Forgiveness And A Happy Full Life
“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Mark Twain
From an early age, most of us were taught that it is a good and noble thing to forgive others. That makes sense. You don’t find too many parents that encourage their children to hold a grudge, or nurture resentment. Whether one is religious or secular, common sense suggests that the ability to forgive others is a healthy trait. It is difficult to go through life without needing forgiveness – we all make mistakes. It is equally difficult to go through life withholding forgiveness – it acts as a strong chord that binds close relationships when torn by the forces of human frailty.
Before going further, however, we need to answer the obvious question of “What Does It Mean To Forgive?”
What Is Forgiveness?
A practical definition (not theological) is that forgiveness is the act of erasing the personal debt incurred by a wrong. Put somewhat differently, we give up the right to ‘get even.’ The wrong that was done to us is not used as a cudgel against the wrong doer.
Let’s be clear. Forgiveness is not excusing someone’s behavior.
Nor is it a reason to be a doormat and accept further wrongs.
Neither does the act of forgiving someone mean that the wrong doer is not held accountable (Teen: “But Dad, you said you forgave me for crushing the fender on the car.” Parent “I do forgive you, but I also still hold you responsible for your actions, which means your summer job will help you pay for car repairs.”).
Lastly, forgiveness does not mean that the one who forgives should adopt a naive view of the person who is being forgiven.
If a new acquaintance, for example, is invited to have dinner at your home and you later find that he has stolen your wallet, the family silverware collection, and the cat (well, you might thank him for taking the cat), then you would be unwise to send out another invite. It would be very wise, however, to try your best to forgive him.
Does that mean you would not call the police? Of course you would call the police. Press charges? I hope so. Avoid spending time with sticky fingers in the future? Terrific idea.
But holding a grudge, letting resentment take root that would be a bad idea. If that were to occur, then the man who betrayed your trust would continue to influence your life, for the worse.
If resentment is not rooted out, but allowed to remain, the person who has wronged us has a double victory… both in having committed the wrong, and now having set up residence in our mind, rent-free.
But when we are able to forgive, we win freedom by evicting the harsh feelings that come with resentment, and we evict the control the wrong doer has over our happiness.
Forgiveness takes strength. It goes against our natural inclination to hold onto resentment.
It is also important to remember that forgiveness is often a process. A time consuming process. Sometimes a life-long process.
The effort it takes, the cost it extracts, means extending forgiveness is not for the weak of heart.
It is, however, very much for those who want to have more control over their lives, and live more freely. As one writer put it
"When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free, but you discover that the real prisoner was yourself" (Lewis B. Smedes).
What Are The Practical Benefits of Forgiving Others… And the Costs of Not Forgiving?
It turns out that those who are good at forgiving tend to be happier, have healthier relationships, less stress, fewer illnesses and stronger marriages than those who are not so good at extending forgiveness.
Sounds good, yes? If you could buy forgiveness as a supplement I would have Amazon Prime delivering it to my doorstep the first of each month.
But there is the proverbial ‘fly in the ointment.’ As C. S. Lewis wryly noted, "Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive."
Exactly. Forgiveness does not come naturally to most of us. Anger and resentment come naturally. In fact, these reactions seem almost reflexive, and can feel empowering. A welcome antidote to the experience of hurt and betrayal. This is especially true when our pride has been injured (which is often the case when someone does something that we, in turn, need to forgive).
Unfortunately, the feelings of resentment and anger that led us to feel empowered eventually end up consuming our mental energies, and draining joy from our lives. Like a cancer, it absorbs its host.
Unforgiveness is particularly destructive when it occurs in close relationships. When one person has been wronged, and withholds forgiveness, the relationship changes. You see, forgiving someone you love provides him or her freedom from past mistakes. Withholding forgiveness withholds that freedom. The relationship becomes lopsided. The transgressor forever being held under the cloud of his or her past failure.
Relationships marked by unforgiveness become weighed down by the pressure of this unresolved hurt. Although the relationship may still be close, a barrier exists that prevents it from developing even more fully. This is true in marriages, close friendships, sibling relationship, and so forth.
