Right Use of Power: The Effects of Forgiveness

Two men huggingForgiveness is often misunderstood. I recall asking a colleague to forgive me for my unskillfulness in handling a situation that affected him. I had made an important decision without consulting him. I was truly sorry.  His response to my request for forgiveness, however, surprised me: “If I forgive you, it will be as if it never happened. And it did happen so forgiveness wouldn’t be right.” Forgiveness, in fact, is a very deep feeling of reverence for life and willingness to somehow let go of past hurt. It does not require forgetting or condoning or even reconciling, as my colleague imagined and felt. In that moment with my colleague, I sat still. I wanted to explain what forgiveness was, as I understood it, but I had the sense that the core of the issue was not forgiveness, but my colleague’s need to hang on to the hurt. When you aren’t forgiven, what CAN you do? With this man, what I found I could do was to feel compassion for his need to keep his hurt as part of his story. And then, with sadness, I could let go of my need to be cleared of the burden of this hurt, so that we could move forward with good will. I must say that as a result of this interaction, somehow our current working relationship dramatically improved, but I continued to feel a shadow waiting in the wings.  Was it mine? His? Ours?

I had a client once who felt unworthy to be alive. He had sexually abused his two sisters as a teenager.  He had become grievously sorry and some years ago had asked them to forgive him. They had refused to have anything to do with him. He had been out of touch with them for years. He was suffering. He felt unforgivable. He wept. We explored his feelings together. He found a part of himself that could feel compassion for the teenager who himself had been abused. He could feel his confusion and he could fully feel how wrong it had felt even at the time. We stayed there for a while. From compassion, he found himself able to forgive himself. After a few sessions, he said, “I won’t be forgiven by the dear sisters that I harmed. I can understand their decision, but it’s very sad. I see that I can’t help heal our family, but there are several things I can do. I am a doctor. I can volunteer at our local women’s safe house. And I am proud to tell you that I have stopped the family cycle of abuse, and I have not and will never abuse my daughters.” This was a potent and transformative moment. He no longer felt like an unforgivably bad person, but as one who had caused deep pain, suffered, learned some strong lessons and become a person devoted to healing.

Recently, I read two newspaper articles about people choosing to pardon attackers. These are remarkable and newsworthy stories about wounded people who were able to work through their grief, anger, and suffering and come to a point of inner peace that allowed them to forgive.

The first story took place in the United States. Leonard Pitts, Jr. tells this one in his commentary Reverence for life can still trump a need for death. “James Anderson was killed in June near Jackson, Mississippi. He was a black man who was beaten and then run over with a pickup truck. . . . The killing was the definition of horrific. Yet in its letter, Anderson’s family asks prosecutors not to seek the death penalty. It is against their faith, they wrote, adding that executing Anderson’s killer will not ‘balance the scales,’ while sparing them may ‘spark a dialogue’ that could help end capital punishment.’ Our loss will not be lessened by the state taking the life of another,’ they said.” In this story, the family felt that their pardoning could actually serve a higher purpose of helping to end capital punishment.

The second is of a 34-year-old woman in Iran who was “blinded and disfigured by a man who threw acid into her face . . . because she refused his marriage proposal.” The court had ordered as retribution that doctors put drops of acid in one of the attacker’s eyes. “The man waited on his knees and wept. ‘What do you want to do now?’ the doctor asked? . . . ‘I forgave him, I forgave him,’ she responded, asking the doctor to spare him.” (Associated Press: World Briefs, Monday, August 1, 2011). I suspect that this moment changed this man’s life even more than the court ordered retribution would have.

Fred Luskin, speaking from the point of view of the one who has been harmed, defines forgiveness as “the ability to make peace with your own life by no longer arguing and objecting to the way it unfolds. It means difficult things happen in life, and first you have to grieve them, then accept them and finally move on. . . . Forgiveness means that unkindness stops with you. . . . This is not a one-time response. . . . It’s about becoming a forgiving person.” Vesala Simic adds, “Forgiveness is a pro-social change in someone’s experience after a transgression.  When people choose to forgive, they change.” (Both quotes from p. 30, p. 32, Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness, Issue 13).  I wish I could interview these people now that several months have passed to see how their actions have affected them.  I’m imagining they would describe experiences of peace, freedom, and good will.

In the largest context, forgiveness has the awesome power to stop the cycles of revenge and violence that drive egregious abuses of power. Luskin adds, “By choosing to forgive, we stand in awe of the horror that can happen to people in this world and we decide neither to participate in them nor to repay them. It’s not a matter whether or not we will have conflict; it’s a matter of what we do with that conflict.”

Actions of forgiveness such as in these stories come from an ethic higher than the ethic of guilt and retributive punishment. This higher ethical position comes from a foundation of reverence for life, desire to heal and stop the cycle of violence, and a belief that the kindness that can emerge from suffering can truly transform situations of injustice. This is right use of the power as the ability to have a beneficent effect.

