Letting go of the past suffering is a meaningful process, which requires that we search deeply inside to find our motivation and strengths to continue life with love and light in the heart. In this article, we discuss ten abilities that we may choose to develop as part of the forgiving attitude.
To revenge or to forgive?
In the best slapstick GIF we’ve ever seen, according to James Vincent, London reporter at The Verge, we can observe a hilarious chain of events which ends with the revenge of one of the five players.
The action starts when one of the players, whom James calls The Hitter, enjoys a snack while caressing a cute dog standing in front of him. The second player, The Stander, gets up from the bench to caress the doggy too. The bench tips over the third player, The Faller, who on his way to the floor, grabs the pants of the fourth player, The Spiller. The Spiller happens to pass by, carrying a pan of water in his hands. The tipping bench hits the pan of water which spills in the head of The Hitter. The Spiller turns around to pull his pants up while The Hitter hits him in the head with the pan.
Let’s imagine you are The Hitter. What would you have done if you suddenly got some water spilled over your head, while you enjoyed a snack and caressed a cute doggy?
Would you have reacted differently if the water was warm or cold? Clean or dirty?
Would it make any difference if the person who spilled the water in your head was a complete stranger, your mother, your girlfriend or any other person important to you?
Scientific articles on human forgiveness show that the desire to revenge is built-in the human nature. The desire to revenge is evolutionary explained by the fear to be perceived weak in the enemy’s eyes. Social psychologists have done studies showing that if two people fight in the street and there is the third person passing by, the fighters start fighting even harder.
The action in this GIF ends when The Hitter hits The Spiller. We don’t know how The Spiller reacts to the blow. Now let’s now imagine you are The Spiller. How would you have reacted if you got a blow in the head while pulling your pants up? You turn around and you see that it was The Hitter who caused you pain.
Motivation to forgive – Mandela’s story
The capacity for forgiveness is also built-in the human nature. The environment has a great influence on whether the capacity for revenge or the capacity for forgiveness are developed. One hypothesis for explaining the desire to forgive is the “valuable relationships” one. Primatologists believe that by forgiving and reconciling, our ancestors were more capable for group cooperation, which increased their evolutionary fitness.
The hypothesis of “valuable relationships” may hold as well in the case of The Hitter and The Spiller. Maybe they are brothers and may decide to have a good laugh as a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation.
What if The Hitter and The Spiller are complete strangers who happen to be in the same place, at the wrong moment? What would motivate The Spiller to forgive The Hitter?
When Bill Clinton asked Nelson Mandela how he brought himself to forgive his jailers, Mandela’s answer was “If I continued to hate these people I was still in prison.”
Mandela was part of a society torn by racial segregation, which gave more rights to the White South Africans than to the Black or other ethnicity South Africans. In 1963, at the Rivonia Trial, Mandela was accused to life sentence for revolting against the state.
After 27 years of prison, he became the 1st president of South Africa starting with May 1994 till June 1999. In 1995, the new South African government put in place a “truth and reconciliation” commission to investigate human rights abuses during the apartheid era when the rights of the Black and other ethnic groups were curtailed and the White minority rule was maintained.
Mandela had forgiven his jailers and wanted to help his fellow citizens forgive the abuses they had suffered during the apartheid era.
What motivated Mandela to forgive?
His dream society was the one where people of different skin colors and races live in harmony. He wanted a future of equal opportunities for all South Africans, as he declared in his speech at the Rivonia trial in 1964:
“During my life I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die for. ”
How about you? What wrong-doings did you suffer in childhood, school, romantic relationships, professional life, etc.? What aspects of the environment where you lived so far might motivate you to forgive?
Choose one of the wrong-doings that had the biggest effect on your inner life. Would you choose an inner or an outside motivation so you can commit to forgiving your wrongdoer?
Forgiveness has a unique connotation for each individual who suffered a wrong-doing. What do you think of when you hear the word “forgiveness”?
Researchers at GreaterGood Center define forgiveness a conscious decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance towards a person or group of persons who have wronged you, irrespective they deserve to be forgiven.
When we decide to forgive someone, it doesn’t imply that we accept that the other person continues behaving in a way that could hurt us. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we come up with excuses for the respective behaviour.
Forgiveness means taking responsibility for a non-violent attitude to the wrongs we suffer.
