The Art Of Forgiveness - Is It Achievable?

Posted at 11:39am on 21st October 2008

My daughter passed on to me her copy of The Times from a couple of weekends ago. She thought I might like to blog about an article to do with modern grannies, but my eye was caught by another – on healing and forgiveness. Time enough for grannies at a later date, I thought!


It was particularly relevant to me because of a decision made by others a decade ago, which has resonated through my family ever since. What was once a warm and close-knit unit is now, sadly, scattered, slow-burning coals. Since the original conflagration – which went on for years – much of the time, nowadays, the embers glow dull and lifeless. But every now and then a spark ignites a fiery furnace. Although both my sibs do their bit to help my parents, I’m the one who lives closest, and I’m, therefore, naturally the one ‘on-call’. That means I’m also the self-appointed ‘liaison officer’ (see my blog on eldest child syndrome). And that has required of me an understanding and practice of the art of forgiveness on a daily basis.


It appears, from Vivienne Parry’s item in The Times that there is rapidly growing research into the nature of healing and forgiveness. Even primates have been observed to show signs of the art of forgiveness in their make-up. As she rightly discerns, without forgiveness, the fabric of the world – or at least of human life – would quickly descend into anarchy and worse. ‘Reconciliation rituals,’ says Parry, ‘are fundamental to social stability.’ But in order to understand the steps to forgiveness, we need first to appreciate the physiology and psychology surrounding it.


Psychologists identify the emotions that accompany an act of betrayal or deep hurt as anger and fear. These prompt instinctive fight or flight responses in us which, in primitive times, would have been crucial to our survival. Faced with a potentially dangerous situation caused by the action of someone we once trusted, the fight or flight hormone kicks in. Our innate reaction is then literally either to hit out physically or verbally; or to retreat into hurt, silence, moodiness, and ultimately bitterness.


The stress induced by these emotions is, without doubt, harmful to our health. Unforgiveness is likened to a cup of poison. However, it’s not drunk by the person who is unrepentantly in the wrong, but by the person who has been wronged, and is holding onto their hatred. Conversely, there is evidence to suggest that forgiveness is related to a reduction in blood pressure – which has to be good for the heart!


There are two aspects to forgiveness: the people who forgive those who’ve wronged them; and the people who, because they have perpetrated wrong against others, are in need of forgiveness. It’s tempting to say that we will forgive when the person who has wronged us asks for our pardon. But that’s not how it works. Whether you’re a believer or not, the Biblical perspective is acknowledged as the only one that works. This is that these two sides are quite separate. Forgiveness on my part is not dependent upon the remorse of the person who’s betrayed me.


You know how sometimes you read or hear something that becomes a life-defining moment for you? You look back at it, years down the line, and think: yep! that changed my way of thinking forever. Such a moment for me, came sometime during my first marriage, when I discovered that my husband was conducting an affair. My whole world fell apart. And I fell apart with it!

Oh, yes, I knew all the ‘right’ things to say and to do. But deep inside, I was hurting like hell, and I hated the woman who’d taken my husband from me. And then, one day, I read a true story in a book – the title of which I’ve long since forgotten. It was about a man who had bought his daily newspaper from the same vendor for years. And every morning, he was subjected to a foul-mouthed tirade from the vendor. Who knows what for? One day, a fellow-commuter who had observed this for a while, asked him why he didn’t give back as good as he got. The answer struck me as one of the most profound things I’d ever heard.

The newspaper purchaser said: ‘Why should I allow someone else to dictate to me how I should behave?’ That short sentence made me realise, for the first time in my life, that I am at liberty to CHOOSE how I behave. No, it was not going to stop the pain of betrayal in my marriage. Not instantly, at any rate. But I now know that whatever anyone does to me, I am free to decide for myself how I want to respond. And knowing that gives me power, rather than giving that power to the person who’s hurt me.

What’s more, that power is apparent to the person who’s hurt you. And it has an effect! A quite marked effect. Because they know they've been robbed of their power over you.


Next time we’ll be looking at some further aspects of forgiveness:

  • Forgiveness is a journey
  • Forgiveness is not condoning
  • Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences

See you later.

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