The Journey of Forgiveness

A path divides into two around some trees - do we choose to forgive or not

Revenge as a Gift of Evolution

It’s all about the stories we tell. After we have been attacked or abused, betrayed or exploited, we can keep our anger alive by rehearsing the offense. We might not be able to control our initial burst of emotion, but we can choose to feed it. By proclaiming our innocence and condemning the other person, we can cling to our resentment for a long time. We can successfully keep forgiveness at bay.

While it’s probably better for us physiologically to soothe our anger, there are times we might want to hold onto it. If we’re trying to get away from an abusive relationship, for instance, or stay determined in the face of injustice, or hold people accountable for their wrongs, forgiving too soon can debilitate us.

Maybe that’s why nature has blessed us with the capacity for revenge. Nearly every society provides some way for us to exact retribution when we’eve been harmed, but not only humans do this. Chimps and macaques retaliate against wrongdoers. [1] So do crows and magpies. [2] This instinct has been around a long time. It has evolutionary value.

For instance, for societies to be stable, we need a way to keep people from bullying the vulnerable, shirking their responsibilities, or abusing power. According to Michael E. McCullough, we’re more likely to take revenge on a perpetrator when they’ve publicly humiliated us, especially if we live in small communities where we can’t escape our witnesses. Today, with social media reaching around the world, walking away has become that much harder. [3] For as long as we’ve been human, we have used our creativity to devise ways to get back at those who hurt us. Sometimes that makes people think twice before hurting us again.

Revenge as a Problem

At other times, it makes them plan how to hurt us back. We might get satisfaction from swearing at someone or beating him up or destroying her reputation with tawdry gossip, but we’re also sowing the seeds for more anger. What might have started as a minor offense to our honor, for instance, can turn into a bloodletting. Retaliation against retaliation is common, which is how we end up with family feuds. Revenge is not all good.

Additionally, it’s not unusual for us to take our hurt and anger out on someone who has nothing to do with what’s really bothering us, as when we come home feeling frustrated about work only to snap at our children. At other times, as when we suffer from emotional wounds that have not healed and slights we have not forgiven, we may find we’re reacting more to our imagination than to what is happening in front of us. Our past can overlay present events like a shroud. This doesn’t always lead to a longing for retribution, but it can cause us to see menace in things that are benign and respond to friends as if they were our enemies. Just because we feel hurt inside doesn’t mean the perpetrator stands before us. The pain we feel might be from the past.

Also, in our lust for revenge, we can lose sight of what really matters. Caught up in a crusade, we may neglect family, friends, career, our own health. If we let ourselves get trapped in a cycle of outrage and retaliation, we often end up betraying our values and losing everything we love. Revenge has its downside.

A Tendency to Forgive

That’s why nature also gave us, and other animals, the capacity to forgive. If we weren’t able to let go of our grievances, we’d do nothing but fight one another, and society would fall apart. Besides, in the long run, forgiveness makes us healthier and happier than do rage and hate. After all, if we’re busy fuming, we have no room in our minds or hearts to appreciate blue skies, good food, gentle touch, friendly laughter. Resentment and bitterness keep us isolated and alone. [4]

But some people have an easier time forgiving than others. That hadn’t occurred to me, however, until one day while working at the hospital, I spoke about it with a nurse. We were talking about her patient, a young man close to death. How it would go for him was unknown, and his mother sat with him in that nether place between life and death.

I mentioned that my then-teenage son had been beaten up and could have died. He survived, and is doing well, but I remember the ache of waiting without hope.

She asked if I had forgiven the person who did it.

Her question surprise me. Of course I had. Indeed, I had never felt angry at him, nor had I wanted him punished. Whatever drove him to do that cruel thing, I knew it had come from his own pain. Why would I not forgive someone who clearly suffered so badly? It was less a decision on my part, however, than something that just happened.

Mindfulness and Forgiveness

It wasn’t that I didn’t love my son. I did; I do. When he hung in that precipice, I longed for him to be well. Yet life does not always give us what we long for, and that has to be okay. To fight such a thing is like trying to fight the ocean. Resentment and revenge are like trying to turn back time or trying to dispel our own sadness by hurting someone else. It doesn’t work that way. We can’t undo the past. Why bother to try?

Besides, while my son was in surgery, all I could focus on was staying in the moment, listening to my breath, to my heart, reminding myself that the future was not yet known. I had no room inside me for blame or anger. There was just the waiting.

After surgery, there was more waiting. I stayed with him during that time, touched him, watched him, hummed to him. All my thought was for him. If I had put energy into vengeance, what would have been left for my child? I would have been far away in some fantasy world. I didn’t want that.

