The Necessity of Forgiveness
An Interview With Dr. Fred Luskin
How do you think people view forgiveness?
DR. FRED LUSKIN: Four to five years ago I started working on forgiveness. When I did my first project, I was literally begging people to participate. In the last two or three years, people are begging me to be a part of it. The change is striking.
In the past, forgiveness was limited to religious and political discussions. Now it's entered into the daily discussion of psychology, spirituality and emotional well-being. People are starting to understand that forgiveness can help your physical health as well. It's become immediate and practical to people in a way that it wasn't before.
We're experiencing the consequences of a culture that is excessively angry. There is such damage done to relationships, people and health through anger, blame and a kind of self-righteous aggression. We live in a culture that's stressed and angry. People are hungering for solutions - a corrective has to emerge. And the most complete, strongest corrective is forgiveness.
How do you define forgiveness?
There's a wonderful definition of forgiveness: that to forgive is to give up all hope for a better past. If you are locked in regret over the past, you have less available to your life now. The other problem is that if you don't forgive, then you are in some ways prejudging your future - that you are on guard and defended and helpless, that there's a residual bitterness that influences your capacity for happiness because you haven't resolved something from your past.
Forgiveness allows you a fresh start, whether it's a big insult or a small one. It's like a rain coming to a polluted environment. It clears things. At some point, you can say that this awful thing happened to me. It hurt like hell, yet I'm not going to allow it to take over my life. That's the choice that's always available. When you're with someone who's had tragedy, you offer that choice, although you don't tell them to take it. Without it, they can get stuck in bitterness and revenge. That's the cost of not forgiving.
When you meet people who have forgiven, you see their power. You see the strength and courage it takes to forgive in a world dominated by "an eye for an eye." I can suggest that forgiveness is good for you. I can look to people who have forgiven and seen how they've healed, and I can teach you to forgive, but it's still your decision and your life. I respect people who say they don't want to forgive. This is a huge, human question. There is no one right answer.
Why do people need to learn how to forgive?
I have worked with college students, middle-aged adults and women from Northern Ireland who have lost their children to violence. Research shows a reasonably brief training in forgiveness helps people in almost every way it's measured. They become less angry, more hopeful, calmer and more self-confident - it frees them in a way they would have never anticipated before the forgiveness training.
Other research has shown that short training in forgiveness can help physical well-being as well. The negative physical responses when you're frustrated or angry are meant to exist for a short period only. Our body has exquisitely designed mechanisms to alert us to danger and to give us energy to get out. After that short period, it's wearing on your body. Without the skills to turn it off, you store that piece of anger - and then the next one, and the next one, and the next one. Each one of those is corroding your body's finely tuned balance. It can wear out your nervous system because it simply violates the way we were designed to operate. Does it happen from two or three expressions of anger? No. But does it happen over a lifetime? Yes. In the short term, anger makes people more at risk for heart attacks, for chest pain, for immune dysfunction. People who experience anger too much forget that life is still beautiful and joyful. It robs them of an ability to slow down enough to appreciate their relationships, to give thanks.
Can you forgive someone without their apologizing?
There's clear evidence that if people apologize, it's easier to forgive. Forgiveness, though, is not limited by that. You can forgive even if the person utters no conciliatory words and suffers no consequence, because forgiveness is always for you. You forgive by remembering what happened and you commit yourself to it never happening again. Or, you can remember it and say, "I'm not going to suffer any more. I'm going to bring some goodness to the people in my life." It's an active quality. It has nothing to do with forgetting. And it's a very powerful statement.
Forgiveness is about healing. In every class I teach I have to make the distinction between justice, reconciliation, condoning and forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean you condone the action. It doesn't mean you have to reconcile with or like the person who did it. You are perfectly able to say, "This was such a heinous act, I sever my relationship with them." And it doesn't mean you don't seek justice. These are separate acts from the inner healing that occurs. Forgiveness means that you don't take what happened as just personal, that you see it as a part of the bigger, ongoing human experience of hurt, resolution, conflict and negotiation.
Can you incorporate forgiveness into your daily life?
Forgiveness can start small. Practice on the smallest things in your life: The next time you get mad at anybody for a triviality, practice forgiving them. Make it a conscious choice to let it go and notice how good it feels. And ask yourself this question when you're mad at somebody, "Is it worth it to me right now to suffer?" If you're confused and uncertain about it, ask someone who's practiced forgiveness. They'll give you a glowing report about its value in their life. Don't just take my word for it.
Part of forgiveness is that you stop blaming. You say, "OK, this terrible thing happened and now it's my responsibility to move forward as best I can. I give myself a better chance of moving forward if I forgive what happened."
It's this quality of being able to move on with some openness and trust that's the essential aspect of forgiveness. Continually blaming someone for your suffering gives them enormous power over you. Forgiveness means you take back your power. You literally say, "My life is mine." Give very little power over you to people who are cruel. It seems like a foolish waste of this very short life we have.