Presidents Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela were good friends. One day, President Clinton told President Mandela that he was a great man, but he was also a wise politician. Did Mandela have a political agenda when he invited his former jailer to his inauguration, and the former head of the apartheid party to join his cabinet? Did he hate them while he was walking out of the prison for freedom? Mandela replied that he did briefly hate them, but he realized that if he hated them, they would still have him. He wanted to be free, so he let it go. He went on to build a true democracy for South Africa, and brought peace to a grateful nation.
From apartheid in South Africa, to genocide in Rwanda, greed, anger, hatred, and ignorance cause betrayal, and violence of all forms, in all places, at all levels in society, in America, and in other parts of the world. To forgive or not to forgive – that’s not the question. Jesus forgave Peter, and made him head of his church. The Buddha forgave Devadatta, a disciple, who rolled a big rock down the mountain to try to kill him while he was walking below. Forgiving is beneficial in human relations, and its value is supported by scientific evidence. The question is when to forgive – to which there are ample reasons to suggest the sooner the better.
Forgiveness is imbedded in human nature. Everybody wants happiness and inner peace, not suffering. When we have done someone wrong in thought, speech, or action, we want to be forgiven. When someone has done us wrong, that person wants to be forgiven too. When we forgive, we relinquish retribution. It’s a process which frees us from destructive emotions – anger, hatred, vengeance with its cycle of violence, and stress, etc., and their associated suffering. It restores our health, and happiness. It makes it possible to reset relationships on the basis of trust, and cooperation whenever reconciliation is deemed desirable. Forgiveness is not weakness. It’s courageous. It requires wisdom, compassion, equanimity, and enough resilience to embrace suffering. It neither finds excuses for nor minimizes the seriousness of aggression, which violates a person’s dignity and happiness – an inalienable right to every human being, everywhere. In forgiving, we take the necessary steps – including setting boundaries – to defend our safety and wellbeing, but we neither condone the acts nor condemn the actor.
As President Mandela demonstrated, forgiveness is a gift that we give ourselves and others. The ease with which we give determines our degree of happiness. How do we forgive? For some people it comes naturally. Richard Moore of Ireland was blinded by a rubber bullet when he was 10 years old. He said he never felt a moment of anger toward the British soldier who fired the shot. He forgave the soldier; they became good friends. He later found meaning in life by closing down his business and setting up Children in Crossfire to help those who are caught in conflicts across the world. For other people, forgiveness is a transformation process – a skill, which can be cultivated. Extensive scientific studies have been conducted on this subject. I’ve selected three recent studies as the basis for our discussion.
THE FORGIVING BRAIN
The first study investigated reappraisal forgiveness using fMRI. In reappraisal, the subject reinterprets what happened in more favorable term to reduce suffering. There was strong correlation between forgiveness and subjective relief. Forgiveness altered neural activations in the regions of the brain implicated in perspective taking, empathy, and emotion regulation. The connectivity in these regions drives the forgiveness process.
The second fMRI study compared reappraisal with Compassion meditation. Healthy young adults learned compassion meditation online 30 minutes/day for six weeks. Compassion meditation increased altruistic behavior outside of the training, with associated altered neural activation in the regions implicated in empathy, reward, and emotion regulation. Both processes are effective for forgiving. However, reappraisal reduces negative affect while Compassion meditation increases positive affect.
The third study demonstrated that forgiveness improved future cardiovascular health, blood pressure, and wellbeing both for healthy people, and cardiac patients.
THE FORGIVENESS TRANSFORMATION PROCESS
I propose the following five guidelines:
1. Embracing Suffering
Forgiveness takes time, especially when grieving or anger is strong. The process also depends on other contributing factors, such as the victim’s physical, and mental health, forgiveness skill, and social support, and the perpetrator’s repentance. These factors must be assessed to determine whether medical, spiritual, and therapeutic help is also needed. Although forgiveness can’t be rushed, the sooner the process starts, the quicker is the healing. It’s fruitless to wait for an apology, which may never come, while our wellbeing languishes under the yoke of the perpetrator.
For loving-kindness, and compassion to heal our mind and body we embrace suffering as a mother embraces her child. Since the suffering inside us is already difficult enough to handle, we make every possible effort to refrain from thoughts, speeches, and acts which would increase it. The first step would be to stop disparaging the perpetrator, and blaming ourselves. Self-referential ruminating inflames suffering like pouring fuel to the fire. Mindfulness meditation is the antidote to rumination.
