Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
In my practice, I have seen the hurt, pain and sorrow of many people. I have watched, sometimes in shear horror, man’s inhumanities to man, but I have been intrigued, and somewhat mystified, about the power of forgiveness. Humanistic Psychologists contend forgiveness is achieved when compassion replaces the desire for revenge. Compassion replaces the desire for revenge? Really? What does that mean? On the face value of it, something must happen inside of us to change, but what makes the change? People who have a higher sense of self esteem and self value seem to fair well with forgiveness. Religious or spiritual people seem to forgive more readily than nonreligious people. People who have higher emotional stability forgive quite quickly, but Dr. King speaks of something deeper, something a little more profound than just having a self esteem. He speaks of the power of love. The power to develop and maintain the capacity to forgive someone based on our knowledge of ourselves and the power to love.
So, what is forgiveness? To the best of my ability, I have not found one truly universal definition. Christians, Buddhists, Islamic, Muslims, Catholics, and Hindus all have different definitions of the concept of forgiveness. It wasn’tuntil the 1980’s did the Psychology community embrace the concept of forgiveness, but even us theory driven mental health practitioners cannot decide on one true definition.
So what? Who cares? Well, we have all been hurt by someone. We have all been made to feel small by another person. We have all had feelings of being unloved, mistreated, disrespected, embarrassed, admonished, or just “unused” as if we are put on a shelf by people and not had any type of attention. So, does this desire of revenge breed from these times of being hurt and in pain? Sure they do. We think, “I will get them back” or “I will hurt them as much as they hurt me”. I have a hard time with those thoughts. For me, those thoughts just don’t stick. Those thoughts just don’t stay long at all. I’m not really sure why, it just happens that way. If we look at the benefits of forgiveness, we can just say that it is healthier to forgive quickly rather than hold a grudge. By being able to forgive, we can lower blood pressure; we can lower heart rate; we can lessen depression and anxiety. On a spiritual side, we can become closer to our higher power; we can find peace. On the humanity side, we can develop stronger bonds with people; we can develop intact, healthy relationships; we can feel good about being around and with others.
Let’s get real for a minute here. Freud believed in a process known as“murderous impulses”- Our repressed desires to cause harm to others - A reaction which is purely from the Id and is fairly animalistic. When I was a kid, I loved to watch the nature shows. Still do. I would watch The Great White Sharks, The Lions, and all of the animals in their natural glory. Not once, not one single time, do I remember an antelope turning to the lion and saying, “Oh Mr. Lion I completely forgive you for eating my family and friends. I have now found inner peace for forgiving you.” Yup, never happened that way. Basically,that rage, the revenge, the absolute evil energy we have at times has to be driven by some unconscious, internal process, right? Well, my friends, so is forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a truly human act and feeling defined within the human context. For example, I was driving one day on the 95 through the Chester corridor in Pennsylvania. I will admit to having a bit of a heavy foot. Ok, I like to speed– a lot! Typically, I follow the blue signs instead of the white signs. I95 is a comfortable speed. 476 nearly destroyed the vehicle. Anyway, as I was driving, a gentleman in a rather small vehicle decided to cross three lanes of traffic (mind you, no one else was on the road besides our two vehicles at that particular time of the day) and get in front of me and my suburban. No worries, you say. Well, I was travelling at about 85 MPH and he was doing 2 MPH. I had to slam on my brakes to avoid plowing into him. Before I had a chance to react, he decided he wanted to get my attention, and I guess my approval of his IQ point status, by raising one finger in defiance to my evasive maneuvering. Basically, the man gave me the bird because I didn’t understand his internal thoughts of wanting to die that day. My reaction was fairly simple and straightforward. I blew him kisses and smiled. I almost immediately forgave his stupidity and dangerous way of driving. I started to laugh and continued to drive to my meeting in Philadelphia. Unbeknownst to me, the gentleman took great offense to my well wishing kisses and smile. He followed me to the parking lot of my meeting and jumped out of his vehicle in an attempt to justify his lousy driving habits. As he emerged from his vehicle, I took a good look at him. He was about 5 feet 6 inches tall and approximately 165 pounds. He had a slight build and was around 40 to 45 years of age. At the time of the occurrence, yours truly weighed in at 6 feet 2 inches and 240 pounds. I had an athletic build and 33 years of age and, if things weren’t complicated enough, a very proud Italian to boot. LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!!!!!!! The gentleman, bounding from his vehicle, came as close to me as he needed to and questioned,“What the hell is your problem?” The phrase that starts every bar fights in the world. “Not a thing” I replied. “You blew a kiss at me after you almost ran me over! What the hell was that?!?!?” he queried. “I love you!” was my reply. The shear look of panic, horror and wonder was priceless. “What did you say?” “I love you and I forgive you. May I have a hug?” The little man jumped in his vehicle and sped away. I thought the parking attendant was going to pass out because of his uncontrolled laughter. Only humans have the capacity to forgive that quickly. Only humans have the willingness to let the hurt and the pain go. Only humans have the absolute choice to either stay angry or understand we can make the situation different through forgiveness.
What is the definition of forgiveness? I don’t have the foggiest clue, but I clearly have an understanding of the concept. Forgiveness is an empathetic approach in allowing humans to be human. People will hurt us. People will treat us horribly. People will not care. Trust will be broken. We will be rejected, betrayed, embarrassed, and insulted at times throughout our lives. It’s not a great way to look at life, but these things are truly human. Because of these things, we, as humans, become resentful, hate driven, angry, vengeful, and develop grudges for the sake of having them. The energy we expend on those emotions alone could power all of California for years. Those feelings give us the negative energy which we hold on to until we can act on them. Typically,these feelings are displaced and projected onto non offenders. Basically, we take this stuff out on the ones we love the most because we believe they will always be with us no matter what we do or say. To forgive these humans acts takes an enormous amount of energy from us. We have to stop the anger and hate and replace it with empathy, and dare I say it, love. You do not need to excuse the action; rather, you excuse the person. You make the conscious effort to view them as human. You protect yourself by letting go of the pain and the hurt. You protect yourself by being weary of the actions, but you forgive the person and move on.
Holding those negative feelings in will only cause further pain for however long you want to have them after the event. It is your choice and your choice alone to forgive someone. It is your choice to be consumed with hate, anger,and resentment or replace it with empathy, strength, and understanding. It is your choice to love, respect, and forgive yourself along with forgiving the other person. Do we have the rite to hold onto these feelings of anger, hate,and resentment? Of course we do! But, it is also our rite to allow ourselves to live and enjoy life.
True forgiveness starts with taking responsibility for our own thoughts and actions. We can only truly forgive others by first understanding we are human as much as they are human. I guess this is what Dr. King is saying. Love yourself, so you can love others. Forgive yourself for being imperfect, so we can forgive other’s imperfections. If we replace hate with compassion, we will ultimately be better people in this lifetime and for many lifetimes to come.