What does it mean to forgive another? Not ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed, but what is it to forgive another who has offended, harmed, or hurt us. A traditional way of thinking about forgiveness starts with the idea of victimization. Someone has wronged or harmed us in someway; we are the victim. In order for us to forgive them, they must first recognize they have hurt us, they must admit guilt. Then they must approach us, contrite and repentant, and ask for our forgiveness. Next, justice must be done. They must make retribution and set things right by us. Finally, in our mercy, we bestow upon them forgiveness. Until all this happens, we are justified for holding on to our resentment, hatred, and anger. Or are we?
I believe there is an alternative way. First, let us look at some recent research on forgiveness. Studies show that people who forgive are happier and healthier than people who are unforgiving and who hold onto anger, grudges, and resentments. Current research shows that forgiveness may even be essential to happiness. If we hold onto anger, hatred, and resentment, it affects our life, not the other persons. Our bodies experience the impact and stress of negative emotions. We suffer, not the other person. Additional research has found forgiveness improves our physical health. Just the act of thinking about, or imagining, forgiving an offender leads to improved functioning in our cardiovascular and nervous systems. Further studies at the University of Wisconsin found that forgiving people were less likely to suffer from a range of illnesses but unforgiving people, on the other hand, report a greater number of health problems.
Next let us ask the question; what is forgiveness? Does it mean we are weak? No, on the contrary, it takes strength, insight, and maturity to forgive someone, especially if he or she cannot or will not acknowledge doing us wrong. Does it mean we allow the person to continue to harm or take advantage of us? No, forgiveness does not mean we forget. Furthermore, we are responsible to protect and take care of ourselves. However, we must use discretion and in some cases, will need to remove ourselves from the offender. Does it mean the wrongdoer escapes justice? No, if in the process of harming us someone broke the law, allowing him or her to escape justice only empowers him or her to harm others in the future. We have an ethical responsibility to protect others by making sure the person faces justice. What then is forgiveness?
Forgives means we no longer allow the offender to have power over us or our ability to live a happy life. We let go of resentment, anger, and hatred and move on with our lives. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves, not the other person. A good example is the story of Eva Mozes Kor, a victim of the Holocaust, who forgave the Nazis who killed her family. In particular, she forgave Dr. Mengele, who performed medical experiments on her and her twin sister. I often recommend the movie Forgiving Dr. Mengele, which documents her story to clients working on issues involved with forgiving others. Her decision to forgive the Nazi’s did not mean she condoned their actions, it did not mean she did not seek justice; it did not mean she continue to allow herself to be a victim. In fact, her decision to forgive allowed her to shed her identity as a victim as it came from a place of power and agency. For her it made room for a new future with new opportunities for growth and maturity.
If you need help forgiving someone please feel free to call (805) 637-4263 or send me an email.