Benefits of forgiveness
“Forgiveness liberates the soul…” says Morgan Freeman who plays Nelson Mandela in the movie “Invictus.”
The Bible teaches us to forgive others so that God may forgive us.
Buddha said: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting hurt.”
Researchers confirm that more forgiving people are in a better physical and emotional health. Practicing forgiveness helps to release all the hatred, resentment, hostility and anger that are accumulated as a result of ruminating over the transgression. On the contrary, dwelling on unforgiveness makes your blood pressure rise, face muscles become tense and heart rate increase. For example, people with unforgiving attitudes towards their romantic partners experience jumps in cortisol, the stress hormone which metabolizes fat in the body.
Second, people who have more tendency to forgive report greater quality relationships and greater commitment to relationships. Try to forgive for the sake of having healthier and happier relationships.
Third, forgive so that you can understand better what it means to forgive. You are more able to teach a forgiving attitude to your children or others you care about.
The Journey of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a unique process of inner life discoveries for every individual who commits to forgiving. For most of us, forgiveness is an emotionally sinuous process, with moments when you think you managed to let go, followed shortly by moments when you find yourself in deep resentment about the wrongdoer.
In the moments when you feel disillusioned that you’ll never be able to forgive, it is time to strengthen one or more of the following abilities in yourself: intention, honesty, acceptance of grieving, expectations, empathy, identity, humility, patience and courage.
Choose your destination – What kind of attitude would you like to have in face of the everyday life challenges?
What is your emotional baggage resulting from unforgiveness?
Your life is now with its present challenges. Are you aware how this emotional baggage mixes with the emotions resulting from the present challenges and how it affects your life?
When you set the intention to forgive for a being able to love again, to trust again, to feel joy again, your psyche is prepared to deal with the resentment and other negativity resulting from unforgiveness.
Identify your pain - What are your negative emotions caused by the wrongdoing? Try to label them and see what emotions are more frequent.
Be honest with yourself and observe how the pain of not being able to forgive is affecting you. Maybe your self-confidence is low, maybe you don’t trust anyone around you, maybe you become bitter, unhealthily angry and hateful in every day life.
How else does the pain affect your inner life?
How many years do you think that one can live with the pain and other negative emotions resulting from unforgiveness?
For the English historian of Jamaican origins, Colin Grant, it took about 30 years to finally forgiving his father who rejected him. The forgiveness happened when Colin wrote the memoir “Bageye at the Wheel”, in which he explores the emotional differences between his world and his father’s.
Be honest with any negative emotion you might have struggled with for the last 5, 10 or 20 years. Sometimes, it may take a life-time to forgive.
3. Accept the grieving
Accept your grieving, be willing to go through sadness, anger, pain, loss, fear, guilt whenever you are aware feeling that way.
How do you know when you don’t accept your pain? When you see yourself as a victim, thinking “Why did this have to happen to me?”, “I always end up being hurt”, etc. Perceiving yourself as a victim keeps you stuck in the moment when you suffered the injustice.
Instead, try to find an outlet for your pain, which doesn’t involve hurting yourself or others. Find meaning in your grieving. Find your ways to cope with the grieving. For example, some choose to do service to others in need. Some choose to talk about their emotions to someone they trust or complete strangers.
Prayer is a coping technique for many people who seek forgiveness or to be forgiveness. For example, in the biographic novel Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, describes the first time in her life when she prays to God. She starts her prayer by saying, “I’m a big fan of your work” . She hopes that by praying she would get an answer to her indecisiveness of whether to stay married or not. A few months later, after divorcing and after a failed romantic relationship, Elizabeth embarks on a one year trip of self-discovery around the world.
What way would you chose to cope with your grieving?
When you commit to forgiving one person, it is best if you set the expectation of yourself to develop the habit of forgiving in general. Next time when another person causes you harm at emotional or physical level, it may come more natural to you to let go of the resulting resentment and other negative emotions.
Also, in the daily interactions, review your expectations of things that other people should have given to you and they chose not to.
What are your expectations from the most important people in your life (e.g., family, friends, lover, etc)? Can you remember one expectation you had on one person and in what ways that expectation caused you suffering?
Practice empathy – think into more detail about the life of the person who hurt you. How his childhood must have been? How much love and affection he must have received as a child? What situations he must have gone through as an adult? What must have made him hurt you?
