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  • Writer's pictureAbby Rosmarin


“Forgiveness is what has let us live again” remarked a young Xhosa man named Koyisha with pride as he showed one type of living arrangements in his township. It was a cement barrack originally intended during Apartheid for 4 male workers per room with a common sink, giving them hardly more than a place to sleep, but actually housed 12. Now, post Apartheid, the barrack houses three families.

Koyisha is not alone as he describes the power of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. A middle aged Afrikaner of a rough gregarious nature who would rather spend his time backpacking and fending off baboons than banking as he had done, speaks too of forgiveness as a second chance – not to wipe away layers of demeaning and painful history but to understand.

My brief encounters in South Africa got me thinking about people that I know in interpersonal and intimate conflict and how to foster forgiveness as part of resolution.

So what then is the power of forgiveness? What does it mean? What lesson can we take from a culture of forgiveness that could help us learn to move forward from our family conflicts?

There is no universal roadmap.

First, why and when to forgive? Some understand forgiveness as a means to rid the holder of insipid and debilitating anger. Others may understand it to occur only after the offender has taken responsibility and suffered appropriate punishment.

I find resonance with the philosopher Charles Griswald:

"Why forgive? What makes it the commendable thing to do at the appropriate time? It’s not simply a matter of lifting the burden of toxic resentment or of immobilizing guilt, however beneficial that may be ethically and psychologically. It is not a merely therapeutic matter, as though this were just about you. Rather, when the requisite conditions are met, forgiveness is what a good person would seek because it expresses fundamental moral ideals. These include ideals of spiritual growth and renewal; truth-telling; mutual respectful address; responsibility and respect; reconciliation and peace."

On Forgiveness L. Charles Griswold See also his book: Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration (University Press, Cambridge, 2007 )

Studies have shown that the practice of forgiveness influences our attitude and can reduce stress, blood pressure, anger, depression, and hurt, and it can increase optimism, hope, compassion, and healthy relationships. And, according to Fred Luskin, Ph.D., the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, it can be taught.

Luskin, Fred, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness (Harper, San Francisco, 2001)

We know that an interpersonal relationship can create a backdrop for the forgiveness. (While there are opportunities for unilateral forgiveness, personal (self), and third party forgiveness, they are not the focus here.) One person wrongs the other. Forgiveness is one response to that wrong and more specifically to the culpable person who so committed the act. Revenge might be another, but forgiveness precludes revenge. Many in South Africa, where these men live, hold dear the thoughts of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“If you claim you’ve forgiven someone and then take revenge, you are either dishonest or ignorant of the meaning of the term.”

No Future Without Forgiveness (Doubleday, NY, 1999)

The ability for the victim to give up revenge often hinges on the capacity and response of the offender during and after the act. Thus, if one unwittingly committed an act with no intention (e.g., an accident or without capacity to know the impact of what one does), or admits responsibility thereafter with contrition, empathy and a resolve to change, the victim might feel differently than if such conditions did not exist. Under the best of circumstances then, both the victim and the offender participate.

This opportunity to restore communication with a goal of understanding and to experience the perspective of the other can drive us to change the way we deal with conflict. It can frame conflict as a problem to be solved. It also lets us listen. There is an African Parable about why people have two ears and one tongue–because we have to listen twice as much as speak. It is through listening and creating an opportunity to be heard that information can be exchanged. For me, at best it can, to paraphrase John Updike, clear a space to create an understanding and a new beginning.**

**Writing about the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart, John Updike wrote: “The novelist grabbed the subject of colonialism so firmly and fairly that the book’s tragedy, like Greek tragedy, felt tonic; a space had been cleared, an understanding had been achieved, a new beginning was implied.”

Nine Steps to Forgiveness
  1. Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Then, tell a trusted couple of people about your experience.

  2. Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.

  3. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that hurt you, or condoning of their action. What you are after is to find peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story.

  4. Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt you two minutes or ten years ago. Forgiveness helps to heal those hurt feelings.

  5. At the moment you feel upset practice a simple stress management technique to soothe your body’s flight or fight response.

  6. Give up expecting things from other people, or your life, that they do not choose to give you. Recognize the unenforceable rules you have for your health or how you or other people must behave. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, peace and prosperity and work hard to get them.

  7. Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt seek out new ways to get what you want.

  8. Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.

  9. Amend your grievance story to remind you of the heroic choice to forgive.

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