveness is not forgetting. In fact, one must acknowledge negative emotions and events before forgiveness can occur.
  • Forgiveness is not pardoning, excusing, or stating that an offence will be treated as acceptable behaviour in the future.
  • Forgiveness is, first and foremost, an internal process. It is primarily for you.
  • Forgiveness is a path to freedom. It frees one from the control of the 'offender.'
  • Forgiveness can break patterns that would otherwise interfere with future relationships.
  • Forgiveness can take time and hard work.

— Team CW

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