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  Science of forgiveness maandag 18 december
Essay on the art and science of forgiveness - 20-12-03


As Alexander Pope famously said, "To err is human, to forgive divine." If forgiveness is so important, why is it so hard to do?
 
Introduction
All major religious traditions and wisdoms extol the value of forgiveness. Forgiveness has been advocated for centuries as a balm for hurt and angry feelings. While these teachings are often based on exhortations to forgive, limited practical training is provided on how to actually forgive an offender. Recent science also suggests that forgiveness can lead to improvement in psychological and sometimes physical health. The results show a relationship between forgiveness and decreased anger, depression and anxiety, and stress as well as enhanced well being, including peace of mind. Yet effective means for engendering forgiveness as a way of dealing with life's problems has often been lacking.
 
Traditional wisdom on forgiveness
Let me quote from the traditional wisdom literature while highlighting various religions:
 
-Hazrat Inayat Kahn the soefy mystic: “If somebody behaves selfishly towards one, one may take it naturally, because it is human nature to be selfish, one should take oneself to task and try to improve. There is not anything one should not be ready to tolerate, and there is nobody whom one should not forgive”.
-This is similar to the prayer of mother Theresa:” People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centred: forgive them anyway.” The Buddha, as a superb psychologist ,saw through the workings of the human minds and stated:” Hatred never ceases with hatred, hatred only ceases with love”
-Jesus, while experiencing a painful death: Father forgive them, they know not what they do. One may ask whether, “there was anything else in Christ’s life but forgiveness and tolerance?(Kahn1999)
-This conforms to what is written in the Bagavat Gita ,one of the Hindu sacred scriptures about people who have true knowledge are described as” being free from pride, gentle, forgiving, upright full of inner strengths and self–controlled”. Along the same lines of Hindu thinking, the best and highest in all of us, Sri Krishna, is compared to an ocean of forgiveness ,patience and compassion(Easwaran 1979 pp231,vol2)

The similarity of these profound sayings from various religions is at least striking.
 
Leadership literature on forgiveness
The necessary characteristics of true leadership include not over-acting to negative behaviour, criticism or human weakness. The believe in other people’s potential flows from an abundance mentality and sustains the ability to forgive others. In other words they realize that behaviour and potential are two different things(Covey1990). Thus one may discuss behaviour but only with proper respect for the potential of the specific person to listen to his conscience, to change and do good.
 
Definition of forgiveness
The definition of forgiveness used in the Stanford forgiveness project( Thoresen, Luskin 2003) holds that forgiveness consists primarily of : 1, taking less personal offence,2, reducing anger and the blaming of the offender, and3, developing increased understanding of situations that often lead to feeling hurt and angry. Forgiveness can be thought of as a transforming experience that fosters more positive emotions and less negative thoughts about others as well as oneself .Forgiveness is the means to release yourself and perhaps others ,too ,from an experience of hurt, injury, wounding, suffering ,humiliation or pain that has already passed.(Dowrick1997,Seligman2002)
 
The need for forgiveness

When we are angry, we are punishing our selves, anger is its own punishment (the compassionate Buddha)
The unhealthy effect on the mind of anger ,hostility and resentment is so great that it can cause far reaching damage even on the physical level. One study (Williams 1993) summarizes the harmful effects of anger, bitterness and resentment on cardiovascular health as well as on interpersonal relationships. Specifically dwelling on trespass produces increased cardiac disease and more anger (Seligman2002pp69) More then time urgency, competitiveness and the suppression of anger, the overt expression of hostility turns out to be the real culprit(Seligman 2002,pp69) From a body of work demonstrating harmful effects of unmanaged anger and hostility on health emerges the need for forgiveness. Research has suggested that heart attack patients were often able to demonstrate less anger and hostility and thus reduce morbidity when they acted in a more forgiving way. They also reported improved overall quality of life. Thus forgiveness training may have important implications for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. Or generally speaking, in order to keep the our body healthy we must first and foremost cultivate the virtue of forgiveness.
 
The healing powers of forgiveness
Studies on forgiveness show that learning how to forgive improves our emotional and physical well-being. Holding onto resentment or hurt disrupts our personal and professional lives, leads to bad decision-making, and releases stress chemicals that can have a negative effect on our health. Yet all too many of us clutch our grievances and give away our power by remaining victims of the people who have hurt us. Learning how to forgive enables us to move beyond being a victim to a life of improved health and contentment(Seligman 2002). In practical terms, forgiveness enables us to:-decrease feelings of hurt ,reduce the physical symptoms of stress,*( including backache, muscle aches, dizziness, and upset stomach) -Increase our optimism and reduce long-term experience of anger as a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease It is most important to note that forgiveness does not mean condoning and justifying the behaviour of those who have hurt us. It is not surrender, rather it is a conscious decision to cease to harbour resentment.(Dworick1997) Forgiveness is a choice that we make to release our past and disentangle our self from the person who has hurt us and heal our present.
 
