Forgiveness - the ultimate life skill
MARISHA KARWA |1 Jan 2017, DNA
Learn to forgive. Given how deeply it is connected to our well being, it's a pity that this virtue isn't inculcated and emphasised upon as much as it ought to. So whether you believe in resolutions or not, make 2017 the year in which you learn to let it go, says Marisha Karwa
It was an extraordinary act of magnanimity.
Eight years after she had been pulled off her bicycle, punched and beaten in the chest before being raped, Katja Rosenberg went to meet the person, who, then just a teenager, had violated her. "I walked over, shook his hand and introduced myself. I wanted to show him it had not affected my life and that I had understood and forgiven him. I wanted to free the past. It was positive for me and positive for him," Rosenberg said of her 2014 meeting with the person serving a 14-year sentence in a UK prison.
Closer home and a decade earlier, Gladys Staines had demonstrated an astonishing amount of benevolence, saying she held no bitterness against the bloodthirsty mob that had torched to death her missionary husband and their two sons as they slept in their car in Odisha's Manoharpur village. "I have forgiven the killers and have no bitterness because forgiveness brings healing and our land needs healing from hatred and violence...," Staines had said in a statement after the killers had been sentenced in 2003.
It may seem counter intuitive, but forgiveness is not for the faint-hearted. "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong," said the Mahatma. Tibetan spiritual leader His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and South African activist and bishop Desmond Tutu — both Nobel Peace Prize winners — are on the Mahatma's side. As have been religious preachers and saints from centuries ago. Not only do the Bhagwad Gita, Bible, Quran and the Guru Granth Sahib emphasise letting go, it is on the subject of forgiveness that organised religion can be friends with modern science. And yet, forgiveness is a virtue that is the least glorified, mostly overlooked and taught prescriptively.
So what exactly is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is that when you stop feeling angry or resentful towards a person for an offence, flaw or mistake. "It is a process," says Dr Jyotsna Agrawal, assistant professor of psychology at Bangalore's National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans). "It doesn't happen overnight. It's a conscious decision and it takes time to let go of negative emotions."
To comprehend forgiveness better, researchers and psychologists suggest understanding what it is not: It does not mean accepting what is wrong, or condoning an injustice or excusing the wrongdoer. Rather, "forgiveness is a way of being in this world when you get disagreed with, when people do things that you think are wrong, when you get harmed, when someone takes your most cherished idea of how the world should be, and spits on it," says Dr Fred Luskin, director of Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, in a talk on the psychology of forgiveness.
When someone, especially a family or friend, tramples on your worldview, it can lead to caustic breakdowns, as Rama Ramanan found out. For nearly two years, Rama swung from meteoric temper to utter despair after her eight-year marriage started to unravel in 2014. "I was immensely angry and I blamed him for everything," she says, referring to her ex-husband. "I had an image about myself — that I was patient, kind and forgiving... I'd accept him if he did things my way and not if he did them his way. "
To make the marriage work, Rama wrote letters to him, in vain. Embittered, she sought counselling from Oneness University's spiritual teacher, Balagopal Ramachandran. Attending the Song of Oneness Gita classes, maintaining a diary in which she penned her most explosive emotions and sitting in contemplation daily helped.
Over time, Rama learnt to be at ease with her emotions, be it hatred or anger. About a-year-and-a-half later, the now 36-year-old media professional had a breakthrough. "The classes helped me learn that when you see your inner truth, you realise that the outside world is a reflection of your inner self. But this is not an easy truth to accept," she says, adding that the classes taught her to experience her emotions in totality without any judgements. "It took a year-and-a-half of staying with every raw emotion, and divine intervention, for forgiveness to happen. Not that I could forgive because I had to, but seeing my inner truth set me free, and that's when forgiveness happened."
Wired to let go
The relief that Rama experienced through forgiveness is what Catholic priest Fr Suren Abreu calls "a consequence of letting go of emotions that are traumatic and painful". Such negative emotions impact not just a person's mental but also physical well being. "Holding grudges, nurturing thoughts of revenge, feeling depressed because of a wrong done to me, which cannot be satisfactorily addressed, all take a toll on the mind and the body," says Fr Abreu of Our Lady of Immaculate Church in suburban Mumbai.
This is the emotional equivalent of stress. "Calming that stress and anger is a significant part of forgiveness," says Dr Luskin in his talk. "When you are angry or stressed, blood flow drains away from that part of the brain which allows you to think creatively and straight-forwardly. The purpose of the body's stress response is to be stupid."