As we can see from the empathy game we played in the beginning of this article, there can be different versions of the story if we put ourselves in the shoes of The Hitter or of The Spiller. Similarly, by developing your cognitive empathy regarding the wrongdoer, you may understand more about his world. You will inevitably take more distance from your pain.
You may even realize you have something in common with your wrongdoer, like Nelson Mandela did. Mandela befriended a white jail guard who “reinforced my belief in the essential humanity of even those who had kept me behind bars”.
6. Nothing personal
When someone hurts you, it says a lot about the level of consciousness of that person at that moment, his interpersonal skills, ideals and goals in life. He didn’t hurt you because of You, he hurt you because you happened to be in his way at that moment.
The slapstick scene we discussed in the beginning is a good example. The Hitter just happened to be in the way of the Spiller. The Spiller didn’t even mean to spill the pan of water in The Hitter’s head. In a similar way, persons with lower levels of consciousness have sometimes no choice but to react in a hurtful way towards the closest people.
In 1995, Mandela invited for lunch a man called Percy Yutar. Yutar was the state prosecutor at the 1963 Rivonia treason trial and asked the death penalty for Mandela. While enjoying their lunch, Mandela told to Yutar that he forgave him because he was only doing his job.
When you suffer a wrong-doing in professional life, it is slightly easier to understand that there is nothing personal because it is your professional identity which is harmed. This is a good time to ask yourself what do you identify yourself with. Do you identify with your job, with your family, with your country, etc?
Think of this scenario in professional life, when your boss criticizes you in front of your team for making a poor report. How would you feel the moment when you hear the criticism? If you take the criticism very personally, it might be an indication that you identify partly with your profession.
Humility is defined as the quality of having a modest view on one’s importance. How you consider humility, as a virtue or as a sign of weak character?
Seneca, a Roman philosopher and dramatist, said “Errare humanum est”, which translates into it is human to make mistakes. Practice humility by reminding yourself that both you and the ones who wronged you are humans, with bigger or smaller imperfections. We thus avoid the feeling of superiority to the faults of those who wronged us and judge less their intentions.
Can you think of an experience when you hurt someone with your words, for example?
By practicing humility, we learn to understand more than we try to make ourselves understood. Madela’s life was an continuous practice of humility in service of his society torn by the racial segregation, as he declares, “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people”.
Finding peace in your heart after a being hurt requires lots of patience. In general, how patient would you say you are, on a scale from 0 to 10? How willing are you to build patience in yourself?
The American poet, Mary Oliver describes in her poem, Patience, how the moon cycle inspired her to be more patient.
What is the good life now? Why,
look here, consider
the moon’s white crescent
rounding, slowly, over the half month to still another
perfect circle —
I used to hurry everywhere,
and leaped over the running creaks.
time enough for all the wonderful things
I could think of to do
in a single day. Patience
comes to the bones
before it takes root in the heart
as another good idea.
I say this
as I stand in the woods
and study the patterns
of the moon shadows …
What or Who could inspire you to learn the ability of being patient when forgiving?
The wound in your heart resulting from being hurt needs your kindness. Embrace your pain as if you embraced a frightened child. Smile to your suffering and validate it. Say to it, “Yes, I know it sucks to suffer but I am here with you.”
Courage in forgiveness means to continue life by being true to yourself, your values and principles. For example, courage may mean to continue life with goodness in your heart despite witnessing human cruelty. Courage may mean praying for the wrong doers to find their peace and start spreading goodness.
Mother Theresa wisely portraits what being courageous in forgiveness means.
“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.”
After losing someone you loved dearly, to be courageous may mean accepting your shuttered inner life and hope for the rebirth of a new you, a better you, as Elizabeth Gilbert writes in the biographical novel Eat Pray Love, “Ruin is a gift, ruin is a way to transformation”
Considering the circumstances where you’ve been hurt, in what ways could you show courage to forgive?
Choose your motivation and preferred ability and let forgiveness begin!
More reading material, useful self-help guides that enable you realize at what stage of forgiveness you are and what to expect next:
Robert Enright’s 4 phases model of forgiveness
Fred Luskin’s Eight nine steps to forgive
Jack Kornfield’s 12 principles of forgiveness