What Is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness Is a Gift You Give to Yourself
When a well-known sportswriter in Boston died not too long ago, something terrible happened, a terrible something that happens so often that nobody usually comments on how terrible it is. The terrible thing was that a man who had once been a close friend of the sportswriter stayed away from the funeral. The erstwhile friend was still bitter over a disagreement the two of them had had a couple of years before the sportswriter's death. An argument blew up and burned them both. Resentment took root, and like the weed that it is, it grew fast. Soon, what had been a trusting, fun-filled friendship was overrun by an impenetrable thicket of anger and self-justification. Two men who'd been good friends for years became enemies. As so often happens, one of them died before they could find a way to forgive each other and resume the friendship they both had so much enjoyed.
It's hard to find the right word for that situation: sad, silly, tragic, foolish, understandable, spiteful, petty, human, absurd, a waste. In any case, it happens all the time. An action leads to anger, which leads to the end of trust and warmth. Close friends turn into cursed fools. Everybody loses. It is so stupid, so wasteful, so sad, so wrong.
What would it have taken for the sportswriter and his friend to make up? That question gnawed at me enough to start me researching and writing this book. Soon I was going to bed and waking up wondering, What does it take for any of us to make up with those we can't forgive? What is it about forgiveness that is so difficult? Even when we know it is in our best interests to do it, we agonize over it.
What does it take to forgive? The diplomatic skills of a secretary of state? A miracle from above? Or is forgiveness simply never to be when the deeds are really bad? Is forgiveness of grievous wrongs a naive idea that only superficial sentimentalists unschooled in the ways of the world still believe in?
On the other hand, might forgiveness be worth a try? If so, why? How can a normal person do it?
Recent research has given us important information about forgiveness. We now have reliable, empirical data, not just our subjective musings. Based on that data, I now know that what happened to the sportswriter and his friend has a practical remedy, as does what happens to the millions upon millions of the rest of us who become stuck in grudges, anger and resentment.
Forgiveness is a remedy we rarely use. As a result, we suffer when we don't need to. That sportswriter and his friend could have made up. Like so many of us, they didn't. Instead they dug in, each convinced of the rightness of his position.
We've all seen this happen. A spat becomes a grudge becomes a feud becomes a schism. Along with precious heirlooms, parents bequeath to their children resentments they inherited from their parents. Partnerships dissolve over a silly squabble, and great businesses crumble. A murder begets other murders, which beget wars.
Why? What about the remedy? Why don't we use that? Isn't forgiveness better than family feuds and failed businesses and ruined friendships and cycles of murders and wars?
Well, of course it is. But it is a devilishly difficult remedy to apply. It's so hard to use, we'd sometimes rather die than try, especially when the hurt runs deep and has run for a long time. Millions of dead people have shown us their preference to die rather than forgive. You might logically conclude that forgiveness of great crimes is pretty near impossible, especially if the best of your life has been ruined by what someone else has done.
But forgiveness is never impossible. Never. If you manage to do it, you're the one who benefits the most.
Still, we tend not to forgive. We get mad at a close friend, carry a grudge and refuse to attend the funeral when the friend dies. That's the way of the world, isn't it—this silly, silly world, a world in which we're bent on wasting the best that we have? After a fight, instead of making up, each participant furiously details why he is in the right and the other person is a rotten, no-good, dirty rat—even though they loved each other just days before, not to mention the years and years before that.
All of a sudden, for us stubborn humans, being right becomes more important than being close. It becomes more important to justify our case than to make peace. We invest our energies in defaming the other person, the very same person we recently treasured as a dear friend. What's gained by being so stubborn and self-righteous? I'm not sure what's gained, but whatever it is, we defend it with our lives.
In so doing, we can destroy the best of life: friendship and peace. If only we could get better at forgiving, at not taking extreme offense so quickly, at being willing to come back into the room after we have stormed out of it, then we would live longer, happier, less complicated and less foolish lives. We wouldn't waste the best of what we have.
