The Journey of Forgivenessby Nicola on 2013-03-13
Becoming a Traveller on the Journey of Forgiveness
By Dr Nicola Davies
A journey can either take you around the world or to the next city. Some trips are for business, some for pleasure, some enjoyable, and some arduous. In other words, each journey we take will provide a different experience. It is, however, generally accepted that journeys consist of a start and an end, a departure and a destination. After all, who sets out on a trip to wander around aimlessly?
The same concept applies to journeys of the soul; these journeys are the steps that you take to rid yourself of unnecessary negativity. This journey might involve exploring healthy coping skills to prepare you for potential conflicts or the inevitable ups and downs of life. It might also involve drawing upon previous challenging experiences, which can assist you in maintaining psychological and spiritual health. Knowing where you want to take your heart and emotions during times of emotional pain is crucial to setting personal boundaries. Will you attempt to forgive others who wrong you, disappoint you, or do not live up to your expectations? How will you handle personal failures, shortcomings or disappointments?
Using the metaphor of a journey, let’s explore how a decision to embark on a path of forgiveness, before problems emerge, will help strengthen your coping skills during the twists and turns of life.
1. Acknowledge the Journey
In theory, most people strive to generously spread love and forgiveness around them. Unfortunately, during times of duress, it can be difficult to extend forgiveness; this is due to a chemical reaction that releases in the brain during times of profound psychological pain. During significant conflict with others or the self, pain triggers powerful defense mechanisms in the psyche, since the full impact may be overwhelming and unbearable. For this reason, even a kind-hearted, positive-minded individual will find it difficult to stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone they feel wronged by.
The intensity of an emotional trauma can also trigger the involuntary shock and denial experienced during grief (Kubler-Ross and Kessler, 2005). Even if your perceived pain does not seem to compare with one who has experienced multiple losses associated with the deaths of family members or friends, symptoms of grief and loss can present themselves during times of any emotional pain. Denial often makes it very difficult to identify the source of emotional pain; because of this, it may take a while to recognise that you have a problem. Indeed, after any incident that has caused you emotional pain, it may take time for you to clearly distinguish which aspect of the incident caused you such intense sorrow, much less fully understand your reactions to it.
Over time, and with space to think and evaluate the situation, it becomes possible to develop empathy towards the person who contributed to your pain. As the veil of denial gradually lifts, you can begin to acknowledge the emotional crisis and deal with your pain. In order to travel the path towards forgiveness, you first need to acknowledge that you are in pain and that there is something or someone to either forgive (or not).
2. Embark on the Journey
Although acknowledgement of pain is significant, it is not forgiveness; knowing about a trip does not mean you are travelling. It takes a big heart to forgive. In order to heal and grow, acknowledgement needs to evoke a desire to resolve the conflict with others and yourself. Having the ability to forgive yourself for failures due to unrealistic expectations shows a high level of self-respect. Another incident that requires self-forgiveness is when you hurt others; recognizing self-failure and moving on is a sign of maturity and personal growth. Part of accepting your own imperfections is knowing that you can and will fail from time to time.
When attempting to forgive others, you may face unexpected ‘gray areas’ – for example, maybe you feel that person doesn’t deserve forgiveness? Some situations may be so bleak and seemingly irreparable that you may not initially feel the ability to forgive. In such situations, it is important to recognise that forgiveness does not exonerate the person; it just means that you will not be ruled or controlled by them or the pain of the event.
Only when you take your first step on the journey of forgiveness will you arrive at a better place, and in order to take this first step you need to put the act of forgiveness into perspective. If you do not forgive others, you inevitably let them continue to dominate your life. Just because a person causes you pain once does not mean you have to allow the pain to continue. Choosing not to forgive seems appealing at times, but as pointed out by the authors of ‘The Compassionate Instinct,’ “Unforgiveness is a negative emotional state where an offended person maintains feelings of resentment, hostility, anger, and hatred toward the person who offended him [or her]" (Keltner, Marsh, and Smith, 2010).
Although it feels like a tremendous extension of generosity towards another person, forgiveness is actually quite self-beneficial; in his book ‘Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve,’ Lewis Smedes aptly states: “When you forgive, you release a prisoner - and you discover, the prisoner was you!” This is supported by research showing that forgiveness is so good for you that it actually improves your psychological and physical health (Keltner, Marsh, and Smith, 2010). Forgiveness relieves psychological distress, nervousness, restlessness, and depression. Physically, it has been found to have benefits on ‘blood pressure and heart rate (Keltner, Marsh, and Smith, 2010).
3. Travel on the Journey
As a traveller, you move forward towards your desired destination. Even if you are not quite able to forgive, putting yourself in the context to explore the possibility of forgiveness is one step further towards psychological health and stability. When uncertainty tempts you to halt in your tracks, remember that forgiveness can help you resolve pain and reconcile with others. When you start your journey you may not know or understand where the path will lead, but try to trust that the journey will take you to a better place. At times you might be confronted by greater pain as you travel forward, and this is when you will need to channel enough inner strength to stay on the journey of forgiveness; try to visualize the sense of peace at the end of your journey.
4. Commit to the Journey
A proactive decision to strive for wholeness in every situation can be made before tragedy strikes. However, commitment to the journey and its ups and downs is needed in order to help you make it to the end. This is where it can be useful to have a set of pre-established coping skills prior to conflict arriving, the coping skills you have pre-established may be the only thing you have to keep you going in the midst pain, or sadness arriving. Desire to forgive may not come instantly, which will lengthen your journey. Indeed, while in limbo, you may be tempted to do something out of character like take revenge, which while instantly satisfying will only lead to increased internal and external conflict. During such times try to remember that however difficult travelling on the path of forgiveness may be, once your ability to forgive comes you will feel a huge sense of relief that will have made your journey and your persistence worthwhile. The generosity of forgiveness you extend may even restore valuable, broken relationships.
5. Remember the Journey
The old adage is to ‘forgive and forget,’ however, it is very unlikely that you will ever forget. No one can control cognitive recognition, nor can thoughts and feelings be easily erased. Memories, and possibly even flash backs, will surface, but they will no longer overwhelm. Once you have already arrived at the destination of forgiveness and peace, despite memories sometimes resurfacing, the pain will not be as intense.
Nothing of worth comes easily. It is one thing to believe in forgiveness, and it is another thing to actually extend forgiveness when feeling wronged. While forgiveness requires a great deal of commitment, endurance, and maturity, in exchange for your decision to become a traveller on the path of forgiveness, you are sure to gain an incredible amount of peace in return.
Photo courtesy of David Ho.
Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being. Her publications can be viewed at www.healthpsychologyconsultancy.com. Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog: http://healthpsychologyconsultancy.wordpress.com/
Keltner, Dacher, Jason Marsh and Jeremy Adam Smith. The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Google Books. Web. 28 February 2013; http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Compassionate_Instinct_The_Science_o.html?id=thLIjev8BwcC.
Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth and David Kessler. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. London: Scribner, 2005. Amazon. Web. 28 February 2013; http://www.amazon.com/On-Grief-Grieving-Finding-Meaning/dp/0743266293/ref=pd_sim_b_1.
Smedes, Lewis B. Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.