Mastering the Art of Forgiveness
The Healing Role of Forgiveness
By Dr. Robert Leichtman
The art of forgiveness is one of the most humanizing of all our abilities. It can soothe our hurts, remove irritations, and heal resentments. Forgiveness can repair relationships, brighten our day, and restore our joy in living.
However, in a busy life, we will be involved in many situations that provoke our annoyance and frustration. Unless we can respond to most of these occasions with tolerance and forgiveness, we can gradually become overwhelmed by the slow accumulations of resentment and discouragement. This burden of this emotional baggage of old annoyances can lead to losing our confidence and zest for life.
Fortunately, much simple forgiveness begins as we recognize that we were excessive and inappropriate in our initial emotional responses of anger or anxiety. As this understanding builds in us, we can find it easier to remain calm about many frustrating events. The process of forgiveness and healing of emotional bruises often begins with simple acts of tolerance.
The core dynamic activity in forgiveness involves emotional and mental changes in ourselves. Merely cultivating a “good feeling” about the object of our annoyance may be part of forgiveness, but this will not be enough to complete the process. We must also engage the mind to understand ourselves and respond more creatively to what irritates us.
This understanding can begin as a new perspective that allows us to develop a peaceful acknowledgment of what has annoyed us. For example, we can realize that some grumpy individuals will not change, and we will have to accept them the way they are. Or perhaps we develop more realistic expectations about life and adjust to some minor unpleasantness. Eventually, these activities evolve into tolerance and end in forgiveness.
Misunderstandings about forgiveness
The proper frame of mind that enables forgiveness is not one of permissiveness or sentimental sweetness. The mindset that allows forgiveness understands that we often must endure less than ideal circumstances. We live in an imperfect world where the average citizen is not a saint. Learning how to be realistic in managing ourselves and our situation is essential. This skill requires us to be strong and organized so we will not be upset as we interact with the occasional nasty person or situation.
We can have a fulfilling and successful life by exercising common sense and moderation. However, this belief implies that we will know how to deal with the annoying moments with firmness, grace, tolerance, and, when necessary, forgiveness. Acquiring these basic abilities will allow us to move through life without excessive recriminations or accumulating significant grievances.
A deeper look at forgiveness as a practice
Forgiveness is a poorly understood art. For instance, many presume that forgiveness is merely a way to demonstrate our good manners in words and gestures of kindness. Such people are generous about “feeling sorry” for any problem. They repeatedly offer us significant amounts of sympathy. They “regret” what others have done to upset us. There is a great demand for these behaviors, and many are ready to provide these gestures.
Forgiveness, however, involves more than simple efforts to offer sympathy and other types of emotional first aid. Instead, the main concern is healing these injuries, restoring dignity, and correcting fundamental misunderstandings about what happened and why we reacted so forcefully.
The total healing power of forgiveness comes from a place deeper in us than an urge to soothe our irritations and other hurts. Authentic forgiveness arises from an inner part of us that grasps what should have been the proper understanding, attitude, and behavior. The intention is to do more than seek comfort. The goal is to restore self-respect and contentment by correcting what is wrong.
The many varieties of forgiveness
Forgiveness comes in several varieties. The ordinary type is a simple manifestation of kindness and reassurance. Our empathy can be beneficial, especially in the early phases of injury, where this may be all we can offer. But a more powerful version of forgiveness is born of our deep humanity and spirit. Forgiveness taps into our creativity and vital energies to heal wounds, reestablish order, and promote wellness of mind and body. This activity produces an impact that goes beyond what our desires and kindness can achieve.
Our commitment to honor the deep values of our humanity will summon our understanding and compassion. Forgiveness will be more powerful and effective with this addition. This combination will help us transcend the doubts, excuses, and tunnel vision that may have distorted our initial view of what irritated us.
We need this intense type of forgiveness to stop being diverted into recycling resentments, blaming others, or lapsing into self-pity. Restraining our old grievances about people or situations for a while is a great victory. It means we can devote some attention to focusing on constructive events and achievements instead of remembering our wounds and adversaries.
A different approach to forgiveness is needed when the issue involves profound injuries which, at the time, seem unforgivable. The first objective in these more severe grievances is not total forgiveness. Instead, the initial effort is to tone down the outrage and diminish the burden anger imposes on our mood and mindset. We must carve out spaces in our outrage for normal relationships and activities to continue. We do this by setting firm boundaries about our rage to whatever degree we can achieve. Then we can return to relaxed attitudes and behavior for engaging in the safe parts of our life. Complete forgiveness in these situations is a more distant goal that is possible only after reducing our anger to a level that will be affected by our reason and common sense.
What is the dynamic power of forgiveness?
Forgiveness can effectively reduce frustration and suffering because it brings four primary healing qualities to focus on anger. These are love, understanding, tolerance, and acceptance. This quartet is the “anti-matter” that begins to dissolve the angry feelings and judgments about old events and those we accuse of harming us.
Effective forgiveness is not only excellent for repairing emotional wounds, but it also can work to build up our strengths and self-worth. People who have suffered from chronic, recurring anger, fear, or discouragement need to rebuild confidence and dignity. Our sincere gratitude for surviving our difficulties will begin this process. This compassionate view prepares us to forgive ourselves for succumbing to fear, resentment, grief, and apathy.