When my son was well, it was over. Why hold onto anger? Why seek revenge? I had other things to focus on in my life. If there had been danger to him or my family, we would have dealt with that, but even then, seething and telling stories of injustice would only get in the way of our doing what must be done. I saw no point in anger at the time, nor do not see it now. Just because there’s no point in something doesn’t mean we don’t experience it, of course, yet anger and revenge were never in my mind.

A Propensity toward Forgiveness

What struck me, though, was what the nurse said to me about it. She told me she would have been furious. She would have wanted to find that perpetrator and destroy him. Only because her faith teaches her that revenge is wrong does she hold in her urges, but her faith cannot take from her that emotional storm. She still feels angry about some things that happened to her.

Because of this, she thought I was a better person than she was. I realized, then, that it was just the opposite. For me, forgiveness comes naturally. I don’t think about it. It just occurs. For her to struggle with the intense emotions she feels is far more good than it is for me to accept what I already accept.

Besides, as we saw above, forgiveness is not always the best response. Everett Worthington, an educator who has researched forgiveness, writes, “when violence or abuse is continuing, it might be more important to stand for justice before forgiveness.” [5]

Yet standing for justice is not the same as seeking revenge. When we strive to make things right, to free the oppressed or hold offenders accountable, we are not so much trying to punish someone as we are trying to change systems, give voice to the disenfranchised, help spouses flee from abusive partners, create fairness and equity in a broken world. When people are being harmed, forgiveness is the least of our worries. What matters then is safety.

Yet when it is time to let go and forgive, research shows that some of us have an easier time of it than others.

A path divides into two around some trees - do we choose to forgive or not
Photo by Oliver Roos

Forgiveness and Our Personalities

Researchers have identified five personality traits we all share, though we all express them in different ways. They are agreeableness, neuroticism, extroversion, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. Some say that humility should be added to this list. All six of these traits are correlated with how likely we are to forgive. Twin studies show that these personality traits are perhaps 40-60% inheritable, although studies on other adults indicate that percentage might be inflated. To some extent, however, we are born who we are, and this impacts how easily we forgive. [6]

Agreeableness and neuroticism most influence our capacity to forgive. An agreeable person is friendly, compassionate, and ignores small slights. Highly neurotic people, however, are emotionally reactive and tend to ruminate and worry. They’re less resilient and less confident than those who are neurotic. Humility, as well, is highly correlated with forgiveness, probably because humility reminds us that we, too, are imperfect. Is it fair to judge others for the worst thing they have done when we would not wish to be so judged?

To a lesser degree, extroverted people forgive more often than introverted ones, perhaps because relationships matter more to them. Conscientious people, those who are dutiful and self-disciplined, forgive a little more easily than those who are not, as do those whose openness to experience makes them curious about the world, eager for new ideas, sensitive to beauty, and interested in learning.

Additionally, as Worthington notes, our environment affects our tendency to forgive. If we grew up with secure attachments to caregivers, or if we enjoy stable relationships as adults, we will find forgiveness easier, and a strong self-esteem allows us more easily to forgive. [7]

Forgiveness Modeled

We can take little credit for how well we forgive or don’t. Not only are we born with personalities that make us more or less able to forgive, but we also have life experiences that shape who we are, enhancing or eroding that tendency.

Though I did not realize it at the time, my father taught me something of forgiveness. So far as I remember, he didn’t use the term, nor did he try to teach me what forgiveness meant, yet he modeled it.

I was less than ten years old when I noticed that staff ignored him when he tried to check into a hotel or get a table at a restaurant, though patrons who came in after us were served. As a German Jew, he had skin a little darker than your average white man, and his features didn’t look quite “American.” Perhaps that was behind the poor service he received. Regardless of why it happened, I finally asked him, “Why do you put up with that?”

He shrugged and said, “It doesn’t matter. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

We never spoke of it again, but he remained patient and polite, and finally he would be helped. It seems he never took the insults seriously, and he never held a grudge.

Nor did he speak much of the past. When he did, he showed no resentment. Though he and his family lived through the trauma of the Holocaust, and though he blamed that for his father’s early death and his mother’s bitterness, he seemed more philosophical, perhaps sad, than angry. He helped me understand that the past is the past, and you have to let it go. That is an important step toward forgiveness.

Learning to Forgive

Some of us have genes that make forgiving easy. Others have upbringings that enhance our self-esteem or were fortunate to have forgiveness modeled for us. But only some of us have been given such a life. The rest of us have traits, and experiences, and relationships that incline us more toward resentment and the lust for revenge than for the letting go of past hurts.

Either way, it’s not hopeless. We can learn to forgive. Not that we always should forgive, but the steps toward forgiveness help us assess whether or not we are ready to do so.

