Forgiveness

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Jesus, Luke 23:34

Part of growing up is learning to forgive. It is psychologically important.

At its simplest, there are two parties, two sides to an issue. Two different viewpoints, perhaps an expectation or a trust betrayed.

To an outside observer, perhaps one party is in the wrong, perhaps both in varying degrees. Regardless, each has a need to forgive the other – in the sense that they release that inner charge on their own psyche. The hurt that is not forgiven simpy festers and does damage at a later date.

So forgiving is something you do for yourself, not something you do to the other person.

I feel so much for a friend who was wronged and has been unable to forgive the person she had trusted for many years. She cannot let go of the hurt and it almost visibly eats away at her well being.

It is striking how much we respect someone like Nelson Mandela, who was able to forgive his persecutors of former years – or Gordon Wilson, who was able to immediately forgive the IRA after the Enniskillen bomb that killed his daughter.

I am reminded of the story of the two monks whose order demanded they have nothing to do with women. They came to a river and a young lady asked to be carried over to the other side. The older monk picked her up and carried her over and set her down on the other side. The two monks walked on in silence, until the younger could restrain himself no longer and said ‘you should not have picked up that young lady, it is against our vows’. The older monk simply replied ‘I set her down upon the river bank, you have been carrying her with you ever since…’.

This does not mean there are not consequences. There are choices to be made in the light of what has happened. A relationship may be ended or modified; society may choose to deprive a convicted criminal of his/her liberty for a while, with the aim of a period of reflection and rehabilitation in civilised societies; and so on…

This is not to say that the pent up energy caused by lack of forgiveness cannot sometimes lead to beneficial results. For example, the refusal of many to accept the whitewash of the Hillsborough disaster, probably because it was not forgiven, eventually led to the recent enquiry that has helped the truth to come to light. But we should be clear that there is a psychological cost…

Looking at the broad sweep of history, it appears that the coming of Christianity brought foregiveness to the fore, supplanting the previous philosophy of ‘eye for an eye’ that is still prevalent in many places. More recently, psychologically, we now see lack of forgiveness as one of the defense mechanisms of the ego.

“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive.”

Maya Angelou

Footnote

After writing this I came across Wikihow on practical ways to forgive.

In the featured image Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius shows clemency to barbarians, courtesy Capitoline Museum, Rome and Wikimedia Commons

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