Rebuilding our physical and emotional health is another area that benefits from forgiveness. Many chronically ill people begin to resent the distress and other limitations their sick body imposes on them. Regarding the body as an enemy can delay healing. Genuine forgiveness for the presence of our illness will assist the healing process, especially if we praise and encourage our potential for a healthy body and mind.
The five significant ways we may be reluctant to forgive
Major grievances present us with five significant challenges. Most people only recognize the first one, believing that the injury is a “done deal” that has already occurred and cannot be reversed or erased. We assume we are stuck with these traumas forever.
This belief affirms that facts do not change but neglects that we can change how we view and interpret old events. What we may have considered a personal attack may have been partly valid criticism. The violation of a right we insisted was ours can turn out to be a self-serving assumption. Sometimes, our liberation from unnecessary distress requires that we embrace the painful truth about ourselves and how we behave.
The second way we can resist forgiving old emotional wounds is the conversion of insults and injuries into grievances. This habit weaponizes our resentment into forming a victim mentality that will keep us focused on anger and the desire for vengeance. The result is the production of a nearly continual stream of resentment, blame, and self-pity. Even when our conscious attention is on ordinary events, our grievances will be simmering in our subconscious.
We need to recognize this train of thought converts our adversaries into oppressors and ourselves into victims. This act will immensely strengthen the bond of anger we are forging with them. Forgiveness will be far more difficult after this twisted view becomes our fixed judgment. Genuine forgiveness can overcome this animosity once we are willing to move on from this trap we have made for ourselves.
The third challenge to forgiveness is the assumption that the complete resolution of our conflicts depends on our adversaries returning to apologize and making amends for causing us so much misery. Although this is an unlikely solution, it remains very popular with the aggrieved. This illusion can cause us to delay or cease any effort to achieve genuine healing of our wounds or move on without this emotional baggage.
It is never a good idea to wait for our enemies to apologize before beginning our healing. No one has as much to gain from self-help activities as we can. We should work on repairing our wounds and restoring our confidence, especially when no one else does. Our anger eventually will become a burden without any valuable benefits. Forgiveness is the primary tool we can use to relieve this problem.
The fourth way we can be reluctant to forgive is the assumption that our anger is necessary to protect us from danger. This belief is only another feeble way to justify our continuing hostility. Anger alone only makes us strong like a bully. We can do better than this. People forget that we are made strong by our dedication and devotion to a worthwhile cause, such as our dignity and well-being. The determination to honor our values and do what is right is what genuinely strengthens us.
The fifth obstacle to forgiveness is the belief that we must sustain our anger as a demand for justice. Somehow our forgiveness might allow our enemies to continue their harmful ways. However, justice in the world is not dependent on our outrage or any individual’s complaint. There is an order in the world that is larger and more powerful than any of us. It will continue in force during and after our efforts to forgive or not forgive.
Forgiveness can be applied to many circumstances
The healing power of forgiveness is an activity that we can apply to multiple problems. We can forgive people who have irritated us. We can also pardon the events and situations that have caused us great distress. In these circumstances, we can quietly accept the flaws in our culture and society that exist for everyone. They are the reality we currently live in, even as we seek improvement.
While forgiveness is not necessarily a panacea, it can create a healing atmosphere that will favor any effort to relieve suffering. Forgiveness generates a stream of constructive energies for repairing emotional wounds and building the health of mind, body, and relationships. Thus, we can forgive our bodies for being sick or disabled, for a difficult childhood, or for a relationship that proved traumatic.
This type of forgiveness does not mean we fully accept this harmful behavior and will no longer reject them. Enlightened forgiveness is the equivalent of giving a blessing that will strengthen our innate potential for wholeness and all other parties involved in these distressful situations. We seek to evoke spiritual patterns for a healthy body, personality, and lifestyle.
Genuine forgiveness is a constructive force we can generate to relieve our distress and build our capacity for peace, confidence, and success in life. Its most apparent benefit is to support healthy attitudes and outlook. It also works deeper to liberate our better selves by clearing away the obstructions to our potential for wisdom, compassion, and courage.
While forgiveness is often considered a simple and easily understood act, it is more complex. Forgiveness involves undoing the many ways we have involved anger in our self-image, motives, expectations, and judgments. This process includes examining our extensive rationalizations for disappointments, resentments, and anxiety. We need to recognize how our anger has invaded our belief system to anchor itself in every significant aspect of our lives and experiences. Anger can be like a cigarette odor that we no longer notice, yet it infiltrates our entire household and clothing. Removing anger is not easy, nor is it a one-step process.
See my subsequent discourse, which is about the unrecognized burden that anger imposes on our self-image, general outlook, and ability to recognize the better side of life.
A capacity for tolerance and forgiveness is essential for a successful and mature life. Minor irritations are a constant in life, and we must be able to cope with most of them without becoming excessively distracted.
Forgiveness is more than being polite. Genuine forgiveness involves accepting most people the way they are and having good boundaries that protect us from most simple annoyances.
Genuine forgiveness comes from a deep level beyond simple feelings of kindness. Forgiveness involves the combined force of love, understanding, tolerance, and acceptance. Its purpose is to repair wounds, restore dignity, and improve our lifestyle—not merely soothe our feelings.
The common barriers to forgiveness are:
- We assume that we can never change past events.
- We weaponize our annoyances into dedicated grievances, making us victims of the oppression of others.
- We demand apologies from our enemies before beginning to forgive; d) we presume we need anger to keep us strong.
- We believe our forgiveness will allow evil to proceed unchecked. None of this is correct or necessary.