The Emotional Economics of Forgiveness by Ira Byock

The Emotional Economics of Forgiveness by Ira Byock

All the passages below are taken from Ira Byock’s book, “The Four Things That Matter Most”, published in 2004.

It is easy to forgive someone for something done inadvertently, especially if you are close to that person and have been all your life, as Carla was with her father, but how can we forgive someone who has intentionally done us serious harm? When a parent or other loved one has been loving and supportive, the inadvertent hurt is a small glitch in an otherwise beneficial relationship, but how do we work to forgive repeated, purposeful offenses? To be honest, I don’t have an absolute answer to this question. Sometimes people simply can’t find it within themselves to forgive each other. But I have learned a few emotional strategies for approaching forgiveness in particularly difficult situations that have helped others.

The first strategy turns on accepting that we’re just human. And that means we screw up from time to time (some of us more often than others). Most of the time when people are nasty, mean-spirited, or greedy they are acting out their own pain.

As a physician I have seen the devastating effects that physical pain can have on people’s lives. Acute pain, at least, sometimes protects us. We instantly remove our hand from a hot stove and remember to check before putting it there again. In contrast, chronic pain has no biological purpose. It can make proud, productive people feel useless and isolated. Whether it is daily migraines or relentless back pain, physical suffering captures a person’s attention and doesn’t let go. When you hurt, that’s all you know. It leaves no room to enjoy life. Pain turns people inward and distorts their perceptions.

Imagine what it would be like to have a stone in one shoe that you could not remove. With each step, you would feel a jabbing pain. You would hop or walk on tiptoe. You would learn to avoid certain streets or buildings that didn’t accommodate your altered gait. This may seem a trivial example, but notice how one small stone affects you. No more tennis or bowling. No treadmill or StairMaster. No walking for pleasure. No dancing. You would have to find or hire someone to walk your dog. You would have to admit the extent to which the chronic pain and accompanying physical limitations had changed your life and colored your perception of the world.

The same is true of emotional pain. A wound need not be severe for it to influence your relationships, your emotions, and your ability to enjoy a social life. In my clinical experience with patients I’ve found that many people harbor emotional stones that are far larger than would fit in a shoe.

People don’t show us their pain; in fact, they try to hide it. What we see is their behavior. When a person’s behavior is out of bounds, we can easily and understandably think of him or her as callous or cruel, but their behaviors are often dysfunctional adaptations to their psychological or emotional pain. More often than not, the people who have hurt us have acted out of their own insecurity and reflexive sense of defensiveness.

One way that I’ve learned to approach forgiveness is to picture people who frustrate or anger me by thinking of them as they were when they were babies, totally open, vulnerable, trusting, wanting to laugh and be loved. “I wonder what Sylvia was like as a baby. What the hell happened!? How much pain must she have endured to become so broken and downright mean?” or some such thing.

I fully realize that, relatively speaking, I’ve had it easy. In some situations I’ve confronted clinically, I have to admit that I’d be hard-pressed to find my way to forgiveness.

One family’s story in particular sticks in my mind.

The Personal Economics of Pain

Lynne Halamish, the grief counselor in Israel, told me about an extraordinary case that provides lessons for all of us about how finding a way to forgive even people who have done us grievous wrongs is in our own self-interest.

Avi was a 45-year-old man when his father, Simon, was (lying of lung cancer that had spread to his spine. Their history had been full of pain and heartache.

Simon had divorced his first wife while his son was still in the womb. Avi grew up with his mother in a small Israeli village. Although people knew that Simon could be mean-spirited, he owned a large grocery store and was active in local politics, so his word held a lot of weight. Avi, particularly as a young boy, craved his father’s attention and did everything he could think of to elicit even the slightest sign of approval. Every effort was rebuffed, often publicly. Simon systematically ignored or intentionally tripped up Avi at every turn. As if this wasn’t painful enough, Simon remarried and had two children with his second wife. They received Simon’s attention, while Avi was completely shut out from his father’s life.

Lynne was called in a week after Simon had suddenly lost control of his lower body, becoming all but paralyzed over a period of 18 hours. During the course of urgently evaluating his sudden dramatic weakness, the doctors found that the lung cancer had damaged his spinal cord.