Why not forgive?
Forgiveness deeply offends the rational mind (Dowrick1997). Often we see no reason why, from our own pain and darkness, we should summon compassion and insight for that person, as well as for ourselves. The suffering that precedes the need to forgive is never welcome .Furthermore we allow our anger and anxiety to pollute the present moment reducing our chances to make a clear headed decision on what is best for us and the other person in the long-term. Jungian analyst James Hillman in his essay “Betrayal” says beautifully :”We must be quite clear that forgiveness is no easy matter. If the ego has been wronged, the ego cannot forgive just because it should, notwithstanding all the wider context of love and destiny. The ego is kept vital by its amour –propre, its pride and honour(Dowrick1997) "Ignorance being one of the main factors which prevents us from forgiving, it is at the same time one of the most wide spread causes of violence in our society.." So may be there are various reasons why we have difficulty in forgiving, for example , negligence, ignorance, weakness and temptation. What is needed in order to grow strong and knowledgeable, kind and loving is intense reflection, contemplation, resolution and action. In order to change ill-will for good-will, love for hatred in other words in order to Forgive one needs enormous needs inner strengths including the power to listen to one’s inner conscience, the will to find the best mode of action and the strength To act upon this.
 
Forgiveness training

He that has not learned to forgive ,has lost the greatest source of joy in life, (St Francis)
Forgiveness or in other words, the art of yielding for the sake of love, is precious. So is the art of asking for forgiveness by expressing sorrow for the pain you have caused-and meaning it (Dowrick 1997).The good news is that both arts can be learned, as all other psychological arts are learned: by watching, reflecting and choosing how you will act.(Dowrick1997).However, we must take responsibility for our selves, with all the discomfort that it may imply(Dowrick1997). In order to take responsibility, we must develop awareness of ourselves ,who we are, what we are doing as well as the situation at hand and the grant overall picture of life in which we play our part. When the ego is silent, conscience can come into play .Only then are we becoming capable of choice and thus can become responsible for our own thoughts feelings and actions. Only then will we be able to respond in a way which seem contrary, contrary to our own ego-driven conditioned responses and release the capacity to forgive. We are pushed by instincts and pulled by values(Frankl V.)In order to forgive, it helps when one captures the profound relationship between unity and love so perfectly described by Gabrielle Lord:” This is where real love starts to grow, in the dawning truth that you are the same as me. Not the same person, but the same in your unchanging spirit-having the same need for respect, the same longing for peace, the same yearning for acceptance and love, and having the same fears and suffering and loss. Published studies on forgiveness have shown the importance of forgiveness training on coping with a variety of psychologically painful experiences. Learning to forgive past wrongs defuses the bitterness that makes satisfaction impossible(Seligman 200e)Studies have been conducted with adolescents who felt neglected by their parents, with women who were abused as children, with elderly women who felt hurt or uncared for, with males who disagreed with their female partners' decisions to have abortions and with college students who had been hurt. These studies showed that when given forgiveness training of varying lengths and intensities, participants could become less hurt and become more able to forgive their offenders(Luskin 2001) Thorensen also found less offence ,revision of the story in a more objective perspective after forgiveness training resulting in less anger, less stress, more optimism, better reported health and more forgiveness ensued. One of the leading investigators on forgiveness describes 5 steps that may lead us to the sometimes seemingly impossible goal of forgiveness. Recall the hurt objectively, empathise with the perpetrator, give the gift of forgiveness and commit to it in public and hold on to forgiveness in spite of the memories which are coming back.(Worthington)

Forgiveness may well rely on our capacity to see the situation from the other persons point of view. and to withdrawing our attention from the past. Forgiveness leaves the memory intact but removes and even transforms the sting(Seligman 2002)

To understand all, is to forgive all(Voltaire) “Forgiveness “,teaches the Course in miracles,” paints a picture of the world where suffering is over, loss becomes impossible and anger makes no sense. Attack is gone , and madness has an and.” Meditation may be an instrument that gives an immense power to gain control over our feelings and to become patient and forgiving when we all our conditioning is crying out for an eye and a tooth (Easwaran 1979, 134,2) Moreover, we need to carefully select our role models as well. As the Tao states so clearly but contrary to what the media seem to bring to us:” Those who hold to gentleness are called strong” What ever the media seem to bring to us, we still can not help being impressed by someone who can forgive, who can forget the harm done to him or turn his back on his own profit and prestige for the welfare of all.(Easwaran 44 Gita part 1)
 
