On Forgiveness, part two

A lot has happened since I last posted. Joyous holidays, the battle with a depressive episode—- still lingering and touched mightily by recent family affairs, progress with workouts under direction of my personal trainer, and the severe illness and death January 31st of my beloved younger sister, Ellie. She was the first in our family of six brothers and sisters to pass. I miss her greatly.

I have been studying forgiveness and the power of forgiveness in one’s life for some time now. Indeed, I have an essay On Forgiveness on this website already devoted to the topic.   In that essay, I wrote that “forgiveness does not mean forgetting. And yet it is more than tolerating. I was startled to read that forgiveness is beyond letting go of negatives, such as anger; it is also the inclusion of positive gift-like qualities such as compassion, generosity, and even love.”

This posting is part two of my growth in understanding of this most powerful act of human reconciliation.

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I’ve now made a little dent into the literature of forgiveness, and have learned two major facts: One, there is research to show that physical and mental health benefits come from forgiving and Two, that forgiving, learning forgiveness, is hard work. I’ll write about those benefits in this posting. The hard work of forgiveness will be addressed in future posts.

“NOT Forgiving — nursing a grudge—is so caustic”, reports Fred Luskin, PhD, a health psychologist at Stanford University and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. “It raises your blood pressure, depletes immune function, makes you more depressed and causes enormous physical stress to the whole body.”  In this book, citing research and teaching by vivid example, Mr. Luskin shows that people who are forgiving tend to have not only less stress but also better relationships, fewer general health problems and lower incidences of the most serious illnesses like depression, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

So how does one forgive? Is it a process one can learn, something each of us might do, or a work for the saints among us only?

Forgiveness can be hard work. Robert Enright, PhD, the author of Eight Keys to Forgiveness, says: “….in its essence forgiveness is not something we do to just help ourselves. It is not something about you or done for you. It is something you extend toward another person, because you recognize, over time, that it is the best response to the situation.”  And then, Professor Enright continues:  “Working on forgiveness can help us increase our self-esteem and give us a sense of inner strength and safety. It can reverse the lies that we often tell ourselves when someone has hurt us deeply—lies like, I am defeated or I’m not worthy. Forgiveness can heal us and allow us to move on in life with meaning and purpose. Forgiveness matters and we will be its primary beneficiary.”

I’ll end this post with a brief outline of forgiveness’ process.

First, accept that something happened in opposition to your wishes and you can’t change it. What can you do to suffer less?  Then, look at your involvement with this person—simplify it.

Second, try to move past the hurt and go on. Perhaps the steps suggested below will help you progress.

  • Acknowledge that you have been hurt. Talk to a few close friends to explore your feelings and obtain a sense of perspective.
  • Make a commitment to forgiveness.
  • Start with small things. Start by trying to forgive modest slights by people who have done you harm in life.
  • Recognize your “grievance stories” and gradually deemphasize and replace them by thinking of your own positive goals.
  • Focus on facts rather than emotions. Attempt to understand what led the person to the hurtful behavior. Bless you.
  • Try not to take things personally. Many offenses were not deliberately targeted to hurt you personally, but were byproducts of other people’s own selfish goals.
  • Forgive those you love. The most important people to forgive are those close to us.

( Find these steps in Terrie Heinrich Rizzo’s posting The Healing Power of Forgiveness, 2006 )

On Forgiveness

One aspect of my illness that I’ve struggled with for many years is forgiveness – forgiving the people, events, and even the institutions where I have felt anger, humiliation and pain.

Why do I struggle and feel so strongly about this? A level playing field must be found among friends, family and providers to nurture communication, comfort and a new beginning. Imagine setting aside blame while acknowledging responsibility. Think of deeds being forgiven and the tangled web of the past losing its ability to shape our future.

Just what deeds am I thinking of forgiving? Sadly, they are all real, and the ability to forgive them will not come easily. People with mental illness many have experienced being abandoned when ill, or we may remember restraints and seclusion. We may have experienced involuntary commitment, deep humiliation, or poor care resulting in severe symptoms that led to years of mistrust toward caregivers. For many family members, deeds that need forgiving may include their relative’s antagonistic behavior, violent acts or threats of violence, sexual infidelities and indiscretions, verbal abuse, or unreasonable demands or careless spending sprees which left the family in debt.

I have a thoughtful book of essays that is helping me sort through many questions about forgiveness. What is forgiveness between us? Why forgive? And where to begin? Exploring Forgiveness, edited by Robert Enright and Joanna North, contains a forward by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa that states:

“Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened when you are treated unfairly. It is opening the door for the other person to begin again. Without forgiveness, resentment builds in us, a resentment which turns into hostility and anger. Hatred eats away at our well being.”

What I am learning is that forgiveness is not pretending that things are other than they are. It is not cheap. Robert Enright and others write that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. And yet it is more than tolerating. I was startled to read that forgiveness is beyond letting go of negatives, such as anger; it is also the inclusion of positive gift-like qualities such as compassion, generosity, and even love. Joanna North insists that forgiveness is hard work, and that:

“Forgiveness is not something that we do for ourselves alone, but something that we give or offer to another. The forgiving response is outward-looking and other-directed; it is supposed to make a difference to the wrongdoer as well as to ourselves, and it makes a difference in how we interact with the wrongdoer and with others.”

Learning how to forgive includes understanding both the perspective of the injured party and that of the wrongdoer. When we begin to separate the wrongdoer from the wrong which has been committed; we also begin to see the person who has committed a particular wrong. Healing can then occur to the person injured and to the relations between the two parties.

It is my hope that in the year to come we can learn, as people with mental illnesses and as family members, to speak not only of understanding and empathizing with the other, but also to explore issues of forgiveness. “Without forgiveness there is no future,” Bishop Tutu declared.

Let us create a good future.

About Partnerships … thinking about enhancing care and support within them

46 years. That’s how long my husband and I have been married.  And it was 50 years ago when we first dated, a sweet memory today.  Jim has always been the very kindest, most fun and interesting man I know.  Our kindness toward one another is a key to our relationship, especially when the water wasn’t so smooth due to effects of mental illness on my thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

My partnership is our marriage.   It is the most supportive aspect of our lives together.  It is, it turns out, quite a bit stronger than mental illness.  Yours may be another partnership – marriage is not the required word, but supportive is.  How do we support our partner without being overwhelmed?  How can we be supported without having to feel we’re a burden?  I don’t have all the answers, but we do have some suggestions here based on our experience.