The lost art of joy – Forgiveness

Even suits like this can be forgiven …

Fun movie fact – The phrase “Revenge is a dish best served cold” was first said, in those exact words, in the Star Trek movie, Star Trek II, The Wrath of Kahn in 1982.

Revenge is one of the most classic of all movie plot lines. According to the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Criminology, there are over 1000 catalogued films that are specifically “revenge” films. It sort of makes sense … imagine if the protagonist was decisively wronged, and instead of embarking on a convoluted scheme of vengeance, they just got on with their lives. Cue theme music, roll credits, yawn … not a particularly exciting movie.

And lets face it, we like movies with a theme of vengeance because no one likes being maligned or abused. It’s human nature to repay wrong with another wrong. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. If you hurt me, natural justice is fulfilled if I make you feel the same pain in return.

Revenge might make for a good movie plot, but does it make for a good life? As the old proverb goes, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” If you hurt me, hurting you back doesn’t make my pain go away. It just adds more pain to the world, because I’m still in pain and now you’re in pain. Then you’ll want to hurt me back, and the cycle escalates.

Francis Bacon said, “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.” In other words, you may be able to bring about retribution, but during the process, you’ll end up keeping your own wounds open and festering, instead of letting them close and heal. It’s like someone cut you with a knife, and in order to show them what damage they did to you, you keep reopening the wound every few days. The wound may look open and fresh should they ever care to notice, but you’re the one who had to put up with an open wound for an extended time, and re-live the pain every time you reopened it.

Douglass Horton wrote, “While seeking revenge, dig two graves – one for yourself.” Vengeance rarely ends well.

Interestingly, research has shown how the desire for revenge can affect you mentally and physically. One study showed that when subjects were asked to think of reacting aggressively to a given scenario, parts of the limbic system in their brains increased in activity. This isn’t unsurprising, given that our brain subconsciously prepares us all the time for fight or flight responses when it starts to sense danger, in preparation for possible action.

What was more interesting is that angry rumination also reduced the activity of the subject’s frontal lobes as well, which is really important for reasoning. So it might be that reasoning is disrupted by anger, and that rehearsing angry and aggressive mental scenarios shuts down the brains problem solving approach and calm emotions.
The other alternative to nursing the grudge is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a particular form of acceptance. It’s the act of moving on from insult or injustice. It isn’t saying that what was done to you was ok, but rather, that you aren’t going to be held captive by it.
There have been lots of studies looking at different aspects of forgiveness, but without getting bogged down in details, forgiveness helps to rebalance things. People who forgive habitually tend to also have lower blood pressure, while individual acts of forgiveness and lower hostility predict lower stress levels, which in turn predicts lower self-reported illness. The reduction of negative affect (a “bad mood”) was the strongest mediator between forgiveness and physical health symptoms, although the study authors noted other variables such as spirituality, social skills, and lower stress also had a role in the forgiveness-health relationship.

Forgiveness is a complex psychological process, but it is primarily built on acceptance, another practical example of the serenity prayer. Forgiveness involves letting go of those things that can not be changed. You can’t change the past. Old wrongs will still be old wrongs, no matter what happens to the perpetrator in the future.

Like so many examples of acceptance, by letting go of the old hurts, you free up room for new joy. You’re no longer bound by the painful past, which means you can move forward into a joyous future. In this sense, think of revenge and forgiveness in terms of gifts. Specifically, those awful gifts that you accept under obligation from distant relatives. You know, stuff you might get from your great aunt, like a pair of festive Christmas crocs three sizes too small, or a Meowy Christmas suit and tie. Imagine your great aunt accidentally got the decimal place on the order form wrong and she sent you 1000 of them, making your house look like Santa’s workshop on acid.

Revenge would be keeping all 1000 pairs of Christmas crocs and Meowy Christmas suits in your house, waiting for the chance to show your great aunt what a terrible thing she did and how she’s filled your house with ugly Christmas-themed draff. Forgiveness is to send it all back to the manufacturer, every single last croc and tie, so that once again you have room for what’s important to you.

I don’t know if there is any one particular method to forgive. Apologies help, but they aren’t necessary to be able to forgive someone. Sometimes people find actually saying the words “I forgive you” to be a powerful release. That can be to a person directly, although that may not always go down so well. Saying it internally is valid. Sometimes writing it in a letter, and then tearing it up as an act of finality, can be useful.

This Christmas, if you’re hanging on to the festive crocs and Meowy suits of past hurts, let them go and fill your life with joy instead.

Post-script:

I understand that talking about forgiveness can bring up some deep and difficult feelings in some people. Just like physical wounds, some traumas are shallow and heal quickly, but others are inflicted so deep that they are hard to heal, like rape, childhood abuse, domestic violence and other deep psychological insults. It’s important to clarify here that memories of such traumatic events often intrude into your conscious awareness, where it takes over and replays in your memory. That’s different to unforgiveness and rumination, which are memories that we foster and encourage by actively rehearsing them. Forgiveness is still a part of the healing process of severe psychological trauma, but the healing process may take longer, and the process of finding that forgiveness may require a professional to help walk through the process. If you’ve been the victim of a severe trauma, you don’t need to go it alone. Find a psychologist or talk to your doctor if you’re not sure.

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Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 6. Forgiveness – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health. Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

6. Forgiveness

“You’d think after five months of lying on my back, I would have given up any idea of getting even, just be a nice guy and call it a day. Nice guys are fine: you have to have somebody to take advantage of… but they always finish last.”