2. Understanding the Perpetrator’s Motive
As forgiving is associated with sympathy, it’s necessary for the victim to understand the perpetrator’s state of mind and motive from his perspective to empathize with him. Perspective-taking skills enhance the ability to empathize. Sometimes, it’s not possible to establish a motive, but those who harm others carry a lot of hurt within themselves. 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 students, six adult staff members, and himself at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. He had also shot and killed his mother before he went to the school. Lanza’s mother was a single mom who took him target shooting to keep him company. He received minimal help for his mental illness, and he was living in increasing, total isolation. To this day, although his motive is still unknown, it’s apparent he had a lot of suffering. Understanding him this way does not lessen his crime in any way, but it makes it easier to forgive. Robbie Parker, father of 6-year old victim Emilie Parker, was the first parent to speak out. He reached out to Lanza’s family “I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you, and I want you to know that our family, and our love, our support goes out to you as well”. Choking back tears, he implored the rest of the community “not to turn the tragedy into something that defines us, but something inspires us to do be better, to be more compassionate, and humble people”. There was no mention of forgiveness for Lanza. But, as time passed, his wife, Alissa, said “I have to choose to forgive him again and to grieve and then I have to choose to let go”. In Buddhist teaching, compassion is global, and the benefactor and beneficiary are equals. This also holds true in forgiveness. We respect the dignity of human beings equally. A common form of harm in the work place is betrayal through greed, insecurity, jealousy, and ego, etc. All of these situations apply to relations between nations as well.
3. Selecting a Process
Select a process which is suitable for your situation. While reappraisal is an effective strategy, it has some disadvantages. It decreases negative effect, but too much empathic concern can result in burnout. Compassion meditation is effective, increases positive affect, and does not induce burnout. It takes only six weeks to learn. People who meditate also reap the added benefits from mindfulness meditation in treating rumination, besides improving emotional self-awareness. On the other hand, not everybody likes to meditate. It is not easy to learn to meditate in the midst of severe anxiety, and depression. I must add, though, you don’t need to meditate to learn and practice compassion.
Forgiveness requires resilience. Regress is part of the process. It’s helpful to reflect on the triggers, savor progress made to build confidence, and transform the emotions as previously described. We remind ourselves that we hit a bump on the road, not a ditch, keep focus on good times, practice gratefulness in life, keep hope alive, and find new meaning in life.
5. Self- Forgiveness
If we have done others wrong, we must apologize sincerely to the victim and ask for forgiveness, regardless whether this person is still around, and we forgive ourselves. In apologizing, we also commit to transform the unwholesome seeds within us so that we avoid repeating the same mistakes. This is the way we transform our karma. If we fall short of our own expectation, the path for self-forgiveness is self-compassion.
Forgiveness is a transformation process. It enriches our life, makes it whole, and brings about significant health benefits. It can be cultivated through practice. Compassion meditation offers the best benefits. If one is not amenable to meditation, reappraisal will be effective, but will not increase positive affect. The alternative to forgiveness, unforgiving, is to encounter the dark side of neuroplasticity. Every time we ruminate, the wound gets deeper, our life becomes more broken.
I’ll leave you with this picture of a beautifully repaired- bowl using the art of Kintsugi.
May Your Art Make Life Whole and Beautiful!
Page 3, There was strong correlation between forgiveness and subjective relief…the connectivity between these regions drive the forgiveness process: Riccardi et al, How the Brain Heals Emotional Wounds: The Functional Neuroanatomy of Forgiveness, Frontiers in Human Neurosciences, 2013; 7: 839.
Page 3-4, Healthy young adults learned compassion meditation on line 30 minutes/day for six weeks…while compassion increases positive affect: Helen Y. Weng et al, Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering, Psychological Science 2013 July 1: 24(7): 1171-1180.
Private correspondence with Helen Y. Weng, PhD, March 15, 2016.
Page 4, Forgiveness promotes cardiovascular health…and cardiac patients: Ross M. May et al, Effects of Angers and Trait Forgiveness on Cardiovascular in Young Females, The American Journal of Cardiology, July 1, 2014, Vol 114, Issue 1 , pages 47-52.
Page 5, 20-year old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 students, six adult staffers, and himself at Sandy Hook elementary school…:Connecticut’s Office of Child Advocate report, 2014.
Kintsugi Bowl picture: media.tumbler.com. Layout by Eva M Zsigmond.
General Reference, Robert Enright, 8 Keys To Forgiveness, Norton