Consequences of Forgiving
Dr. Suzanne Freedman and I did a scientific study in which we helped women who were incest survivors to forgive their perpetrators. This does not mean that we encouraged them to reconcile. They went through a 14-month forgiveness process that involved acknowledging their own anger and sadness, committing to forgive the offending person, trying to understand him as deeply as possible, trying as best they could to see how deeply wounded he is (not to condone or excuse him, but to better understand him), cultivating compassion when possible, and finding new meaning from what they suffered.
After the 14 months the women, who came to us psychologically depressed, had no depression at all. The absence of depression continued at least through the next 14 months when we reassessed their level of this challenging condition. It was the first scientific paper ever published to show that incest survivors not only can reduce depression but also eliminate it, at least for 14 months following the ending of therapy. Forgiveness made this healing possible.
Despite this positive outcome, we must not jump to the conclusion that everyone who tries to forgive will be depression-free at the journey’s end. Different people will have different outcomes. Yet, even for those who experience only some relief, this bit of improvement surely is better than never having tried to forgive and never experiencing any change in the level of depression.
Excerpt from the book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness by Robert Enright (W.W. Norton, New York City).
1) You have a goal of helping the one who hurt you to grow in character. By your love, you can now gently ask something of him or her. What will you ask of him or her, after you have forgiven (so that you can approach this person in love)?
2) You have a goal of trying as best you can to reconcile with the person who hurt you. Is he or she remorseful (with an inner sorrow) and repentant (as he or she expresses this)? Even if the answer is “no,” if he or she is not harmful to you, you can remain in his or her presence with the hope that your love will help the person grow in insight so that he or she changes for the better.
In today’s news, we read that Israel and Hamas are on the brink of all-out-war. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, today one group is verbally threatening violence because a parade commission banned them from a particular parade route. Anger. Toxic anger. It is at the heart of war. Yes, there are land disputes and ethnic disputes adding to the war and threat of violence, but disputes can be handled without violence…..if the hearts are without toxic anger. Our science shows this: forgiveness education reduces toxic anger. We need forgiveness education…..now….so that future generations can be protected from angry hearts in those who hold power. Maybe they will use their power more wisely when schooled in forgiveness.
An admired colleague of mine lost her child to kidnapping and murder when the child was just entering her teenage years. This event was so shocking, so vicious that it started to enter into the mother’s heart. She said that she would have gladly killed the man if she could and would have done so while she smiled. Yet, in time she realized that her entire being was being transformed by the effects of the resentment living within her….and she did not like at all who she was becoming.
The killer was about to take a second victim, the mother, as she emotionally degenerated because of the stress and monstrous nature of the act. She chose to forgive instead and her life took on great meaning. She became a conduit of good for her other children. She began to show them a new way, one based on goodness instead of the absence of goodness. The children were able to see this new way and to take that goodness into their own hearts. A life of meaning and purpose in service to others grew in the heart of the family.
The killer did not claim them as other victims and there was triumph. The mother came to realize that profound injustice can kill without even touching another–but it did not happen here. There is something so powerful about realizing that forgiveness helps us stand against the chaos of cruelty and triumph over it even when the grave injustice has had its way for a while. It no longer continues to have its way because the absence of good (the chaotic injustice) is met by goodness itself and goodness is the one that seems to win in the long run.
When you find meaning in your life and in the suffering that you endured you are not doing any of the following:
You are not denying anger, grief, or disappointment because of what happened to you. It did happen and your negative response is what we all go through. To find meaning is not to put the pillow over your head and hope the pain goes away.
When you find meaning you are not playing games with yourself by say, “Oh well, I can just make the best of what happened to me.” Yes, you can make the best of what happened, but if this is your meaning in what you have suffered, you are not going after that woundedness inside of you. The “oh, well” approach is so passive. We need a more active approach to the pain.
When you find meaning you do not sugar-coat the injustice and distort reality by saying, “All things happen for good reasons and so I will try to see the good in what was done to me.” Let us be honest: Maybe there was not any good in the injustice itself. What you learn from it will have goodness, but the event itself? Maybe you will find no good in that injustice against you and that is all right.