Mel Gibson’s character spoke these words as an introduction to the movie “Payback.” It’s plot line sees him maim or kill every person linked in the chain of thugs and organised crime that ripped him off of his seventy thousand dollars. At the end of the movie, after he exacts the final revenge on the last villain, he drives off with a smile on his face, his money and his renewed romance. But if this was real life, would he have been happy, or would he have just been even?

It’s human nature to repay wrong with another wrong. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. If you hurt me, natural justice is fulfilled if I make you feel the same pain in return. So what choices do you have if someone hurts or wrongs you? Well, you could retaliate. You could plan retribution. Ask for recompense. Or simply push for recognition of your pain. Sometimes these strategies lead to resolution, but usually not immediately, and in order to stay motivated to achieve a delayed resolution, you have to keep reminding yourself of the pain caused to you, so that the effort you’re making will be worthwhile.

As the old proverb goes, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” If you hurt me, hurting you back doesn’t make my pain go away. It just adds more pain to the world, because I’m still in pain and now you’re in pain. Then you’ll want to hurt me back, and the cycle escalates. Francis Bacon said, “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.” In other words, you may be able to bring about retribution, but during the process, you’ll end up keeping your own wounds open and festering, instead of letting them close and heal. It’s like someone cut you with a knife, and if order to show them what damage they did to you, you keep reopening the wound every few days. The wound may look open and fresh should they ever care to notice, but you’re the one who had to put up with an open wound for an extended time, and re-live the pain every time you reopened it.

Interestingly, research tend to support this notion. One study showed that when subjects were asked to think of reacting aggressively to a given scenario, parts of the limbic system in their brains increased in activity. This isn’t unsurprising, given that our brain subconsciously prepares us all the time for fight or flight responses when it starts to sense danger, in preparation for possible action. What was more interesting is that it also reduced the activity of the subjects frontal lobes as well. As discussed by Worthington and colleagues, “Thus, one implication might be that negative emotion acts antagonistically toward reasoning. This suggests that reasoning is disrupted by anger and that imaginally rehearsing angry and aggressive mental scenarios (i.e., ruminating angrily) could (a) catapult one into negative emotive responding and (b) shut down rational approach and calm emotions. Imagery as well as verbal rumination might stimulate similar effects.” [1]

The other option is a particular form of acceptance, which we know as forgiveness. Forgiveness, the act of moving on from insult or injustice, a actually a complex psychological process. There have lots of studies looking at different aspects of forgiveness, but without getting bogged down in details, forgiveness helps to rebalance things. People who forgive habitually tend to also have lower systolic, diastolic blood pressure, and individual acts of forgiveness and lower hostility predicted lower stress levels, which in turn predicted lower self-reported illness, a strong mediator being reduced negative affect (a “bad mood”) was the strongest mediator between forgiveness and physical health symptoms, although they also noted other variables such as spirituality, social skills, and lower stress also had a role in the forgiveness-health relationship [2].

I understand that talking about forgiveness can bring up some deep and difficult feelings in some people. Just like physical wounds, some are shallow and heal quickly, but others are inflicted so deep that they’re hard to heal – severe trauma like rape, childhood abuse, domestic violence and other deep psychological insults. It’s important to clarify here that memories of such traumatic events often intrude into your conscious awareness, where it replays in your memory, but not of your own volition. That’s different to unforgiveness and rumination, which are memories which we foster and encourage. Forgiveness is still a part of the healing process of these severe traumas, but the healing process may take longer, and the process of finding that forgiveness may require a professional to help walk through the process. If you’ve been the victim of a severe trauma, you don’t need to go it alone. Find a psychologist or talk to your doctor if you’re not sure.

For the Christian, forgiveness is at the very core of the entire life of faith we lead. God forgave us, and we can enjoy that forgiveness if we choose to move away from a life enslaved to sin. It is through the death of Jesus on the cross that we have this chance, and Jesus himself showed the ultimate in forgiveness when, as he hung dying on the cross, he forgave the soldiers that put him there. Throughout his ministry, he preached the same message – forgiveness is a central text of the Lords prayer, he told Peter that he should forgive someone “seventy times seven”, and he showed grace to those around him such as the woman caught in adultery. There are many more examples of forgiveness in the Bible as well.

I don’t know if there is any one particular best method to forgive. Apologies help [3], but they aren’t necessary to be able to forgive someone. Sometimes people find actually saying the words “I forgive you” to be a powerful release. That can be to a person directly, although that may not always go down well. Saying it internally is valid. Sometimes writing it in a letter, and then tearing it up as an act of finality, can be useful.

I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive those in your life that have wronged you and continue to move forward. Remember, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis B. Smedes)

References

[1]        Worthington EL, Jr., Witvliet CV, Pietrini P, Miller AJ. Forgiveness, health, and well-being: a review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness. Journal of behavioral medicine 2007 Aug;30(4):291-302.
[2]        Lawler KA, Younger JW, Piferi RL, Jobe RL, Edmondson KA, Jones WH. The unique effects of forgiveness on health: an exploration of pathways. Journal of behavioral medicine 2005 Apr;28(2):157-67.
[3]        Strang S, Utikal V, Fischbacher U, Weber B, Falk A. Neural correlates of receiving an apology and active forgiveness: an FMRI study. PloS one 2014;9(2):e87654.