Our body tightens when the mind feels it's in danger, and the lower abdomen is where most of us hold this tension. This is the moment to open your body to the parasympathetic settlement of your flight-and-fight response.
Taking slow, deep breaths allows the body to relax and the mind to calm down. "The more you can relax your belly, the more capable your mind is of having loving, positive thoughts," says Dr Luskin, adding that forgiveness is latent within each one of us. "When your body isn't tight, thoughts like forgiveness are natural."
Miraculous, but not magical
While letting go is linked to reduced stress and helps regulate blood pressure, it isn't an insurance against the pitfalls of life. Dr Agrawal puts it more succinctly when she says, "Pain still happens, but suffering is optional."
Forgiveness doesn't make you less angry with people who've aggrieved you, but the anger doesn't necessarily lead to being hurt, points out restaurateur Indira Monga*. The 51-year-old upturned a lifetime of dysfunctional family conditioning after the birth of her daughters upon the realisation that every choice she made, would impact them for life. "In a sense, it begins with low self-worth. And moves based on the choices you make to create a better version of yourself, which then leads to magnanimity. We get magnanimity from having forgiven ourselves, before we can progress to forgiving others," she says. "Neither love, nor forgiveness happen because you choose that. They happen because you make a whole set of other choices."
Bhubaneswar resident Keshab Sahani chose to live by the words he'd read. When he was 35, Sahani was so moved by Victor Hugo's Les Misérables that he translated and narrated each line to his wife and daughters. "The message I took is that forgiving your enemies annoys them no end," writes Sahani in an email. As fate would have it, the 70-year-old, who took charge of his brother's family, bringing up his nephew as his own son, was betrayed by his kin. "He paid the price of his ungratefulness. He failed to clear the CA exam and is now jobless. I harbour no grudges against them though," says Sahani. "I only took pity on them and forgave them."
Tough nut to crack
To forgive a folly on the part of a waiter, a blunder by a colleague, a betraying friend, a deceiving business partner, or overcome loss after a natural calamity requires calling upon ginormous reserves of kindness and compassion. This is possible when a distinction is made between expectations and reality, says Dr Agrawal of Nimhans. "We cannot control circumstances or even another person's behaviour. Things will always be different from how we'd prefer them to be," she says. "If there's a vast gap in this, you'll be more and more angry and sad."
Monga points out that everyone is dealing with hurt and trauma and pain, and "we come from a society that does not acknowledge it or talk about it", making it difficult to get closure. "I've realised that everyone is struggling with their lot and that there's a story behind each person's bad behaviour. So there's no reason to hold anything against them, but it's fine to develop compassion instead."
This is just the thing Radhika Sharma* has started relying on. "I used to hold grudges earlier. I was told not to be rash and stubborn when I was a teenager," admits the 25-year-old, who has of late started forgiving one of her three most intimate friends for consistently not being around, including when Sharma's relationship with her boyfriend ended last month. "It's understandable that she is busy, but it has been hard to accept that your best friend isn't always going to be around. There were times when I'd get really upset, but over several years now, I've learnt to forgive."
Forgiveness and religion
Buddhism: Forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.
Christianity: Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Jainism: Kshamavani or Forgiveness Day is a day when Jains forgive and seek forgiveness, saying the Micchami Dukkadam prayer: "May all the evil that has been done be fruitless."
Judaism: Jews mark Yom Kippus as the day of forgiveness. One must go to those he has harmed in order to be entitled to forgiveness.
Islam: Forgive them even if they are not sorry. Let them forgive and overlook, do you not wish that Allah should forgive you? For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful
Do you have a forgiving personality?
Agreeable people or people who adjust to a high degree, find it easier to forgive, says Nimhans' Dr Jyotsna Agrawal.
Those who are driven by negative emotions or neuroticism feel negative emotions far more intensely than others. "They too would find it harder to forgive easily," she says.
Narcissism is another thing that keeps people from forgiving i.e. thinking that what happened was unfair or why did it happen to me or why didn't I get a better deal, etc.
How to forgive – in 3 easy steps
1) Stop noticing what's wrong in your life, and be grateful instead for all that you do have.
2) Be mindful when experiencing negative emotions. Try to look at your emotions from a distance, which allows us the benefit of perspective. When we are able to distance from the pain, it is easier to forgive.
3) Have compassion for the suffering of others, not just for yourself. We are all human, and capable of making mistakes.