The Power of Forgiveness

This post continues a train of thought from the previous post on “Second Chances” where I reflect on a series of health scares in my family.  As a healthcare worker, the idea of losing a loved one is undeniably vivid due to a job that provides a ring-side seat at death’s door…

Fortunately, everyone thus far has managed to thrive.  The lessons from these “second chances” have been largely positive.  However, the occasional growing pain is inevitable and I’ve occasionally struggled in coming to terms with things.  In the recent aftermath of my sister’s breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve floundered my way through the process of forgiveness.  In my mother’s last email to me on this subject matter, I was most struck by these comments:

…those who are outside the fence do not have the SAME PERSPECTIVE and may not fully understand the gravity of the situation. You will have to forgive us (Dorene and Me) for our shortcomings in this regard. …There are always two sides to a coin, one coin whose two sides inextricably bound so the need to co-exist…

I do wish to let go and move forward.  I do want a better relationship.  However, forgiveness is a slow and steady path like watching a pot of water boil.   I honestly struggle at times more than I like to admit.  The pain and hurt are still vivid at times.  I’ve come to the slow realization that healing and forgiveness are choices that occur from moment-to-moment  Here are a few lesson’s I’ve learned from experience…

Forgiveness Defined….

While generally regarded as a show of strength, forgiveness makes you feel emotionally vulnerable as you lower your defenses & face unresolved hurts.  It entails the release of resentment from past transgressions that are still vivdly painful, in order to move forward.  This can feel anything but empowering, especially when you consider that common synonyms of forgiveness include condoning, pardoning, and excusing.  However it is worth noting that:  “This conflation of forgiveness with condoning in such lay definitions…may be central to the controversy about [its] adaptiveness (Thompson, 2005, p. 316).”

In this post I’d like to examine the concept of forgiveness.  In no particular order, here are some random personal insights…

Forgiveness is essential for healing…

I firmly believe that that in order to make room for the “good stuff”, it is essential to let go of the “bad stuff”.  In fact, had I not let go of the traumas from my relationship with “IT”, my current relationship would not have sustained itself so successfully.   Today, I can honestly say I have forgiven “IT” for all that had transpired (read link above) and hold no ill-will.  In fact, when I reflect on this part of my life, I feel a sense of serenity & acceptance.  While I’m certainly not condoning what he did, I harbor no rsentment.  Instead, I realize these experiences were a much needed wake-up call.  This kick-in-the-pants experience became the building blocks upon which I my current relationship rests.  As a result, if given a chance to change this part of life, I don’t think I would.  I know this sounds crazy, but the video above expresses this better than I ever could.

Forgiveness is about you & not them…

FIRST AIDER 7Sometimes your emotions can really fuck with you big time.  The reality is, forgiveness requires us to do things that don’t often feel very good.   Letting go old hurts is difficult when the pain can linger like a silent-but-deadly fart.  You try to ignore it, but the stench fills your sinuses and the reaction is immediate.   Acting in contradiction to these emotive dictates is hard when faced with painful reminders of a traumatic event from your past.  All you want to do is lash out in anger.  All you want is to let them know how much you are hurting.

…From within this mindset, seeing further is hard.  However, indulging in this unabated bitterness can cause old hurts to become a fucked-up  pollutant.  In time you wonder why you’re a walking shit magnet, when in reality the answer is so close you’re blind to it.  Forgiving is essential if you want to avoid all this and allow healing to happen.  The effort is worth it, and requires a daily commitment to make healing your priority.  In this respect, forgiveness has nothing to do with”them”.  It’s about you.   You’re not letting “them” off the hook, you’re kicking bitterness to the curb in order to begin healing.

Forgiveness & the serenity prayer….

Serenity

I love the simple yet profound insight from the serenity prayer.  While often associated with the twelve-steps, it is an excellent approach to the majority of life’s problems.  What things are within our power to change? Focusing on life’s changeable components is critical to empowerment and generally entails some level of self-responsibility.   What things are not changeable?  Usually pertaining to some factor external to ourselves, radical acceptance and forgiveness are our only alternatives.  Wishing to change something that you can’t change is a crazy-making exercise in complete futility.

“Forgiveness is giving up hope that the past could have been any different” – Oprah

Forgiveness is a Dialectical Narrative Reframing

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“Forgiveness is a dialectical process through which people synthesize their prior assumptions of a transgression into a new understanding ….this reframing process [is] the construction of a ‘new narrative’ (Thompson, et al, 2005, p. 318)”.   When viewing forgiveness in this way, the “transgression” becomes a source of growth.  A Hegelian dialectical approach can become the impetus for change as seemingly contradictory perspectives are combined into holistic understanding.  It is in this respect that my mother’s words are very enlightening.  If my sister and I exist as opposite sides of the coin, there is much we can stand to learn from one another.

When allowing unresolved hurt to assume functional control of your brain, all thoughts, feelings, actions become one-sided.  They are motivational byproducts of old hurt, and in time, they exist to support this one-sided reality.  For example, until I let go of the hurt from those “IT years” all I could see were his “wrongs”.   It wasn’t until I considered the unthinkable question: (why did you stay?)  that I could gain clarity and move forward.

Forgiveness vs. “Unforgiveness” – (Konstam, et al, 2003).

An interesting resource I found describes the consequences of forgiving and not forgiving a specific transgression or traumatic event.  Forgiveness is a daily alternative we choose for the sake of personal growth and development.  It occurs internally through conscious choice and interpersonally in our relationships with others.  In contrast, Kostam, et al (2003) describe the concept of “unforgiveness” (p. 48), as an attitude of bitterness, resentment, and hatred that can yield revenge seeking behavior over time.  I would like to conclude this post with a convenient table that compare forgiveness with “unforgiveness” (Kostam, et al, 2003)….

Forgiveness
Unforgiveness

Defined as – an intrapsychic & interpersonal healing process that allows us to move forward for the sake of personal growth.
Defined as – an unwillingness to let go of old transgressions & remain consumed by them through endless rumination.
Forgiveness brings about peace as we begin moving forward based on an enlightened perspective. 
Unforgiveness is a stressful state of stagnation that causes us to remain in a past so our mind can be consumed by unhealed traumas.
Synonyms include – Absolution, reconciliation, excuse, pardon, acquit, & exonerate
Synonyms include – Blame, punish, accuse, retribution, chastisement & vengeance.
Warm Emotions – Empathy, Love, Compassion, & Hope.
Cold Emotions – Hurt, Anger, & Bitterness, Resentment.
Problem-Focused Coping – A pragmatic approach that targets the cause of a negative event directly (i.e. people or situations).
Emotion-Focused Coping – Managing one’s reactions to a stressful/negative situation (i.e. medicating, eating, or distraction)
Produces Empathy – the ability to acknowledge someone else’s feelings as if they were your own.
Produces Selfism – “a self-orientation that leads one to view situations [in a] self-serving manner (Konstam, et al, 2003, p. 173).”

References

Konstam, V., Holmes, W., & Levine, B. (2003). Empathy, Selfism. and Coping as Elements of the Psychology of. Counseling and Values, 47, pp. 173-183.
Thompson, L. Y., Snyder, C. R., Hoffman, L., Michael, S. T., Rasmussen, H. N., Billings, L. S., … & Roberts, D. E. (2005). Dispositional Forgiveness of Self, Others, and Situations. Journal of Personality, 73(2).  pp. 313-354

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