Many people attempt to deal with the difficulty of forgiving others by simply brushing the matter aside. This is especially easy to do when the transgressor has failed to ask for forgiveness. In that case, you or I might say “Why forgive? They won’t even accept that they did something wrong.”
Often when things get to this point both people (whether they be spouses, close friends, etc.) will reason that if the relationship is to be salvaged we simply need to “agree to disagree” and move forward.
The problem is that as we “move forward” we now have an added guest: the ghost of unresolved betrayal, heartache and conflict.
You may be thinking that this is just part of life. It’s the best we can hope for in many situations. Although that may be true at times, I want to encourage you to aim higher, strive to forgive.
The alternative to forgiving, to ‘just move on’, carries a too high a cost. That is what I want to explore next, but to do that I need to talk about memory, beer, and happy relationships (no, this isn’t a recollection of my years in graduate school).
Memory, Beer and Happy Relationships
In the early part of the last century, some of the brightest psychologists in the world could be found in Germany at the Berlin School of Experimental Psychology. Being in Berlin meant that a trip to the beer garden, after a long day of work, was customary. In fact, a certain group of elite social scientists at the Berlin School became regulars at one of the local beer gardens in the city.
One evening this group went out after work to spend some time relaxing and tipping back a few brewskies. Late in the evening one of their members commented about the remarkable memory their waiter had demonstrated (let’s call him Hans). He had served them on many occasions: sometimes they had come as a large group of twenty, at other times a smaller group half that size. No matter how large the party, Hans had always taken their orders without using a notepad, and returned later with the exact item each person had ordered. He then correctly placed each order with each diner. Hans never missed. Never. Zilch. Flawless.
Someone in the group asked Hans to reveal his secret for remembering orders. “You are remarkable! Tell us, how do you remember all of our orders Hans? You even seem to recall the smallest details, like my preference for having Königsberger Klopse without beets.”
Hans paused for a moment, closed his eyes, and then with a wry smile replied, “Ich habe keine Ahnung!”, or “Beats me!”
The psychologists were baffled. How could Hans not know? Was he holding back on them? There must be a system (and they wanted to know what it was because, after all, one of their main areas of research was on memory).
One of psychologist at the table, a 23-year-old Russian woman named Bluma Zeigarnik, thought she might have a clue. Not the full answer to how Hans demonstrated gold medalist memory skills, but at least part of the answer.
To test her idea she waited until the next time the group visited the beer garden. She waited for Hans to bring their food, and as usual he took their order without writing anything down. A short time later the food arrived and Hans correctly placed each meal with the person who had requested that particular dish.
Once Hans turned away to wait on another table Bluma asked all of her colleagues to quickly cover their plates with a napkin. She then called for Hans and asked him to return. “Hans, would you please remind me what the food orders were that you just put on our table?” (You can see why psychologist don’t get many dinner invitations…. We’re a lively group to take into public, full of surprises that make everyone cringe).
The young waiter stood quietly, staring intently at the napkin-covered plates. He scratched his head (no doubt thinking “Will the answer I give effect my tip?) and eventually replied “Ich habe keine Ahnung!” – which we already know means “Beats me!”
“Thank you Hans. That will be all” Bluma replied (slipping Hans her phone number with the hope that they might meet for coffee the next day).
Her suspicions had been supported. She had not expected Hans to be able to remember the orders once they were delivered to the table. Bluma felt certain that Hans was only able to recall that information when it was still part of his ‘unfinished business.’
Hans, she thought, had unconsciously placed priority on recalling the details of the order because it was part of a sequence of events that needed to be completed. As such the information remained, for a time, readily available (rather like the books sitting on my desk that I refer to while writing a paper).
Once the information became “finished business”, it was unconsciously moved to less accessible areas of the brain where recall was no longer readily available (sort of like taking the books off my desk once the paper is written, and then moving them to a storage unit down the street… I can get to them, but it won’t happen anytime soon).
Put a little differently, there was a processing/action/conclusion loop. Hans took the order (mentally processed the information). Took action (gave the meal orders to the cook). Then concluded the processing/action with delivering the food to the table.
