Consequences of Forgiving
Forgiveness is hard work. I sometimes refer to it as “surgery of the heart.” No one looks forward to the process of surgery, but when people look beyond the procedure to what lies ahead once healing occurs, it is easier to bear.
The process of forgiveness includes bearing pain and finding meaning in suffering. It requires pain, emotional pain, as we look directly at another’s injustice and struggle to see him or her as a person, just as I-the-forgiver am a person.
The joy comes, I think, in triumphing through a challenging process and becoming stronger once the process is complete. You stand stronger because you have not let injustice defeat you.
You stand stronger because you are now more capable of receiving the other back into your life, if he or she can be trusted. You may play a part in this person’s positively changed ways as you stand strong.
You stand stronger because you know you have a way of meeting the next injustice, and the next, and the next after that.
Having a new heart as a result of forgiving and becoming stronger and helping others get stronger is a cause for joy.
Let us start with a different question to better frame the one above. Why be just or fair? At the very least, we obey laws so we are not punished. At higher levels, we strive for fairness because we have come to be fair people and to deny justice is to deny whom we are as persons.
When it comes to forgiveness, we cannot fall back on laws and punishments because no society ever has had a law requiring forgiveness because it is centered in mercy, not on a quest for fairness.
I would like to suggest that there are at least four good reasons to forgive:
1) As we forgive, we begin to feel better emotionally. Forgiveness is not centered in the self, but instead on goodness toward those who have injured us. A *consequence* of forgiving is emotional release from resentment. This by no means implies that a person is necessarily selfish if he or she forgives for this reason. Grasping a life preserver in a stormy sea is a wise move.
2) As in our justice example above, as we practice forgiveness over and over, we actually become forgiving persons. To forgive becomes a part of who we are as persons and to not forgive is to deny our very personhood.
3) When we practice forgiveness long enough, we begin to see that we have a choice in life regarding the legacy we will leave in this world. We can leave a legacy of woundedness and anger or a legacy of love. Forgiveness helps us to leave a legacy of love as we honor each person as having inherent worth, even those who have hurt us. We do not honor the unjust for what they have done, but in spite of that.
4) Finally, as we forgive, we are showing others how to live a life of moral goodness in the face of unjust treatment. When we forgive, we are helping to create a community of forgiveness for others, in the home, school, place of employment, place of worship, and wherever people come together for mutual support and growth.
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and a world renown psychiatrist, made the point that the only ones who survived concentration camp were those who somehow could find meaning in what they suffered. Those who saw their suffering as meaningless died.
In other words, finding meaning in this case meant to find life. What fascinates me about Dr. Frankl’s observations is that finding any meaning seems to count in staying alive. Whether a person saw the suffering as a way to toughen the self, or as a way to reach out to other suffering people was not the main point.
I wonder now, in reflecting on Dr. Frankl’s broad view of meaning in suffering, whether he had it entirely correct. Yes, it may be the case that any meaning can keep a person alive. Yet, what kind of meaning in suffering actually helps a person to thrive, not just to live? Perhaps people thrive only when they derive particular meaning from suffering. Of course, we do not know for sure, and any comment here is not definitive because it is open to scientific investigation and philosophical analysis. With that said, I think that when people realize that suffering helps them to love others more deeply, this is the avenue toward thriving.
How does suffering help people to love more deeply? I think there are at least three ways this happens: 1) Suffering makes people more aware of the wounds that others carry; 2) Suffering makes people more determined to help those others bind up their wounds, and 3) Suffering gives the sufferer the courage to put into action these insights and motivations to make a difference in the lives of others.
As people love in this way, there are characteristically two consequences which help them to thrive: 1) Those who deliberately love in the face of suffering grow in character, each becomes a better person, and 2) The recipients of this love-in-action have their well-being enhanced. As those who suffer see the fruit of their loving actions, this increases satisfaction with life, increasing thriving.
When we have been treated unjustly by others, this is an occasion of suffering. Let us cultivate the habit under this circumstance of finding this meaning: I have an opportunity now to love those who have hurt me. The one avenue to loving the unjust is to forgive them. Let us remember this meaning to forgiveness: “In my forgiving, I am someone who can love despite hardship.” As we say this routinely and come to know it is true, we may find that we have been given an opportunity to thrive as persons.
“How can you tell me you’re lonely….and say for you that the sun don’t shine? Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Dublin. I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind.”
The lyrics of that folk-song actually say “London” rather than “Dublin,” but we encountered a similar scene today in the Irish city. A young man asked our friend Lynn for some money and in the damp, pouring rain, she spend 20 minutes talking with him, treating him as a person of unconditional inherent worth. It turns out that he was abused repeatedly as a boy, suffered gravely, and in his extreme pain, cannot get a job and climb up out of the pit.
If I could give him one thing, it would be the insight to forgive (rightly understood, without the error of reconciliation at all costs) those who have abused him. It would give him the strength and purpose to go on. Lynn was suffering with and for this man as she sheltered him from the rain with her umbrella and in essence mothered him. I could tell by his eyes that he was surprised, delighted, and humbled that someone would pay attention to him and love him like this.
It was the lack of love in his past that brought him low. It will be the strength to forgive that very well might pull him out of this. Lynn’s stance in the Dublin rain shows us what is possible—to love those who do not necessarily consider themselves to be lovable. As he forgives, he will find that those forgiven are lovable and (surprise!) the one who forgives also is lovable.