As Lynne spoke with Simon about his illness and life, she gradually became aware that he had an ex-wife and another son. When she realized this, she tried to meet with Avi, who at first refused. She did meet with his mother and in the process learned more about their family and Avi’s troubled relationship with his father. Together, Lynne and Avi’s mother developed a plan in which his mother asked Avi to meet with Lynne, “for my sake.” 

When Lynne finally did meet Avi, they sparred for the first few minutes, but once he realized she could take his verbal barbs–and give back in kind–he warmed up. They quickly established a rapport and talked about his mother and their family life. Avi was almost casual in saying that he hated his father.

Undeterred, Lynne introduced the notion of saying the Four Things. When she told Avi that she thought it would be valuable for him to say them to his father, he stared at her and became beet red. “Are you crazy?” he said. “I should ask forgiveness from him! Do you have any idea what hell he put me through? There is no way in hell I could forgive the son-of-a-bitch. I can’t do it.”

Lynne pressed Avi. It is difficult to forgive someone, but difficult is not impossible. We can decide to forgive someoneFirst and foremost, forgiveness is an act of volition and will.

Avi yelled at her: “This isn’t about decisions. I feel only hatred for him. Do you think for a minute that I could feel forgiveness after all he’s done?”

The forgiveness that the Four Things requests, however, has nothing to do with feeling one way or another. Avi could hate his father; you might hate someone, too. And Avi could admit that in so many words. What was necessary for Avi was to say “I forgive you” to his father so he wouldn’t have to carry around the weight of his unresolved relationship with his father after his father died.

It is wrong to think that people need to feel forgiveness in order to give forgiveness. Forgiveness is actually about emotional economics. It’s about a one-time cost that you pay to clear up years of compounded emotional pain. It’s like taking a one-time loss in financial investments. Refusing to forgive means accepting the cost of the hurts inflicted on you compounded a thousand times. And it means carrying them forever as they accrue in negative emotional energy.

Refusing to forgive is a decision to remain in debt. If I give you 10 dollars and you don’t pay it back, I can carry the debt and be reminded of it every month and every time I see you, or I can take on the cost by forgiving that debt once and for all. Emotional debts are like this. Avi had already paid enough for the things Simon had done to him. He didn’t need to keep on paying for the rest of his life.

Avi was still unconvinced, but he recognized that he had wasted enough time allowing his feelings to rule his life. It was time for him to make a cold, calculated decision that would release him from the bondage of hatred toward his father. Even if his father didn’t deserve forgiveness, Avi did. His father was going to die. Avi was the one who would carry the animosity and resentment in the years to come. He had carried them long enough.

A Clean Slate

Avi grudgingly decided to forgive Simon for the mean, rotten things he had done and said when Avi was a kid. But what was he, Avi, supposed to ask forgiveness for?

Lynne asked Avi why he thought Simon had been so cruel.

“Because he is a vile *%$#^&*! That’s why,” said Avi. 

When Lynne admitted that that theory was as good as any, Avi laughed out loud. But why, she asked, when Avi was small, say seven or eight years old, was Simon such a monster to him?

“I always thought it was because I wasn’t good enough for him,” Avi replied.

Lynne then suggested that Avi apologize to Simon for never having been good enough for him.

Again, Avi nearly convulsed. “What!” he said. “You want me to say I’m sorry that I wasn’t good enough to be his son?!”

Lynne told him that wasn’t the point. What mattered was getting as clean a slate as possible in his relationship to his father before he died. Time was short.

After considerable discussion, Avi reluctantly agreed to give it a try. Then he and Lynne came to the fourth thing, I love you. She wasn’t sure what was going to happen when she broached this with Avi, but she had been able to use the Four Things so successfully with so many other clients, she wasn’t willing to skip it. But when she told Avi to say “I love you,” to Simon, she thought he was going to walk out on her. “I tell you I hate this man and you tell me to cuddle with him?” he said. “What is it with you?”

Lynne acknowledged that “I love you” would not be the easiest three words for Avi to say to his father, but she also pointed out that if his need for his father’s love wasn’t so strong, the lack of it wouldn’t be causing Avi so much pain. Lynne told Avi to try to connect with the good father he had never had and always wished for, and to tell that father, the one he had always wanted, that he loved him.

Lynne knew she was pushing Avi to the edge, but she also knew they were pressed for time. She had seen Simon that morning and wasn’t sure that he’d make it through the week. He looked withered and gray and would frequently drift off to sleep. In that, there was one advantage. As Simon physically deteriorated, his personality had changed, startlingly, for the better. Avi’s father had turned into an almost sweet guy for the first time in his life. The people who came to visit him commented that he seemed to have mellowed and softened.

