Can we forgive this?
I was recently asked if I thought it was truly possible to forgive those who carry out violent crimes against innocent people. I answered “yes”; I believed we could forgive completely.
Research tells us we are wired for revenge and forgiveness, and we have the capacity to choose either response.
Researchers are specific about how they define forgiveness when studying its effects on our well-being and happiness. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky calls forgiveness “a shift in thinking” toward someone who has harmed you. It has nothing to do with reconciliation, forgetting, excusing or justice. When you are ready, forgiveness is a powerful choice you can make that can lead to greater well-being and relationships. This choice carries with it an intention to heal yourself.
The definition of forgiveness I relate to is the one H. Emilie Cady gave in Lessons in Truth: “To forgive does not simply mean to arrive at a place of indifference to those who do personal injury to us; it means far more than this. To forgive is to give for—to give some actual, definite good in return for evil given.”
My interpretation of her meaning is to give something back that is unexpected in our human experience.
Fred Luskin, Ph.D., has been studying forgiveness for many years. He said forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past. As the director of Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, he has collected many stories that bring hope, understanding and inspiration to those suffering from unimaginable actions. He said in the beginning it was hard to get people to share their stories of forgiveness, but now there is a constant inpouring of stories.
One particular story touched me. It was the story of a man, whom we’ll call Bob, whose wife and two sons were killed by a neighbor who was driving while intoxicated. The neighbor was sent to prison, and after some time, Bob went to see him. Putting ourselves in Bob’s shoes, we can see this took a lot of courage on Bob’s part. Bob took an action toward forgiveness by being willing to talk to his neighbor. The neighbor also had to be willing to see Bob and have the courage to talk to him about the horrible accident. To be able to access this level of courage, a choice had to be made by Bob by opening his heart. We can imagine the question he asked himself was something like, “Will I let the story of this accident define the quality of my life?”
Bob asked the neighbor how his son was handling having his dad in prison.
Asking this question showed Bob empathized with the experience the neighbor was going through. The man said he didn’t know because his son was too young to visit. Bob told the neighbor he knew the heartache of losing a son and wanted to help so the neighbor’s son would have his father back. It took a powerful shift in Bob’s thinking to get past the hurt, anger, resentment and sadness, but he found a way. By being willing to focus on the neighbor’s son, he could begin to release the negative emotions and perhaps create some good from the accident. He could help another dad see his son.
"I am a spiritual being on a spiritual journey, and no person or experience can keep my good from me."Rosemary Fillmore Rhea
I had a similar experience when my daughter died when she was 27 years old. She wasn’t killed by someone, but she left the physical world. I was devastated and in great pain; I could barely get out of bed. I wasn’t supposed to outlive my daughter. With the help of others, I was slowly able to see the choice before me: I could either remain crushed by this experience, or I could make the loss meaningful to me in another way. I knew my daughter wouldn’t want me to stop living because she died, so what was another choice? Was there a way I could shift my thinking? I decided to keep her memory alive for me by doing something each day that would have made her proud. I remember each day how blessed I was to be her mom and I do something loving every day. I imagine something like this was going through Bob’s mind. How could good come out of horror? We humans are resilient and can make extraordinary choices. He chose not to focus on the horror at some point and chose to give support to another dad and his son. What a compassionate choice and bless him for taking this step.
Luskin said in the past forgiveness was limited to religious and political discussions. It has now entered into the daily discussion of psychology, spirituality and emotional well-being. People are starting to realize forgiveness can also help a person’s physical health. Forgiveness is a skill people can practice to lead lives of compassion, peace and service. Luskin continues by saying we are experiencing the consequences of an excessively angry culture. There is much damage done to relationships, people and health through anger, blame and a kind of self-righteous aggression. We live in a culture that is stressed and angry. People are hungering for solutions—a corrective has to emerge. And the most complete, strongest corrective is forgiveness.
Our minds instantly form opinions and characterizations about other people. But our hearts have a different way of knowing.
Can we forgive from our hearts even if our minds don’t want us to? Maria Nemeth believes so. Her book, The Energy of Money, includes a powerful forgiveness exercise. We move toward forgiveness by being willing. Being willing to be led by our hearts and not the chatter from our minds is a powerful way to release our negative assessments of others. Being willing to give good to others, no matter what, is a powerful practice and a skill that will transform anger into something more productive. Who doesn’t have opinions about the way they were raised? Or how their children act? Or why lovers leave them? Let’s be here now, in this moment, creating a better story for a future filled with hope and promise. Lewis Smedes says, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to realize that prisoner is you.” He also says, “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of the past into a hope for the future.”
My hope for the future is that we will change our bitter, angry, resentful stories into ones of great beauty, love, peace and service. We do this by being willing to forgive—by being willing to let our hearts lead us courageously forward, no matter what the chatter of our minds is saying to us. It is an action we take from our authentic self.
Here are some ways to begin your forgiveness process:
- Be willing to forgive; we all have the ability to be willing. By being willing, we set an intention to think differently about some hurt.
- Look at the story of pain, hurt, resentment, and suffering you are carrying around, and ask yourself: Have you had enough?
- See what this story is costing you. Does it allow you to move past all the suffering? Does it keep you frozen in the past? Has it affected the quality of your life? Does it expand your awareness of what is good in life? Is it uplifting?
- Tell the truth—are you willing to let it go completely—just the story you tell? Without the drama of the story, the truth is what did or didn’t happen. Are you willing to not tell it again?
- Set an intention to write a new story of promise, hope, and peace. There are lessons to learn within every tragedy and blessings beyond our story.
You will never regret it. I promise.
This article appeared in in Unity Magazine®.