Forgiveness: A Choice for Life

Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
– Luke 11.4
Anger, blame, guilt, and regret cause pain that divides
people who love each other or want to love each other.
The words
Please forgive me and I forgive you
can be the bridge that reestablishes connection
and allows healing to happen.

– Ira Byock, M.D.

Several years ago, I had a very moving experience of the power of forgiveness. An event in my life led me to crumble into tears. As I sat with my feelings, my mind conjured up images of expectations unmet and of words unsaid. Finally, a realization of the need for forgiveness and healing emerged. Since that time, I have been probing the role of forgiveness in answer to the spiritual question: “How are we to be here with one another?”

A particularly powerful moment on my journey of exploration into the purpose and power of forgiveness came in October 2008 when I attended a presentation by Immaculée Ilibagiza, the Rwandan woman who survived the 1994 genocide by living for three months crammed into a bathroom with seven other women. Immaculée’s message in her presentation, and also in her book, Left to Tell, is one urging forgiveness as the only pathway back to life in the face of even the most cruel betrayal and violence. After hearing her and reading her story, I came away with the sense of her conviction – born during those dark days of fear and entrapment – that to not forgive her family’s killers would leave her as dead as her parents and siblings, even if she were to survive the genocide. Her observation that the failure to forgive is at least as much or possibly even more detrimental to me than it is to the person I believe harmed me was an important lesson.

Ira Byock in his book, The Four Things That Matter Most, says the words, “I forgive you,” and “Please forgive me,” are two out of the four things we ought to remember to say often in our relationships, especially, but not only, when a loved one is dying. (More later on the other two, saying “Thank you,” and “I love you.”)  Byock suggests several strategies for learning to be more forgiving. One is simply accepting that we are all just human, and “that means we screw up from time to time.”  He also suggests that before we jump to feeling victimized we consider the situation of the other person. “Most of the time when people are nasty, mean-spirited, or greedy they are acting out their own pain.”

David Bright (2006), a scholar who has researched the role of forgiveness in the workplace, describes forgiveness as “a response to perceived negative experiences.” I want to look individually at two of the important words in this definition. The first one is “perceived.”  I used to play basketball, and learned an old adage that players use: “No harm, no foul.” Forgiveness is unnecessary, of course, when others experience no harm through our actions. On the other hand, I have been in situations in which an apology was necessary even when I felt I had done no wrong. What I want to emphasize here is that if a person feels injured, those feelings are real. They need attention, whether or not the behavior associated with them could objectively be judged right or wrong.

This brings me to the second word I want to comment on in Bright’s description of forgiveness: “negative.”  What or who determines that an experience is a negative one?

Mistakes are probably the most common experiences we might label as negative, and for which we most often must beg forgiveness, or forgive others. However, I am coming to have a different attitude toward mistakes, particularly in light of the cosmic story of evolution.

Just the other day, I read about a corporate executive who has a sign in his office that reads something like, “Mistakes are events the full consequences of which we do not yet know.”  The quote reminds me of the “good news/bad news” story I read many years ago. It is about a farmer whose horse escapes through a hole in the pasture fence one night. In the morning, when they hear that the horse has gone missing, the farmer’s neighbors all offer their sympathy. Hearing this, he merely replies, “Good news, bad news; who’s to tell?”  Several days later, the missing horse returns bringing with it a pack of wild horses. The neighbors rejoice at the farmer’s good luck, but he gives the same reply. The next day, the farmer’s son attempts to ride one of the wild horses, but falls off, breaking his leg. Again, the neighbors groan, but the man remains stalwart in his observation: “Good news, bad news; who’s to tell?” A week later, war breaks out and the army marches through the village conscripting every young man available.  The farmer’s son is spared because of his broken leg. The story could, and probably does, go on, but you get the point.

The story of the farmer came to my mind this past week when I met one of my colleagues at the elevator. He was late for a class he was about to teach because he had had to return to his office to retrieve something he had forgotten. When I met up with him, he obviously was flustered, pacing back and forth while we waited for the elevator car to arrive. Finally, the bell dinged, the elevator doors opened, and out stepped a young student, looking quite confused. It turned out he needed to be on the other side of our building, accessed by a different bank of elevators, exactly where my colleague was headed. As we three reached the ground floor and exited the elevator, my colleague turned to the young man, saying, “Follow me!” As he did so, I thought of his earlier frustration at himself for forgetting something, causing him to be late for class. I smiled, thinking, “Good news, bad news; who’s to tell,” as I watched him guide a lost student to the right floor for class. I wondered if my colleague would be able to see the grace in that happy coincidence and forgive himself for his mistake.

If we really cannot be sure of the outcome of our mistakes, we are back then to putting the focus for considering forgiveness entirely on our feelings in the moment. Therefore, the first step in practicing forgiveness is recognizing the effects of what has happened on our emotional state. As the one feeling the offense, it is important for us to become aware of our own feelings.

The emotions we experience might range from hurt, disappointment, powerlessness, vulnerability, sadness or loss, to disgust, and even anger at the other person. Once we can name our feelings, we can begin by explore the story behind them. We can ask why this event triggers those emotions. We also can explore whether or not our emotions seem appropriate to the event. If not, perhaps they are magnified by being also tied to some similar, unresolved event in our past.

Once we become clearer about the story of our own experience and emotions, it is easier to take the next step, which is to explore the story of the other person. I remember having to make a deliberate decision to be open to hear the story of the person whose actions had caused me great hurt. Then, after listening to her perspective, I was able to make another choice: to move toward forgiveness. It meant new life for both of us.

You may not be able to do this emotional exploration in the moment you experience the hurt. You may need to step away from the event, find a quiet time and place, and replay the event in your mind, letting the feelings resurface.  Alone, you can appropriately express your feelings, or perhaps write about them in your journal.

Next week, I will offer some reflections on how forgiveness can become an important dynamic in our interactions in the workplace.

Bright, D.S. (2006). Forgiveness as an attribute of leadership. In Leading with values: Positivity, virtue and high performance. Hess, E.D. and Cameron, K.S. Cambridge. p. 173.

Byock, Ira, M.D. (2004).The Four Things That Matter Most. NY: Free Press. p. 50

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