When Lynne had finished talking about saying the Four Things, Avi said, “The only thing I’m looking forward to saying to this man is good-bye.” Knowing that their time was up, he looked her in the eye and asked with his ironic humor, “Are we finished with the hard part yet?”

“Not quite,” she told him. “Your father is very, very sick, so you need to say the Four Things today.”

Avi shook his head with a rueful smile–but that evening, he entered his father’s room.

Avi stopped by to see Lynne the next day. He was in notably good humor, and much lighter than when they’d met earlier.

“Well,” he said. “I did as you suggested. I asked my father to forgive me and said I was sorry for never having been able to measure up in his eyes. Then I said that I forgave him for being so cold and distant. And, I gotta tell you, after I said these things, it felt like a weight had been lifted from my chest. But when it came time to say `I love you,’ I wasn’t able to say it as a statement, so I spoke the words as a question. He was lying in his bed and I leaned my head to the side and bent towards him, trying to see the man I had wanted to love me and be my father. `I love you?’ I said. And this man, who was my father in biology only, looked up and his eyes got wet and red and he hugged me. It was the first time that I can remember him even touching me. And then he said, `I love you, too.”‘

Lynne asked Avi if he’d said “Thank you” and he said that yes, he had thanked his father for giving him life. Anything else? she wondered. He looked bewildered. “What else could I possibly thank him for?” How about for the hug? she said. Avi just smiled, nodded his head, and laughed. He didn’t say anything, but got up from his chair, came over, and hugged her. “Thank you,” he said to her before he left the clinic.

Avi’s good-bye to Simon came a few weeks later when his father was unconscious (he was a tough old man and managed to stay alive longer than anyone could have predicted). But that was not the last Lynne heard from Avi. He called her several months after Simon’s death to say that the Four Things had changed his whole life. In forgiving his father he found he’d become forgiving toward his children, his wife, and himself. And, he told her, he had realized that before he had managed to forgive Simon, he had been becoming the worst parts of his father to his own children.

Without knowing it, Avi had been perpetuating many of the traits-such as being quick to judge, overly critical, and rigid in his ways–that he despised in Simon. Avi’s pain at the repeated wounds inflicted by his father’s unkind words and willful neglect caused him to confine his feelings in a steel-tight, protective cage. He had kept them locked inside, afraid that they would escape as rage and wound the people closest to him, as he had been wounded.

Courage to Open a Locked Heart

As Avi forced himself to speak words of forgiveness and love to his father, a remarkable thing occurred; his own heart heard them, too. He felt the rage inside him dissolve. Suddenly, he sensed that he could feel deeply without worrying that he would lose control. He felt an exhilarating rush of well-being.

Lynne’s savvy and therapeutic rapport helped Avi, but it took remarkable courage for Avi to take a chance, to open up and to forgive Simon. As deep and justified as his anger was, Avi was willing to look inward and consider that raging at his father might not be his only option–nor the best response from the perspective of his own happiness and his relationships with his wife and children. He opened to the possibility of healing. He had thought that the wounds his father had inflicted were all old, but in completing his relationship with Simon, Avi discovered that the damage had been ongoing. He had long been trapped in an emotionally toxic shell that he had made and only he could break. In the warm flood of well-being that accompanied saying the Four Things with his father Avi realized that enlightened self-interest is at the core of the wisdom of forgiveness.

If you feel challenged by the example Avi set, you’re not alone. I myself am hot-blooded by temperament. I grew up reflexively raging at anyone who hurt me and holding a grudge. Righteous indignation can be seductive, and even addictive, but unresolved anger is toxic to your happiness and your relationships. Stories of people like Avi have challenged me over the years to let go of these self-destructive emotions. Opening my heart is a daily practice. It is not easy, but it is much more rewarding and healthy than carrying grudges.

“But what if I fail?” people ask. As long as you are clear and positive in your intentions, you have nothing to fear, and nothing to lose. Even if you forgive someone and he or she reacts in an utterly irrational way, you will discover that your good-faith efforts help you feel better about the relationship. You will be able to let go of negative feelings and feel at peace with yourself. By practicing forgiveness, you can milk the poison out of even the most venomous relationship. [58-68]

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