Related Articles:

Moral/ Ethical Development
I’m Right, You’re Wrong
Reclaiming Your Life Through Forgiveness

© Copyright 2011 by Cedar Barstow. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Shannon

    October 18th, 2011 at 4:37 PM

    It is hard to ask for forgiveness, but even more difficult when you are forced to ask it of someone whom you know is never going to be willing to give that to you. But that is ok. You know that you are doing the right thing to ask for it, and you have to hope that the person who feels wronged is willing to give that to you. But if they are not then that is their problem, not yours, and you are doing the right thing to absolve yourself. That does not mean that the event never happened, it just means that you are going through the process of repairing something where you did wrong.

  • Lance Pollock

    October 19th, 2011 at 11:37 AM

    They say it takes courage to say sorry but really,it takes not only courage but even a strong personality to forgive someone.And it is not everyone’s cup of tea either. So for those who can forgive others for their mistakes-Great job and never change.

    It is one quality that not many people have and it in no way makes you weak but in fact makes you stronger than others!

  • Larry

    October 19th, 2011 at 12:58 PM

    I agree with Lance.
    For most of us it is even harder to forgive than it is to be the one to apologize.
    But it is about obtaining peace in your life and finding that all over again. Without forgiveness you will live a life filled with anger. And I for one do not think that that would be a life that would be very much fun to live.

  • donna s.

    October 19th, 2011 at 2:08 PM

    I cannot see forgiveness as anything more than a surrender. Why surrender when you can fight to show them that what they did was unacceptable?

    I’m not in the business of making people feel it’s okay for them to treat me badly as if it doesn’t matter what they do.

    Forgiveness is like giving them a get out of jail free card. Literally in some cases. Me, I’d want his eyes unlike that lady- never mind acid in them. I think God would too. The Bible says an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

  • SallyFaulkner

    October 19th, 2011 at 6:50 PM

    @donna s.: And I bet as you typed that you could feel your blood pressure rising, your heart rate escalating, and your jaw and your chest tightening. Was it worth it? Do you think your tormentor felt any of that same time as you did? Of course they didn’t.

    The only one you’re hurting by hanging on to all that hate and anger is yourself, physically emotionally and mentally. They probably aren’t giving you a second thought. Sorry but it’s true. Let it go, for goodness sake.

  • Dean Walden

    October 19th, 2011 at 7:09 PM

    @donna s.: Forgiveness isn’t on my agenda either. My stance is if you hurt me, I’m not going to make it easy for you to wipe that away with a few words.

    And it’s not about me wanting to hold on to the hurt as you suggested Cedar. It’s about wanting THEM to hold onto the hurt they have caused and not let it disappear as if it were inconsequential. I want them to live with that hurt same as I do.

  • Jon

    October 20th, 2011 at 4:15 AM

    The positive effects of both offering forgiveness and recieving it are undeniable. It is too bad that so many of us have a hard time with doing these two things.

  • Cedar Barstow

    November 16th, 2011 at 3:37 PM

    Hello, I want to respond to Donna and Dean. I understand that you see forgiveness as surrender and an implicit permission to treat you badly and not ever experience consequences. If that were how forgiveness works, I’d be concerned about it also. So, let’s examine this a bit more. So, think for a moment about what you really want and need from the person who hurt you. What I read in your responses is that you want and need for a) the person to know that what they did was unacceptable, b) for them to know that causing harm has negative consequences for them, and c) that you want them to know and live with the hurt they caused. I think these are natural responses to being hurt. Now, what do we know about what helps people know the difference between hurting and helping in ways that help them shift from habits of hurting to habits of helping? I’ll take Restorative Justice as an example. Through many, many processes in which victims and perpetrators meet together face to face, Restorative Justice folks have found that when the one who caused harm listens (face to face) to the person they have harmed speak of their pain, and when they two of them figure out what kind of amends the perpetrator could offer, the escalation stops and the situation can be completed and let go of. And, what’s more, the rate of recidivism is dramatically reduced. Now, this is not forgiveness, but it is a close cousin. I don’t know what kind of hurt each of you is carrying, but through this process, the victim got to see that the perpetrator knew what they did was unacceptable, and there were consequences that the perpetrators had to live with and something they had to pay back. Back to your situation, Donna. I think there is a difference between standing up for yourself and fighting to cause equal or worse harm. When people fight, usually the situation escalates in severity, and the person being fought feels more justified than ever about their actions (rather than remorseful) as you would like. As the saying goes: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, results in a blind and toothless society.” Without an eye and a tooth, you are severely limited in how you can take care of yourself and contribute. A tragic result when what you needed was to know that they understood the harm they caused and felt sorry about it and even were ready to learn from the incident so that it doesn’t happen again. Now that kind of result would be consequential, not inconsequential, for the future–something that Dean wants. There’s also a difference between asking for forgiveness, which requires and demonstrates that you understand what you have done and want to be responsible for it—and offering forgiveness, which sometimes is the best thing to do for your own health and well-being and may or may not have your desired effect on the person who caused you harm. And then there’s the question, Dean and Donna, do you really, really need the person who harmed you to hurt as much or more than you (literally)? Wouldn’t it be enough for them to feel genuine sorrow and to offer you some amends and to let you know they would not do it again? Look at the generations of blood feuds that still go on in many communities…to the point that nobody even remembers what the original hurt was. This is not healing for anyone. Each time an act of forgiveness helps one or the other let go and move on, saves countless unnecessary acts of revenge. (Thanks for your honest responses…obviously, you got me to thinking…I hope my response is helpful.)

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