The Healing Power of Forgiveness by Choong Siow Ann
The Straits Times 15 January 2019
The act of forgiving frees not just the transgressor from the wrong done but also the victim from being caught in the grip of toxic anger
One evening in June 2015, a 21-year-old school dropout and self-styled white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into the Mother Emanuel Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.
Armed with a.45-calibre Glock semi-automatic that he had bought with his birthday money and eight magazines loaded with hollow-point bullets, he made his way to an ongoing Bible-study class with a dozen people and sat down among them. As the people closed their eyes in prayer, Roof stood up and shot dead nine of them.
Shocking as it was, the bloodbath in the church with mostly black worshippers was sadly yet another mass shooting that has become all too painfully common in the United States.
Yet, in the aftermath of this tragedy, something uncommon happened. At his arraignment hearing, relatives of those slain by Roof stepped up, one after another, and openly forgave him. It was a magnanimous act of forgiveness that can be hard for most people to fathom.
The Scottish writer and former bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, describes forgiveness as “a mysterious force in human relationships that can heal wounds and mend shattered relationships, not only between individuals, but also between groups and sometimes even between nations”.
However, he admits to having difficulty in defining this “mysterious” something that is uniquely human and which everyone of us needs in our lives.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “forgiving” as the act or process of stopping to feel angry or resentful towards someone who has wilfully and grievously offended us.
But there is another visceral reaction when someone transgresses against us – embedded within that anger is the impulse for revenge.
It is with this sentiment in mind that many theologians and philosophers have asserted that forgiveness is not just about “letting go” of the anger and bitterness against the transgressor, but also forswearing revenge – something that would take time and considerable effort. As Christian writer C.S. Lewis noted pithily: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”
That is not to say payback is not without its uses. Punishment meted out to transgressors can help their victims feel some redress has been made, losses have been made good, justice is done; the victim might even attain a sense of mastery and a restoration of self-esteem and status.
On the flip side, the act of forgiving may not always be appropriate: sometimes, a person who feels impotent and vulnerable may feel pressured to let the offender off the hook; in such instances, forgiveness might well end up condoning or enabling further wrongdoing.
But forgiveness could also be a show of strength forged in a crucible of powerlessness. A commenter (as quoted in the New Yorker) puts the action of the relatives of the Emanuel Nine in the context of a black community that has had to cope with a legacy of powerlessness.
Seen in this perspective, their act of forgiveness was a complex response of “the weak overcoming the strong”, the manifestation of a kind of resilience that resists yielding to fear and hate.
Given the history of slavery and persistent racial discrimination against the black community, forgiveness was also a determined expression of their humanity and their Christian faith.
“I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you and I forgive you,” said a daughter whose mother was one of those killed by Roof.
Still, there would be certain situations where the sheer evil and enormity of the offence can make it understandably difficult – if not impossible – to forgive, as in the case of parents having to forgive a serial paedophile who had abducted, violated and murdered their child.
It would be an unreasonable tyranny to impose an obligation on people to forgive in all circumstances. Nor can we forgive a wrong done to someone else who is either unwilling to or no longer alive to make that decision, in what is commonly known as surrogate or “third-party” forgiveness. We simply do not have that right nor authority.
Holloway wrote that sometimes there is even “a strength and grandeur in the refusal to forgive”, and that “refusal to forgive can be the righteous thing to do, the thing that justice commands”.
He gave the example of Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish-Austrian Holocaust survivor who spent the rest of his life in the relentless pursuit of Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice. But even he seemed to nave wrestled with the morality of forgiveness.
Perhaps true forgiveness can be achieved only when it is earned… For a victim to truly let go of his or her anger, the perpetrator must first admit responsibility and culpability, acknowledge that what he has done was hurtful and wrong, show remorse for it, apologise and offer emotional and/or material recompense. This validates the depth and extent of the victim’s grievance and could be a salve over the emotional wound.
Later in his life, Wiesenthal wrote a little parable, The Sunflower.
In this story, which some believe is a personal memoir, a mortally wounded SS man asked a Jewish prisoner – also named Simon Wiesenthal – for forgiveness for his crimes, which included the murder of three Jews by his own hand and participation in a squad that murdered many more.
In the story, Wiesenthal did not absolve him but was haunted afterwards by uncertainty about whether that was the right thing to do. He closed the story by suggesting the reader mentally change places with him, and asks: “What would I have done?”
MEANING OF FORGIVENESS
Perhaps true forgiveness can be achieved only when it is earned, which means that there must be a bilateral relationship of some sort between the perpetrator and the victim, and in which both sides take some needed steps.
For a victim to truly let go of his or her anger, the perpetrator must first admit responsibility and culpability, acknowledge that what he has done was hurtful and wrong, show remorse for it, apologise and offer emotional and/or material recompense. This validates the depth and extent of the victim’s grievance and could be a salve over the emotional wound.
The process of forgiving usually starts with an apology, despite the fact that even a truly sincere one does not and cannot undo what has been done.
And yet, this is precisely what it manages to do in some cases. After an apology is made, the offence gets turned over in the psyche of the recipient who, after examining it from various perspectives, finds it easier to let go of the feelings of grievance over the past wrong.
It is this letting go and giving up of vengefulness that has been so much emphasised as the reason to forgive – forgive, so that you may be liberated from the toxic grip of anger. And it can indeed be toxic. Studies find that anger, vengefulness and all the negative ruminations that come with not forgiving can damage our health – increasing our blood pressure, predisposing us to anxiety, clinical depression and shortening our lives.
Indeed, psychological interventions that incorporated forgiveness have successfully reduced symptoms in patients with coronary artery disease and chronic pain.
Other than this therapeutic benefit, there is also a moral angle to it.
Forgiveness is what a good person would seek because it expresses certain fundamental moral ideals and values. These include ideals of empathy, spiritual growth, truth telling, accountability, responsibility, restraint, respect and reconciliation.
It is one way that, as humans, we can live with one another – since we would always have that proclivity to do horrible things to one another, we have also worked out this apparently simple but profoundly difficult process to assuage some of the fallout from all that harm.
Just as the inability or refusal to forgive has the tragic effect of tethering the victims to the bitter past, and an obsessive and futile wish for an imagined better past without that trespass; for an unforgiven penitent, it can also be a psychic imprisonment that chains him to that original trespass.
I once inflicted a grievous hurt on one of my patients. A momentary lapse of my attention during a routine clinic visit led to a prescription error which, in turn, led to my patient suffering a relapse of her illness and a subsequent lengthy hospitalisation, which rather badly disrupted her life at the time.
I owned up to my mistake, apologised to my patient and her family, and made some reparation through the hospital where I practised.
After hearing me out, my patient and her family forgave me. That act of forgiveness lightened that burden of oppressive guilt and, in some ways, freed me to move forward and continue as her attending psychiatrist to this day.
Professor Chong Siow Ann, a psychiatrist, is vice-chairman of the medical board (research) at the Institute of Mental Health.