We weren't brought up to be as foolish as we become. Most of us were brought up to forgive. The problem is, no one told us how to do it when we were children, or even why we should. Forgiveness was just one of those 'oughtas' we all heard. 'You oughta forgive your brother.' 'You oughta forgive your friend.' But since we weren't told how, we had to wait for forgiveness to appear, as if by magic.
Of course, we didn't hold our breaths. We really didn't care very much, because we didn't know why forgiving was such a good thing, other than that parents and teachers and religious people recommended it. While they recommended it, we couldn't help but notice they usually didn't practice it. So we turned to what came to us naturally and was a lot more exciting: holding grudges and seeking revenge.
I have since found out that it is worth learning the act of forgiveness, even though it never comes naturally. Now that I have grown up and become a doctor and actually researched the topic, I have learned a lot. The grown-ups back when I was a kid may not have known the hows and whys of forgiveness, but, like a good night's sleep or a balanced diet, they were right to recommend it. Medically speaking, it is really good for you to forgive. It's much, much better than holding a grudge or seeking revenge. Learning how to forgive ranks near the top of the practical steps you can take to improve your life, your physical health and your emotional health. Furthermore, the price is good; it's free.
It's also freeing. When you forgive, you free yourself from mind-forged manacles. You start to derive benefits as soon as you gain release from the anger and resentment that have held you down.
Among the many health benefits, your blood pressure may go down, your resting heart rate may decrease, your immune system may get stronger, your susceptibility to a heart attack or a stroke may decrease, headaches and backaches and neck pain may abate, your need for medications may diminish, and even your sexual self may gain strength. If this sounds like a lot, it actually isn't anywhere near a complete list of the potential physical benefits of forgiveness.
I haven't even mentioned the emotional benefits. Forgiving lifts your spirits. It makes you feel happier, and it clarifies your thinking. No longer must you carry a lodestone of anger and resentment. The lift returns to your step, and your day does not dawn in a shadow of grievance.
Compared to other measures people take to improve their lives, forgiving is at least as good for you as losing weight, getting the right amount of sleep, taking supplemental vitamins or wearing seat belts. However, as I have mentioned, forgiving is hard to learn to do. We need help.
Unlike most other steps we can take toward a better life, there isn't much written to offer us help on how to forgive. We find we're still where we were when we were growing up: lots of people recommend forgiving, but they neither tell us how to do it nor do they show us in their own lives.
I want to change that.
Here's good news. However difficult it may be, forgiving is a skill anyone can learn. If you have the desire and are willing to practice, you can learn how to do it, even if you're a stubborn alpha male! While mystery may surround forgiveness, and while magic or grace or luck may propel it, forgiveness is nonetheless a skill that anyone can acquire if they want to. I offer many examples in this book.
But first, let me tell you a story about forgiveness that ironically illustrates the dangers of avoiding it. I have a friend in Seattle who hates the man he used to work for. He has hated him for years. He hates him because this man humiliated him, publicly firing him in a hideously demeaning way. To make it worse, my friend had once considered this man his buddy, often going out drinking with him, and to ball games and dinners. Then, out of nowhere, the man turned on my friend and betrayed him, setting him up to take the fall for business mistakes he, not my friend, had made. Ever since then, not a day passed in my friend's life without his thinking of his old boss and filling up with rage. Five years passed.
Late one night, my friend was walking down the street where the man he hated lives. As he drew near the house, the familiar hateful feelings took over. He started to recall the details of what happened, the peremptory e-mail, the refusal to discuss the matter, the public announcement at a motivational rally at work that my friend had 'failed to meet expectations in a company committed to meeting expectations,' followed by the public request—blared over loudspeakers—that my friend leave the meeting immediately, pick up his belongings at the front desk and never return. Even though the events had happened five years before, it still felt fresh and cruel and wrong.
On this particular night, as he walked past his old boss's house, my friend decided to do something. Nothing major—just something. He ha...