How does forgiveness work?
One explanation for why forgiveness may be beneficial for physical health is that it deepens and promotes interpersonal relationships. Another possibility is that forgiveness is a form of religious expression or may be an indication of a positive spiritual experience. There exist a number of studies that attest to the beneficial effect that positive relationships and good social ties have on indices of physical health. There are other studies that implicate social support with decreased mortality. There is also a group of studies that demonstrate that people who have strong religious affiliations, or use religious coping, have de-creased mortality. Patience and forgiveness are not just moral qualities, but forces for unity that are latent in all of us(Easwaran267Gita 2) What is intriguing about this research is that even people who are not depressed or particularly anxious can obtain the improved emotional and psychological functioning that comes from learning to forgive. This suggests that forgiveness may enable people who are functioning adequately to feel even better. While the research is limited, a picture is emerging that forgiveness may be important not just as a religious practice but as a component of a comprehensive vision of health.
 
Forgiveness in the face defeat
Brian Keenan was a terrorist prisoner in Beirut, and he describes how despite of his monstrous circumstances he moved beyond self pity, beyond judgement of his captors and beyond his own need to judge them, through his rare, salutary recognition that:” we are all creatures in need of love”.

In the concentration camp of Ravensbruck, this extra ordinary prayer was left by the body of a dead child:

”Oh Lord remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us: Remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering-our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility. our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this, and when they come to judgement let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness.
 
Forgiveness in daily life
Family, friends ,work every relationship is an opportunity to develop the virtue of forgiveness in daily life, it is the ideal situation in which to learn this art. Easwaran has commented extensively on the importance of forgiveness in daily life. Here follows a number of his remarka together with quotes from others.

Forgiveness is important in any relationship(Easwaran) Instead of criticising people that irritate you focus all your attention on what is best in them(e84,2)in terms of selflessness ,generousness. Amazingly, it is just this kind of response that support, draws out, and strengthens these very qualities(Easwaran85 Gita2) Practically never dwell on the negative, but always respect the potential in other people and help them realise that potential through your support Give people always a second chance. The guiding principle is mercy, not revenge ,getting even.(SELIGMAN) . No child should have to wonder what the chances are that we will forgive them(Easwaran309Gita2)The greatest gifts we can give are forgiveness and patience(Easwaran 186Gita2) Forgiveness does not mean making ourselves a doormat. Letting people take undue advantage of us is not helpful neither for them nor for us. Instead we can learn to bear with them and at the same time improve the situation with their help.(Easwaran205Gita2)

Whatever lies at the heart of forgiveness is discovered only through years of patient endurance (Dowrick1997) Would you still further weaken and break apart what is already broken and hopeless? (Course in Miracles).Or would you not prefer to heal what has been broken ,and join in making whole what has been ravaged by separation and disease?(course in miracles)

If we are able to transcend our hurt ego and grow, forgiveness may even become one of our signature strengths on our way to authentic happiness(Seligman 2002)
 
Conclusion
Failing to reconcile unresolved anger and blame for past hurt or offence can cause immeasurable physical and emotional health problems in people's lives. Forgiveness may be viewed as an analogous example of the ability to see one's life through a positive or healing lens. While the research is only suggestive, it may be that all of us could benefit from training in managing life's inevitable hurts and using forgiveness to make peace with the past. In this way, forgiveness may be, as the traditional wisdom has been claiming all along, a rich path to greater peace and understanding that also has both psychosocial and physiological value.
 
References

- Khan Hazrat Inayat: The Way of Illumination .Soefi library.
- Kahn Hazrat Inayat the heart of sufism1999

- Dowrick,S.: Forgiveness and other acts of love.Norton 1997
- Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.
- Schocken Books, 1976; paperback, 1998.
- Luskin, Fred. Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. San Francisco: Harper, 2001.
- Mother Theresa prayer in children’s home

- Thoresen,C. Luskin,F. 2003:the Stanford forgiveness project
- Thorensen,C.: Forgiving:theory,research and practice
- Covey R.S. principled centered leadership1990
- Seligman M>E.P. authentic happiness N-Y 2002
- Easwaran E. the Bagavat Gita for daily living volume 1,2,3.1979.
- Thoresen,C. Luskin F,Harris. A: Science and forgiveness interventions 1998.
- Worthington in Seligman
 
 
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