Sliding Otter News 6/5/2010

The Gentle Art of Forgiveness

Fan Palm

~To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you~

Lewis B Smedes

The goal of forgiveness may be considered from the point of view of the offender, the offended or the relationship between the two. The offender may be relieved of the offended’s wish for retribution. The offended may let go of a wish to retaliate. Ways may be sought to normalize the relationship between the two, which forms one aspect of restorative justice.

Do you wonder just what forgiveness means? I did. The best definition I could find was one put forward by the American Psychological Association, “Forgiveness is a process (or the result of a process) that involves a change in emotion and attitude regarding an offender, resulting in decreased motivation to retaliate or maintain estrangement from an offender despite their action and requires letting go of negative emotions toward the offender.”

The definition seems clear to me but difficult to accomplish. The great majority of us react to being wronged with feelings of anger, blame and a wish for the offender to be punished. Eventually many of us let go of these feelings although others allow themselves to be consumed by them indefinitely. Our anger might continue long after any legal process on our behalf is completed. In this case it is we who suffer rather than the person who harmed us initially. We become prisoners of our own feelings.

While forgiveness may involve a more normalized relationship between offender and offended, it does not require condoning what was done, excusing it, pardoning it or trying to forget about what happened. While forgiveness releases us to go on with our lives, the rest of these actions place us at greater risk of being taken advantage of again.

So why should we forgive those who have offended us? What do we have to gain? Positive changes in our feelings lead to our healing by releasing us of the stress of being burdened by negative emotions. Improved physical and mental health usually follow after releasing ourselves from the chains of a quest for revenge. A sense of control in our lives often returns when we no longer dwell on our misfortune.

If we choose the forgiveness option, what of the offender being held accountable? We live in a society where most offenses have legal sanctions. Even primitive civilizations have societal ways to deal with transgressions.

What if we are harmed in ways for which no legal redress exists? One approach is to be sure the offenders know how we feel about what they did. In discussing what happened we might find the offender meant us no harm and that we bear a grudge for no good reason. We might also find that the offender will take responsibility for his or her actions.

Life Lab Lessons

  • Recognize when you feel offended and why
  • Realize that the choice of how long to dwell on the offense is yours.
  • Do what you can to right the wrong and then let it go.
  • Find ways to protect yourself from further harm.
  • If you can’t let it go, write about it and store what you wrote.
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