- Mental Health
Benefits of Forgiveness
Definitions of Forgiveness
I have been interested in forgiveness for many years, fascinated by how some people can forgive murderers, while others seem unable to forgive the smallest transgression. And just as there are many differing levels of forgiveness, so are there many different definitions of what it means to forgive.
Below are some ways people see forgiveness:
Which of the definitions opposite is closest to your view of forgiveness?
Which of the six definitions most accurately describes how you see forgiveness?
- Telling the other person you have forgiven them – even though you still feel angry at what they have done.
- Believing you should forgive someone because your religion says this is the correct thing to do. Saying you have forgiven someone out of a sense of religious duty.
- Forgiving the person, but not the act. (For example, saying murder is wrong, but the person was “not in their right mind” so you forgive them.)
- Forgiving the person’s soul, but not condoning their action.
- Seeing what was originally considered an offence in new light – this could be realizing that there has been a misunderstanding, or it could be that now you now consider the original offence to be a gift that has brought new awareness or understanding.
- Letting go of past resentment and hurt and living life focused on the present.
When is forgiveness appropriate?
Although you do not need to belong to any religion to forgive, most of the literature on forgiveness is by people of faith.
Again there are many differing opinions about whether forgiveness is even appropriate. Most Christians believe that Jesus says they should forgive others. Some people of the Jewish and Muslim faiths believe that forgiveness can only be granted if the offender repents. Yet others say that we cannot expect God’s forgiveness if we do not forgive.
Some people say that you can forgive anything that happened in the past, but should not forgive an offence that is ongoing.
In most religious contexts, the focus is on the ethical or moral aspects of forgiveness – whether forgiveness is right or wrong, whether or not someone needs to have repented for forgiveness to be granted, whether it is possible to forgive when the offence is ongoing, and whether it is even possible for humans to grant forgiveness. For example, Mary Fairchild, a Christian minister quotes Colossians: Forgive as the Lord forgave you, and Dr Muzammil Siddiqi, an Islamic scholar, cites this passage of the Quran as evidence for forgiving: whosoever forgives and makes amends, his reward is upon God.
Below, an Islamic leader explains the importance of forgiveness
Forgiving to Heal Ourselves
In several cases where people forgave the murderer of a close relative, they also talk of their religious belief that it was correct to forgive. If they are Christians, they often say that Jesus says we “should forgive.” Watching video clips of people who forgave murderers, I was struck by how in every case they also say that the weight of not forgiving and of harboring anger is too much of a burden to carry. In the video below, Walter Everett, a pastor whose son was murdered, says, “If I choose to focus my anger on Mike [his son’s killer] for the rest of my life, then he controls my life.”
He also asked himself: “Am I going to be continuing to live with the same kind of anger that these people have?”
This is also in line with the Buddhist way of thinking on forgiveness; that when we forgive we transform ourselves. Forgiveness is not seen so much as connected to goodness as a way of healing ourselves. The healing aspect of forgiveness has been extensively studied in recent years, and while some studies are still in their infancy, the overall consensus is that forgiveness is good for you.
This man is glad he forgave his son's killer
Some Benefits of Forgiveness
Studies have found that forgiveness can lessen feelings of anxiety and depression. It improves ability to cope with stress and gives a feeling of being closer to others. People who forgive are overall happier and more satisfied with their lives than those who don’t.
When we are tense and anxious our muscles contract. Some studies have found that when people forgive it lowers blood pressure and improves heart rate.
Warren Jones and Kathleen Lawler of the University of Tennessee conducted extensive studies, and although they caution that more research is needed, their findings suggest that forgiving does lead to better health.
Studies at the Luther University in Iowa, found that health of young people who were unforgiving did not appear to be affected, but by middle age the link between forgiveness and health becomes apparent. This is hardly surprising, since it’s likely that 20 years of a tension will affect a body more than 2 years would do.
From the film Invictus: Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela explains why forgiveness is freedom
Cancer and forgiveness
While randomized controlled studies are still few regarding cancer and forgivingness there are many, many anecdotes. These anecdotes almost all follow the same pattern – people who had previously held onto grudges and then forgave spontaneously healed. Dr Bernie Siegel, a former Yale Medical School surgeon is frequently quoted on this. He describes how 57 patients gave up resentments they had been holding because they wanted to make the most of what life they had left – and then their cancer disappeared.
I think it is very important to recognize that this does not mean people with cancer are less forgiving than other people. It could simply mean that this is how their bodies react to stress, and someone else's could react differently.
A study at Ohio State University found that in women with breast cancer who were highly stressed natural killer cells were less effective – these are the cells that detect and kill cancer cells. Since holding onto resentment is known to create stress, from this study some people conclude that forgiving could reduce cancer risk. The researchers, Barbara Andersen and Jeff Grabmeier do not make this claim, but do say, “Psychological interventions may play an important role, not just in improving quality of life, but also improving the health of breast cancer patients.” Patients who were given training in relaxation and stress reduction showed better immune function after 18 weeks. They do not say the training was specifically in forgiveness, and the research is still ongoing.
Forgiveness by Others
While being forgiven by someone else has a positive effect, researchers at the University of Michigan found that asking someone else for forgiveness actually brought more rather than less distress.
This doesn’t surprise me, because asking someone to forgive you means you are looking for a specific outcome, or wanting to control how the other person responds. Furthermore, if we ask for someone else’s forgiveness because we haven’t forgiven ourselves, what we are really doing is not saying sorry so much as seeking approval. If, on the other hand we have forgiven ourselves, whether someone else forgives us is entirely their concern and we can make amends without expecting anything in return. This strengthens us.
