Over the past months I have written about forgiveness in the workplace, and in my book, Eternal Unfolding I pointed out situations where people forgave others after they have been deeply hurt: a wife, after separation and divorce, found ways to forgive her husband who beat her and in turn discovered how to love again; a man who was falsely accused and spent a life time in prison forgave his accusers; a father whose son was shot and killed in the school yard forgave his son’s murderer; and, a business leader who learned how to forgive in the workplace.
Last Monday morning’s meditation brought me to a place where I began to wonder what was at the core of those acts of forgiveness. The only thing I could come up with was that those people made a conscious decision to forgive which really reflected a conscious decision to act with love. This conscious decision to forgive may have occurred in a split-second or perhaps over a period of time, but at some point, they made the decision to forgive others. As they made their decision to forgive a common denominator for them appears to have been an inner recognition of their own hurt which if left alone would have blocked them from being at peace. It is this common denominator that seems to be the key for all those who forgive – ‘a need to forgive so that they can live with themselves in peace’.
You see forgiving is a mutual act – in order to forgive others, we need to forgive ourselves. In the normal course of events when we are harmed in some way we often become angry. We’re angered at the perpetrator and often times our anger spills over into our relations with others. We need to recognize the harm we are doing to ourselves and forgive ourselves of that anger. Only then can we begin to forgive others.
In my Catholic tradition many of us grew up with acts of contrition and the need to go to confession. These are good practices if approached correctly. However, looking back it seems we began to view confession as ‘the magic box’ – tell your sins and ‘you are forgiven and go sin no more’. I still think the concept of confessing transgressions to another and to one’s Higher Power (God) is a positive thing, however there is more to it than that. And the ‘more to it than that’ was not fully explained or taught. Yes, we were told to make amends to those who we aggrieved, but that seemed to be secondary to ‘you are forgiven, sin no more,’ nor was there any discussion about those who aggrieved us and the anger that ensued and how to deal with it.
Slowly, faster for others, the confession box became a chore. We were told to go to confession on a weekly basis with the result that many children began to make up sins. In the end, I think that is why many in the Catholic tradition are often quilt ridden – they learned to slice and dice their sins and carried that with them throughout adulthood. They dealt with minutia and not with the significant psychology behind forgiveness including anger and letting it go. The confessional box can be a source of great spiritual healing if it becomes a source for helping individuals deal with all aspects of forgiveness.
The need to recognize our own anger and the role of forgiveness has health consequences as well. It has been well document that anger leads to stress and unresolved stress leads to high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety and other mental health issues. Acts of forgiveness of self and others may be one of the antidotes to unhealthy outcomes as well as a source for spiritual renewal.
We learn forgiveness from an early age and all throughout our lives by apologizing to others for wrongful acts we have committed; returning what is not ours and seeking forgiveness; recognizing the anger that harmful acts cause and then forgiving that anger; and, at the same time forgiving others.
From a shear psychological perspective, Everett Worthington, a professor emeritus of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, after years of research developed an acronym REACH as a forgiveness model. REACH stands for Recalling the incident that hurt you; Empathizing with the person who wronged you; thinking of forgiving that person as an Altruistic gift; Committing yourself to forgiving them; and then Holding onto that forgiveness without taking it back.
All this doesn’t mean that forgiving others comes easy, especially if we have been hurt deeply. It takes a great deal of introspection and courage. It means we need to recognize and own our own hurt and forgive ourselves for that self afflicting hurt and then genuinely forgive those who have caused that hurt. If we can follow these steps to forgiveness, we can again live with ourselves in peace and continue to strengthen healthy relationships with others.
Thank you for reading,
Richard P. Fontanie MSW
You can read more about the psychology of forgiveness here.