by Dr. Frederic Luskin, Ph.D.
The process of forgiveness can be a liberating experience, one that if practiced proactively can lead to a wonderful quality of life. Interestingly, forgiveness can only occur because we have been given the gift of choice. We have the choice to forgive or not to forgive, and no one can force us to do either. Conversely, if we want to forgive someone, no one can stop us. This ability to forgive is a manifestation of the personal control we have over our lives.
Compellingly, the option to forgive also implies that we had discretion as to whether or not we took offense in the first place. While forgiving may be a difficult enough choice for many of us, imagine how our lives would be if we rarely or never used our power of choice to take offense? Since we have choice, wouldn’t it make sense to limit the number of times we are hurt or offended so that the need to forgive rarely if ever arises? The ability to live life without taking offense, without giving blame, and by offering forgiveness, are choices that offer a life of great peace.
The ability to offer proactive forgiveness proceeds along four steps. At step one, you are filled with self-justified anger. At some point in your life, you have been hurt and you are mad at the person you feel wronged you. You blame the person committing the wrong for how you are feeling. It is their action and not your choice of response that you feel caused your anger. You have forgotten that you have a choice as to how you will react, or are so angry that you are convinced that it would not be right to forgive the offense. At this stage there is usually both active and submerged anger.
The second step towards forgiveness emerges when after feeling angry with someone for awhile, you realize that the anger does not feel good to you. It may be hurting your emotional balance or your physical health. Or you wish to repair the damage to the relationship. So you take steps to forgive. You may begin to see the problem from the other person’s point of view, or you may simply decide to let the problem go. In either case, after an extended period of time, you are no longer angry and you have forgiven the person with whom you were angry. This process can be applied to anger at oneself, another person, or life in general.
The third stage of forgiveness comes after you have seen the beneficial results of forgiveness and you choose to let go of your anger fairly quickly. In this stage, the choice is to feel the hurt for a short period of time, and then work to either repair the relationship or let go of seeing the situation as a problem. In either case, you decide to forgive because you have had some practice with it and see the benefit in your life. This could emerge in as simple a situation as being cut off by another car, on the expressway or in a complex situation like an affair in a marriage. At this stage, you are aware that the length of time you experience the situation as a grievance is primarily up to you.
The fourth stage of forgiveness involves the proactive choice to rarely if ever get angry. This means often to forgive in advance of a specific trigger. This stage often emerges at the same time as some or all of the following thoughts:
- I don’t want to waste my precious life in the discomfort caused by anger, so I will choose to feel differently. I am able to forgive myself, forgive others, forgive life, and forgive God.
- I know how it hurts when people don’t forgive me. I do not want to hurt other people by my anger so I will let it go.
- Life is filled with incredible beauty and I am missing some if I am experiencing unresolved anger. I forgive myself for getting sidetracked.
- People do the best they can and if they err, I can best help them by offering understanding. The first step in this process is to forgive the specific offense.
- Everyone, including myself, operates primarily out of self-interest. I must expect that sometimes I, in my self-interest, will be annoyed by someone else’s expression of their self-interest. If I can understand that this is an ordinary part of life, what is there to be upset about? If I understand that self-interest is the way that I behave, how can I but offer forgiveness to everyone, including myself for behaving that way?
These four stages of forgiveness will not be followed in the same way by all people and in all relationships. There are some people for whom we feel such love that we are almost always at stage four: open-hearted and ready to forgive. There are other people for whom we feel so egregiously hurt, and our well of good will for them is so dry, that we can spend years at stage one. What is critical to remember is the power of personal choice and the importance of exercising that choice to forgive so that we can bring peace and healing into our relationships and ourselves.
Frederic Luskin, Ph. D., is the Co-Director of the Stanford-Northern Ireland HOPE Project, an ongoing series of workshops and research projects that investigate the effectiveness of his forgiveness methods on the victims of political violence. Reach him at http://www.learningtoforgive.com/.