Benefits of Self-Forgiveness
When reading about the benefit of forgiveness, you could easily start to believe that you should forgive and to feel angry with yourself for not doing so. But research suggests that blaming yourself is even more likely to lead to poor health than blaming others does. Further, forgiving others because you blame yourself is not true forgiveness. Both positions are simply two sides of the same coin, and when we blame ourselves it generally feels so unbearable that we then try to alleviate that by turning the blame back on others.
Although I am not aware of any formal studies into cancer and self-forgiveness, Lawrence LeShan is a psychologist who has worked with cancer patients for several decades and his conclusion is that cancer patients generally do not feel lovable as themselves. Colin Tipping, author of Radical Forgiveness, also cites self-hatred as a cause of cancer gives anecdotal evidence of clients who have forgiven themselves using his method and healed the disease.
Forgiveness or Forgivingness?
What several researchers have noted is that for forgiveness to be beneficial it needs to be at an emotional rather than thinking level. Saying, “I forgive you,” is not enough. It is the level of a person’s forgivingness – general capacity to let go of resentment and the desire for revenge – rather than forgiving individual incidents that is likely to lead to benefits.
An interesting way to approach forgiveness,
Pradervand draws inspiration from sources as diverse as the Bible and Taoism, and gives suggestions for how to bless the people in your life.
How Do You Forgive?
Let’s return to Walter Everett, the pastor who forgave his son’s murderer. What is particularly interesting about his story is that he spent a year filled with rage. Then, when he wrote a letter to his son’s killer, Mike Carlucci, he first of all described the toll the murder had had upon him and his family. Finally he wrote, “ I forgive you.”
This type of forgiveness is hugely different from simply saying, “I forgive you,” in an attempt to do what is “right.” For most people forgiveness is a process, and often begins with anger. For it to be real and lasting, forgiveness has to also include self-forgiveness, and that includes acknowledging your true feelings.
On the Forgiveness Project website there are many stories of people who forgave serious crimes against themselves or their loved ones. In every story I have read, the people first felt anger and hate. They acknowledged their hurt and in some cases, told the offender of it.
Colin Tipping, who runs seminars on forgiveness around the world, says that forgiveness comes “not from effort but from being open to experiencing it.”
So perhaps the willingness of many Christians to forgive because they think it is the right thing to do means they become open to experiencing it on a deeper level. If on the other hand they believe they deserve punishment for not forgiving, they are looking at life from blaming viewpoint, and so unlikely to be open to experiencing forgiveness, no matter how much they may think they should.
Is forgiveness a moral decision?
I’d like to return to the question of when forgiveness is “right.” While it’s easy to see why many people believe the offender should repent and change first, in fact, forgiveness is often what leads to the offender letting go of a defensive position and then feeling remorse. On the Forgiveness Project Rebecca DeMauro, whose daughter was murdered, describes how watching video clips of victims’ families confront a mass murderer led her to let go of her rage and resentment. As almost all the relatives told the murderer how much they hated him his face remained stony. Then one man said, “I forgive you.” The murderer began to weep. And Rebecca knew it was time to stop hating her daughter’s murderer too.
Mike Carlucci also talks of the how when he read Walter Everett’s words of forgiveness he started crying because no one had every said that to him before in his life.
Fortunately most of us do not have to deal with forgiving a murderer, but if this is the effect forgiveness has on murderers, it is not also likely to have a similar effect on those we feel resentment towards in our everyday lives? Certainly my experience has been that when I let go of resentment relationships improve beyond anything I could have imagined.
The benefits of forgiving even while an offence is being committed
Several years ago Pierre Pradevand felt forced out of his job and carried persistent resentment towards the people he held responsible. He then realized that his life was miserable because of his resentment, and decided to bless the people he had previously hated. With sincerity, he wished for them fulfillment and happiness. He felt lighter and freer and went on write a book, The Gentle Art of Blessing and to teach this to people around the world.
On his travels people shared their stories of the outcomes of blessing. One of the most astonishing stories is that of a man in Rwanda, whose home was broken into by several attackers who threatened to kill his family. This man, at first felt fear and then decided to bless these attackers. Silently he blessed them, and within minutes their demeanor changed, they calmed down and hurt no one.
Marshall Rosenberg in the book, Nonviolent Communication: a Language of Life, relates several examples of people who expressed empathy with an attacker by reflecting what the person might be feeling or wanting. In each case the attacker gradually calmed down.
In one incident, a woman who worked in a night shelter told an addict no rooms were available, and he threatened her with a knife. She had attended workshops on how to listen for a person’s feelings and needs, so instead of arguing with this man, she let him know she understood that he was angry and wanted to be given a room. He responded by yelling that nobody respected him, and that even though he was an addict he deserved respect. As she focused on his feelings and needs, she came to see that the man was filled with despair and had no idea how to get what he needed. When he had received the empathy he needed he put down his knife and became reasonable.
Forgiveness As A Way Of Life
Forgiving means we are free to let go of the hurt, free to be more focused on what’s here now. Instead of looking at life in terms of “right and wrong,” we can start to see behaviors as attempts to get needs met. This enables us to feel more connected to the humanness within us all, rather than connected to the hurt. It is more peaceful and a more satisfying way to live.
Finally, What Forgiveness Is Not
Forgiveness is not giving in and allowing others to walk all over us. The woman in the night shelter forgave the addict as he attacked her, but she did not get hurt. The man in Rwanda blessed the intruders, but again, he and his family were unharmed. While forgiving someone it is important to ensure that our own needs are also met, and if appropriate this could mean going ahead with legal charges. Or, you could wish for someone to have happiness and fulfillment as Pierre Pradevand did, and choose to keep away from them until they are able to treat you with respect.
Forgiveness requires respect and love for ourselves as well as for the other person.