Even non-believers may most immediately associate forgiveness with Christianity, but it is an important basis of many other faiths. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is among the most significant of Jewish observations, occurring following a 10-day period whereby followers ask for God’s forgiveness for that year’s transgressions. In Islam, one of the purposes of Ramadan is to be pardoned by Allah (who is also sometimes referred to as Al-Ghaffar, the ‘All Forgiving’), while Hindus believe forgiveness leads to supreme peace.
However, asking your god for mercy is one thing, forgiving someone who has wronged you or someone you love is quite another. So, it may come as a shock to learn that humans might actually be naturally inclined to granting clemency. A study published last year by Yale University found that “when assessing the moral character of others, people cling to good impressions but readily adjust their opinions about those who have behaved badly”.
The research comprised a series of moral dilemmas proposed to 1,500 people asked to judge ‘bad’ strangers who inflicted electric shocks on others, and ‘good’ ones who didn’t. Of course, the subjects formed positive impressions of the good guys, but even the baddies were viewed open-mindedly on the few occasions they refused to buzz. Senior author of the paper, Yale psychologist Molly Crockett, believes the project reveals “a basic predisposition towards giving others, even strangers”, the benefit of the doubt: “The brain forms social impressions in a way that can enable forgiveness. Because some people sometimes behave badly by accident, we need to be able to update bad impressions that turn out to be mistaken.” Thus, preventing us from prematurely losing potentially beneficial social connection.
Theologian Lewis B Smedes writes in his tome, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you”, echoed in tragically literal sense by Nelson Mandela when he emerged from his 27-year confinement and announced that unless he left his anger, hatred and bitterness behind, then he “would still be in prison”.
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong” – Mahatma Gandhi
That forgiveness is more a reflection of how we view ourselves than how we look upon those who have wronged is a widely accepted theory. Deepak Chopra notes that increasing our capacity for forgiveness increases our capacity for love and compassion and is ultimately “a gift we give ourselves”. Heaps of studies have shown those who practise forgiveness to be healthier and happier, while those who hold grudges are more likely to suffer stress, and, in the long-term, possibly be even more susceptible to illness.
So, how do we go about ‘freeing’ ourselves?
The first step, says author and psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, is to understand what forgiveness is—and isn’t. It’s not about forgetting or condoning someone’s action, rather preventing its repetition.
It is a skill that must be practised.
Communicate non-confrontationally by using phrases like ‘I feel’ or ‘I would like’ rather than ‘you always’ or ‘you don’t’. According to Relate, this ensures that you’re taking control of your own feelings rather than making the other person feel attacked, and when it’s their turn to speak, “listen to what they have to say and try to understand their perspective too”.
It’s essential to look both within and to the future—be brave enough to accept that what happened is in the past and consider what you can do to move forward. Only you can make that decision, only you can control how you react.
Hardest of all, take accountability for your role—no matter how small—that may have played a part in the other person’s transgression, never justifying anything with the word ‘but’. “A happy marriage,” mused religious writer Ruth Bell Graham, “is the union of two good forgivers.”
Remember that no-one is perfect and that everyone makes mistakes. Occasionally massive ones.
“To work on forgiveness,” writes Dr Melanie Greenberg for Psychology Today, “think about the external circumstances that contributed to their harmful behaviour.” Were they abandoned or neglected as a youth? Even if an act is deemed ‘unforgiveable’, cut that person from your life peacefully and without hate in your heart. Remember forgiveness is for yourself not them. It can increase self-esteem. While many consider it a sign of weakness, of giving in to the other person and letting them win, think of forgiveness as the ultimate act of empowerment to “send a personal message that love is stronger than hate and fear”.
And never forget that old saying about resentment—it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.