A number of educators have devised systems to guide us when we’re ready. REACH, designed by Worthington, includes these steps: Recall the hurt, Empathize with the offender, offer your forgiveness as an Altruistic gift, Commit yourself to forgiving, and Hold onto the fact that you have let go of the hurt that once bound you to anger and resentment. [8]

Robert D. Enright developed a four-step approach to forgiveness, one taught in a classroom setting. First, the participants “uncover” the story of what happened and how it impacted their lives. Next, they learn about forgiveness so they can make an informed decision whether to forgive or not. If they choose to do so, they “decide” to commit to the process. Then they “work” at understanding the offender, considering that person’s motives and life history, recognizing that he or she is a human being with dreams, hopes, and limitations like themselves. At last there comes a time of “deepening” when the participants create meaning out of their suffering. [9]

Grief and Forgiveness

That is similar to the grieving process. Indeed, before we can forgive, we must grieve what we have lost. In this way, forgiveness heals. It allows us to move forward rather than stay lost in the past.

To forgive, however, we must also face our pain. Loss hurts, and there are so many things we can lose, like our belongings, loved ones, money, jobs, homes, hope, dreams, our understanding of who we are. If our body has been harmed, we might lose some function, but we definitely lose our sense of safety. Once we are injured, once the important pieces of our lives are lost, our image of the world changes. We lose our innocence.

This hurts. We feel sad, scared, lonely, vulnerable, empty, despairing, abandoned. Sometimes our lust for revenge is a kind of protection. Rushing of to avenge a wrong makes us feel powerful and in control. Indeed, it takes courage to let go of this quest and commit instead to forgiveness, for forgiveness requires that we face our inner selves. It requires that we journey into our minds and hearts and acknowledge what we find there. Then we have the opportunity to tell a different story. Instead of making ourselves the victim and the perpetrator evil, we can tell a story that makes us whole.

The Stories We Tell

Stories of wholeness are ones of heroism and survival, of the kindness that allowed us to get through the worst of times. They include an understanding of the divine, of life itself. They invite us to feel gratitude for the gifts of angels, love, grace. As we process our grief and loss, we may discover peace in our hearts. Hopefully, a new and more beautiful self will arise out of our suffering. Meaning will unfold, allowing us to carry on, living in the present rather than the past.

Forgiveness is a journey. It can take an instant or a lifetime. Sometimes forgiveness occurs in stages, each one deeper and richer than the last.

When my mother was six, her mother went away to graduate school, leaving her alone with her father. Though he was kind and gentle, he had no idea how to play with a child and almost never spoke. My mother blamed him for her pain and loneliness. In her way, she forgave him, but not until she was ninety and lost in a moderate dementia did she fully let go of her hurt.

One day, when she complained to me about him, I suggested to her that he had Asperger’s syndrome, that he loved her and had done the best he could. Amazed by this possibility, she instantly forgave him, opening her heart and understanding him in a different way. The pain of a lifetime dissolved.

No matter how young or old we are, we can change our stories. If we choose, we can forgive a little better and a little more with each tale we tell. We might find that the hurt we clung to for so long has softened and healed. This is the gift forgiveness brings.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. de Waal, Frans, “Morally Evolved: Primate Social Instincts, Human Mortality, and the Rise and Fall of ‘Veneer Theory,’” http://www.victorkumar.org/uploads/6/1/5/2/61526489/de_waal_-_primates_and_philosophers__excerpt_.pdf, accessed 5/28/21.
  2. Castro, Joseph, “Grudge-Holding Crows Pass on Their Anger to Family and Friends,” Discover, June 30, 2011, https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/grudge-holding-crows-pass-on-their-anger-to-family-and-friends, accessed 5/28/21.
  3. McCullough, Michael E., “The Forgiveness Instinct,” Greater Good Magazine, March 1, 2008, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/forgiveness_instinct, accessed 5/25/21.
  4. See Carter, Christine, “Forgive and . . . Feel Happier,” Greater Good Magazine, May 12, 2008, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/forgive_andfeel_happier, accessed 5/29/21.
  5. Worthington, Everett, “The Science of Forgiveness,” John Templeton, April 2020, https://www.templeton.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Forgiveness_final.pdf, accessed 5/29/21, 23.
  6. See Power, R. A. and M. Pluess, “Heritability Estimates of the Big Five Personality Traits Based on Common Genetic Variants,” Transl Psychiatry, vol. 5,7, e604, July 14, 2015, doi:10.1038/tp.2015.96, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5068715/, accessed 5/29/21.
  7. See Worthington and “Five Big Personality Traits,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits, accessed 5/29/21.
  8. Worthington 58.
  9. Ibid 4-5.

Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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