Bluma had guessed that the mind naturally retains information in easily accessible memory when such loops remain open. Once the loop is completed, the information recedes so that new data can be processed.
It was a significant finding, and years of research on this tendency followed. It has become known as the Zeigarnik Effect.
The entire sequence of processing informationàacting on informationàconclusion we will call the Zeigarnik Loop.
Now you are probably asking, “What on earth does this have to do with forgiveness, let alone relationships? “
Let me explain, and add something about why developing the ability to forgive is important for building a happy life.
When someone wrongs us it is quite natural to become angry, and in some circumstances we might ‘hold a grudge’ against that person. The first two steps of the processing/action/conclusion loop have taken place. We became aware that we had been wronged in some way (the processing step). We then confronted the person (action step). But if the wrong doer makes excuses and fails to take responsibility, there is no conclusion step. Alternatively, if they do accept responsibility and apologize, but we fail to forgive, then again there is no conclusion step.
The injury to the relationship remains very much alive in our mind. Put differently, a book of wrongs is left on the desk, easily referred to in the future, rather than being put away in storage.
Perhaps an example would help. Imagine it is a young couple’s wedding day. The bride has spent many months preparing: selecting flowers, choosing dresses for the bridesmaids, deciding on what food to serve at the reception, sending out invitations, and so forth. The groom’s only job has been to make sure that he and the groomsmen appear on time and are wearing tuxedos.
A little problem arises the morning of the wedding: the groom has not tried on his tuxedo, and when he takes it out of the clothing bag he realizes that the tuxedo shop gave him the wrong tuxedo. He ordered black, the one he received is periwinkle blue.
Not wanting to upset his bride he keeps this little mix up to himself. But when his groomsmen see him in his periwinkle tuxedo (looking very much like a Las Vegas piano player) they suggest that it really would have been better to forewarn his betrothed. Too late. She only finds out about the mix up when being walked down the aisle by her father who, seeing the groom standing at the altar, sadly shakes his head, having his worst fears confirmed about his future son in law.
None of us would expect the bride to be pleased with this outcome. She has a right to be upset. But if she cannot eventually forgive her husband, this resentment will remain as something that continues to nag at her. It will be a book of wrongs left on her mental desk. A book that will have more journal entries added as the years go by… and be easily reviewed with every mistake her husband makes in the future.
As these other inevitable sources of conflict arise it will be easy for her to unconsciously frame them in terms of past mistakes. “Oh, once again you are being too lazy to care about what is important to me. Just like that stupid periwinkle blue tuxedo.”
This quickly becomes a downward spiral leading to deeply rooted negative perceptions.
Holding resentments and grudges prevents us from closing the Zeigarnik Loop. It is difficult for us to find the peace we seek without closing this loop.
As Martin Luther King insightfully wrote "I have decided to stick with love…Hate is too great a burden to bear."
How Heavy A Burden?
Those who do not forgive do not reap the rewards that come with this practice. These rewards were briefly mentioned earlier. For example, people who are good at forgiving generally have happier relationships than those that do not readily forgive others.
Forgiveness is also related to improved physical health.
Reductions in stress, anxiety and depression have also been found to be related to forgiveness.
And in case you think that it is impossible to change your ability to forgive, research also shows that most people can learn how to do so, or at the least become better at forgiving (and reap the benefits mentioned above).
The gains from practicing forgiveness are tremendous (and if you are a person of faith, you already know that one of these rewards, not found in the research literature, is a closer relationship with God). If you are interested in reading about specific steps you can take to become better at forgiving (both others and yourself), you can look at books by Hunt, Worthington, Klien, or Smedes.
You may also enjoy watching a video of Dr. Worthington, a research psychologist who has studied forgiveness, speak about specific steps he has found effective in teaching people to be better at forgiving.
Forgiveness can be thought of as the process of closing the Zeigarnik Loop. Releasing the grip of the past on your life, and moving forward with a lighter load to carry.
It is a triumph of the will, not a forgetting, nor an invitation to be abused, not an excuse for the wrong doer’s behavior, nor a sign of weakness. To the contrary, the exercise of forgiveness is a display of strength that wins freedom, and has the capacity to transform the one who forgives from victim to victor.