In the past, discussions concerning forgiveness were typically relegated to the domain of religion. But in recent times, forgiveness has acquired a lot of attention in several academic disciplines such as theology, philosophy, psychology, medical science, and neuroscience. It is indeed interesting to note that numerous studies on forgiveness are now being conducted on university campuses in different parts of the world. For example, the Campaign for Forgiveness Research, which is funded by Templeton Foundation, currently has 46 different research projects all focusing on some aspect of forgiveness. Additionally, there are neuroscientists who are exploring the parts of the human brain that impede engaging in acts of forgiveness.
Modern research on forgiveness demonstrates that forgiveness plays a critical role in transforming people’s emotional, mental, physical and even spiritual wellbeing. According to Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness, “in careful scientific studies, forgiveness training has been shown to reduce depression, increase hopefulness, decrease anger, improve spiritual connection, and increase emotional self-confidence.” Scientific studies also show that individuals who engage in forgiving report fewer health, mental or physical problems. These are just a few of the important benefits of forgiveness.
As more studies are conducted on the benefits of forgiveness, there is also an increasing interest in the negative effects of not forgiving on an individual’s health and mental state. Researchers in medicine and psychology have found that people, who refuse to forgive and hold on to anger and resentment, tend to be in a state of stress and depression, which ultimately becomes a risk factor for heart disease, high blood pressure and other chronic stress-related ailments. Furthermore, these angry and resentful people also suffer from high anxiety, insomnia, ulcers, migraines and severe backaches. On the other hand, when an individual engages in genuine forgiveness, these physical ailments seem to disappear.
It is indeed ironic that although spiritual and religious leaders from both the west and the east have been educating us from time immemorial about the benefits of forgiveness, many chose not to take their advice seriously because they didn’t have the credibility that researchers from the fields of psychology, medical science and neuroscience tend to enjoy in contemporary society.
While medical science, neuroscience and psychology can reveal the benefits of forgiveness to our mental, physical, emotional and even spiritual wellbeing, they fail to explain the deep connections that we have with one another and our desire to live in peace and harmony in our communities. It is only by practising compassion and forgiveness that we can succeed in creating loving communities. In Life Is for Living, Eric Butterworth reminds us: “We cannot endure without love and there is no other way to the return of healing, comforting, harmonizing love than through social and complete forgiveness. If we want freedom and peace and the experience of love and being loved in our communities, we must let go and forgive.” The renowned feminist scholar, Bell Hooks, points out that forgiveness is always a practice that is founded on generosity. It demands that we release someone else from the “prison of their guilt or anguish over our feelings of courage or anger.” By engaging in forgiveness, we actually pave the way for love to blossom in our communities.
According to Leo Buscaglia, who was a professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Southern California and author of several best selling books on loving relationship, forgiveness is a complicated process that requires our sympathetic understanding, empathy and wisdom. For Buscaglia, there cannot be lasting love unless we are ready to forgive others for their transgressions. Forgiveness is always a volitional act. We either decide to forgive or we don’t. Buscalgia reminds us that to be forgiven and to forgive involves the same dynamics. If we want to be forgiven for our wrongdoings, then we should also be able to do the same for others who have hurt us. This implies that if we cannot forgive others, we also cannot expect others to forgive us.
In any kind of loving relationship we become susceptible to hurt and disappointments. We often operate from negative experiences of the past, old habits and different expectations in our relationships with others. This is why conflict is inevitable in relationships. In such conflicts when we feel wronged, we immediately try to blame the other party instead of looking inwardly. We perceive ourselves as the ones who are victims and so it is justified to demand justice. And this justice is often achieved by hurting those who have caused us pain, or by making them suffer in some way. When we feel the hurt and the pain caused by others, we want revenge. We feel that only by taking revenge can we correct the wrong that has been done to us. Experts tell us that we won’t be happy or content even if we succeed in avenging our wrongdoing.
The chances are that we will still carry the unwanted weight of sorrow, anger, dissatisfaction, resentment, and bitterness. In other words, revenge is never “sweet.” On the other hand, there’s a wonderful warm aura that surrounds the act of forgiving. Forgiveness is a letting-go, a releasing energy ~ an action that has the power to soothe, heal and reunite. Forgiveness is truly liberating. It frees one’s spirit from the haunted past and prepares us to face the future with renewed hope and faith. Buscaglia calls forgiveness the “unconditional gift of love.”
Experts on forgiveness tell us that we can only forgive when we view the wrongdoers as ourselves. We can only forgive when we look at the wrongdoers with compassion and understand that they are just as flawed as we all are. According to Buscaglia, “sympathetic understanding, heart and mind felt identification with others are the necessary first steps in piercing the otherwise impenetrable walls of unforgiving attitudes.” In his famous work, Strength to Love, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us that forgiving does not imply ignoring the wrongful act. It means that the wrongful act does not create a barrier to the relationship. For Rev. King, the act of forgiveness sows the seeds that help create a new beginning, a fresh start. It helps lift the heavy burden of anguish and suffering that seems to crush an individual. However, when we say, “I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done,” it does not explain the real nature of forgiveness since we can never really forget. When we engage in the practice of forgiving, the wrongful act ceases to plague us and it also does not have the same kind of potency as it did before.
We often offer forgiveness as a gift to the wrongdoer. According to experts, this is not genuine forgiveness because it is like a bargain, which makes the whole notion of forgiveness undignified and fake. More importantly, it is laden with power where the giver is superior to the receiver. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, believes that forgiveness also does not depend on the action of others. For example, when we say, “I am willing to forgive you if you say you are sorry.” The problem with this kind of conditional forgiveness is that it binds us to the person who harmed us. These are the chains whose keys the perpetrator holds and it is the perpetrator who actually decides whether the conditions are to be met or not. Archbishop Tutu encourages us to offer forgiveness without any strings. In his opinion, this kind of unconditional forgiveness “frees the person who inflicted the harm from the weight of the victim’s whim…. it also frees the one who forgives.”
Although every religion has at its heart deep a commitment to compassion and forgiveness, it is not easy to do. Forgiving is often too complicated, too overwhelming and too difficult to practice. How can we forgive if there’s no apology or regret expressed by the wrongdoer? How can we forgive if the wrongdoer has not done anything to demonstrate that she/he deserves our forgiveness? While forgiveness is not easy to practice, we cannot forget that it is the only path to a healing and a happy heart. Harboring anger, malice and resentment is bad for the spirit. It certainly doesn’t help our physical, mental, or spiritual wellbeing. A famous Buddhist monk reminded his disciples as to why they should practice forgiveness: “Let go. Why do you cling to pain? There is nothing you can do about the wrongs of yesterday. It is not yours to judge. Why hold on to the very thing that keeps you from hope and love?” Refusing to forgive only leads to anger, bitterness and hatred, which poison our heart and soul; it is corrosive to the human spirit. It is only when we practice compassion and forgiveness that our suffering, our pain and our losses are transformed.
(The writer is professor of communication studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)