Point Of View


The Power of Forgiveness: Cutting the bonds resentfulness

January/February 2013


A new calendar inspires many to turn over a new leaf. For some of us, this may mean learning to turn the other cheek. In recent years, the biological benefits of forgiveness have been widely publicized: lower blood pressure and cholesterol, better sleep, and an improved immune system. Psychologically, people who forgive show lower levels of depression, anxiety, and anger, enjoy better relationships, and report higher levels of optimism and happiness. Sounds great, so why is forgiveness so damn difficult?

Frederic Luskin has some interesting thoughts on that subject. As director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, he’s studied forgiveness for the past 20 years. He authored Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness and has shared his wisdom with survivors in Northern Ireland, as well as those at Ground Zero in Manhattan.

Since he’s an expert on the psychology of forgiveness and on therapeutic pathways to achieving it, we thought the beginning of the year might be an especially good time to hear from him.

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RH: How did you become interested in forgiveness?

Luskin: In addition to the pain of being badly hurt by a close friend without having any idea how to deal with it, I needed to find a dissertation topic when I was graduating from Stanford. This was before there was…

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Thursday, February 7, 2013 4:16:03 AM | posted by Sherrie Vavrichek, LCSW-C
I was quite impressed with the excellent interview of Frederic Luskin by Ryan Howes. I am familiar with Luskin’s work, and while the brief article could not fully capture the outstanding work of the Forgiveness Project and the lessons in Luskin’s book "Forgive for Good," it gives the reader a taste of what true forgiveness is about.

Some related points are also worth mentioning. True forgiveness includes compassion, but what does that mean? In the Buddhist tradition, we learn that we are not so different from each other, and that given the same set of causes and conditions we, too, might engage in hurtful behavior as a reaction to ignorance, fear, temptation, or rage. This is one of the key points about compassion. It is not just that we don’t want other people to suffer (although that is a core aspect of the concept); it’s also that, “just like me,” people have weaknesses and flaws, hopes and dreams, and the wish to avoid pain and suffering—any of which can lead us to do things we shouldn’t.

This attitude helps us to be humble when we hear about people harming others or when we experience the pain firsthand. Our recognition that we, too, make mistakes can inspire us to try to expand our awareness and perspective so we can see the whole situation with clear eyes and an open heart. Then, when we hurt someone or they hurt us we can recognize that the misdeed usually comes from a place of confusion, ignorance, immaturity, hurt, or a feeling of being threatened. With this in mind, when someone hurts us we can aspire to refrain from reacting in kind, and when we hurt others we can do our best to apologize and try to atone for what we have done.

Another aspect of forgiveness is to remember that we are all neurologically wired for love and kindness, which can be expressed when the conditions are right. Being aware of these possibilities helps us to let go of hatred and to allow ourselves to feel sorrow and care, not just for victims, but also for those who harm others. We can see that hurtful people are not really happy people, but themselves are victims of their own destructive thoughts and actions, which often reflect a sad or even tragic combination of causes and conditions. This does not mean that we should allow ourselves to be mistreated; in fact, sometimes we need to end relationships because of frustration or hurt that is not likely to change. What is does mean is that even if we end the relationship we can try to avoid harboring hatred and thoughts of revenge. These problematic reactions, as Luskin points out, are not only harmful to our emotional wellbeing, but for our health as well.

To learn more about forgiveness, readers may want to look at some of Jack Kornfield’s writings, (including The Wise Heart) and meditation CD’s (Guided Meditation: Six Practices), which address forgiveness from a Buddhist perspective. In addition, for those who are interested there is a chapter on forgiveness in my recently published book, "The Guide to Compassionate Assertiveness." Finally, to see and hear an example of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation in its highest form, the reader might want to check out a youtube episode from the organization Playing for Change. It is the Omagh Community Youth Choir-the song is “Love Rescue Me”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1ohx398P7I (don’t forget to have a tissue close at hand).

Sherrie Mansfield Vavrichek, LCSW-C
Senior Clinician at the Behavior Therapy Center of Greater Washington
Author of The Guide to Compassionate Assertiveness: How to Express Your Needs and Deal With Conflict While Keeping a Kind Heart (New Harbinger 2012)

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