Our culture has ratcheted up fear to the point of stressing out a generation of children, not to mention their parents. An element of this unnecessarily high anxiety derives from an emphasis on retribution and revenge, as well as a general inability to forgive or to forget. In Mini-Episode 14 of “Distraction,” host Dr. Ned Hallowell discusses the benefits of forgiveness. In this blog, he addresses three elements of forgiveness, from his book Dare to Forgive:
What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a word we all think we can define until we actually try to do it. If you poll a group of 10 people, you will get 10 different definitions. Does forgiveness mean you release a criminal from jail? Does it mean you love the person who hurt you? Does it mean you invite your enemy into your home? Does it mean you return to the man who battered you? Does it mean you offer your coat once a robber has stolen your wallet?
Individual religions define forgiveness differently. My own definition of forgiveness draws upon the Greek root from which the word derives. Originally to forgive meant “to set free.” As I define it, when you forgive someone else, you set yourself free of the hold that anger and resentment exert over you. It does not mean, by my definition, that you set free the criminal, or that you allow the batterer back into your life, or that you love or even like the person who hurt you. It simply means that you do all that you can to let go of the anger and resentment that have built up inside of you, thereby setting yourself free. In this sense, forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself.
It is much more natural for us humans to seek revenge once we have been hurt than to forgive. Indeed, a fundamental law of human nature might resemble one of Newton’s Laws: For every hurt, humans seek an equal and opposite hurt.
It feels good to get even. Revenge stirs our hearts and fires our imaginations. Why forebear? Why not settle the score?
In fact, medical science has proven to us that carrying grudges is bad for a person’s health. It raises the levels of stress hormones and leads to inflammation which in turn leads to heart disease, stroke, and cancer, our leading killers.
And on a spiritual level, the chronically angry person is usually separated from whatever higher power he or she believes in. Short-term anger is good; it is like a sneeze. It clears the air, and serves as a protective measure. But long-term anger pollutes the system of the person who carries it.
How does a person forgive?
Forgiveness is a process, not a moment. A person cannot snap his or her fingers and forgive then and there. The deeper the hurt, the longer the process can take. But if you commit yourself to a path to forgiveness, you will be much better off than if you commit yourself to a path to revenge. Even if you never get there, you will be better off on the path to forgiveness than on the path to revenge.
Forgiveness can be mysterious. It can come when we least expect it, or we can search for years but never find it. Each individual must find his or her won way to forgiveness, but I offer the following four steps to suggest a way:
• First of all, feel the pain. You must acknowledge how you have been hurt.
• Second, talk to selected people you trust and relive and reflect upon what happened. You need to talk it out to help put it into perspective.
• Third, ask yourself the question, “What do I want this pain to turn into?” If your answer is something like peace or growth or wisdom, you are on your way. Now start trying to spit the hook of anger and resentment that is stuck inside you. This can take time. Keep talking to others. Consider how you yourself need forgiveness. Also consider how you might be acting like a fool by holding onto your anger. Keep working on it, and you probably will be able to spit the hook.
• Fourth, take stock, move on, and teach others what you have learned about how to forgive. This world needs help in learning the practical skill of forgiveness. Once you have learned it, teach others what you know. What worked for you will not necessarily work for them, but your example will most surely help.