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NYONE who has ever been victimizedand that includes
survivors of crime, accidents, childhood abuse,
political imprisonment, warfare, and so onmust decide whether or not
to forgive the perpetrator. There can be no middle ground to this decision:
either you decide to forgive the person who hurt you, or you hold on to
bitterness and anger.
Holding on to
bitterness and anger can cause problems of their own, so if you have ever
been victimized, being able to forgive your victimizer is a crucial part
of your healing.
individuals, for example, who have lost a family member because of a crime.
The survivors anger and desire for revenge poison their entire beings.
They so focus on what theyve lost, and what they wanted the dead person
to be, and do, for them, that they completely miss the
opportunity theyve been given to learn about real love.
Instead, they seem to believe that hatred, even to the point of capital
punishment, will satisfy their thirst for vengeance
and will somehow bring them healing.
So, with hardened hearts and stiff lips, they say, Ill never
And the sad thing is that in wishing to send someone to hell they end up
sending themselves there as
however, can be a problem for many people simply because they are not clear
about what forgiveness really is. All too often forgiveness gets confused
with reconciliation, a larger process of which forgiveness is but one
If one person is injured by another, we could say that
the two persons are pushed apart by the injury, and so, if they
are to become friendly again, this gap between them must be repairedthey
must be reconciled. Reconciliation comes from the Latin words re-,
meaning again, and conciliare, which means to bring
together, so reconciliation means to bring togetheror to
The act of
reconciliation involves two parts: forgiveness and penance. Since the present
discussion is about understanding forgiveness, lets go on then to define
Suppose some children are playing a game when someone hits
a ball all the way across the street, and it smashes through Mrs. Smiths
living room window.
It seemed like
a small explosion, followed by the shrill clinking of bit upon bit of broken
glass. Then silence. Her immediate response was a dull shock, void of emotion.
Then her conscious mind began to function again. What was that?
She felt her heart racing. Fear began to grow. She looked into the living
room, and her heart sank at the overwhelming mess on the carpet. Feelings
of sadness and astonishment mixed with fear and threat in her mind. A primal
concern for her life welled up in her. Is this the end of the world?
Things remained quiet. Her eyes moved to the fragmented window. Is
someone trying to kill me? She stared at the mess. A feeling of rage
spoke from deep within her wounded heart: Who could have done this
do not run away. They go over to Mrs. Smiths house and knock on the
She hears a knock
on the door. Adrenaline surges again; her mind struggles to determine the
nature of the threat. She hears the whispering voices of children. Suspicious
and afraid, she opens the door cautiously.
say, Were sorry, Mrs. Smith. We were playing and we broke your
it, she sighs. She feels relief as the explanation comes clear. Then
her heart sinks again at the damage, the mess, and the loss. For an instant,
she wonders what might have happened to her if she had been in the room at
the time the window shattered. She feels the indignation, and with it she
feels the dull urge to throw the hurt back in their faces. She makes a hard
looks at them and says, I understand, children. I know you didn't mean
to hurt me. But you gave me a scare for my life. And the window is still
brokenyou will have to pay for it. (Lets set aside the
concept of homeowners insurance for a moment because this is a story
say, OK. They pool together their money, and they give the money
to Mrs. Smith so she can repair the window. (Lets set aside the question
about whether the children can gather together that much money in the first
place. Maybe they have to borrow the money from their parents and agree to
pay it back. In any event, they pay Mrs. Smith.)
Now, in this
story, there are actually three elements that compose the act of
the act of
admitting the act (We broke your window). The act has to be admitted,
aloud, to the person offended, or the entire process stops and no one gets
is the act of
asking for forgiveness (Were sorry). Remember, if the children
had run away, they would have avoided their responsibility to repair the
damage they caused, and so they would have prevented the process of penance
from getting started.
is the act of
accepting the punishment (OK).
After all, a broken window is a broken window, and it has to be fixed. If
the children do not pay to fix it, their confession and repentance are really
worthless. (For those of you still thinking about the issue of homeowners
insurance, lets say that Mrs. Smiths insurance pays the damages
and the children help Mrs. Smith clean up the mess in her living room. In
this case their work would serve to fulfill the function of the
of penalty opens up many complicated issues about the legal responsibility
of the victimizer to the victim.
For example, if a crime was committed, then criminal law should see to it
that the victimizer receives a fair trial and just punishment. As for
restitution, either the victimizer personally, or the victimizers insurance
should pay, willingly and fairly, for damages to the victims property
Now, these aspects of criminal law should be unambiguous and without any
But its in the area of civil law that psychological ambiguity arises.
If you sue because of a tortthat is, a wrongful act or
injurythen vengeance can be quickly confused with justice. If you are
injured to such an extent or in such a way that is not compensated freely
by the victimizer, then a tort case may be justified. But if, for example,
you trip over a crack in a sidewalk and sue the city for millions of dollars,
then you have crossed over from being victimized into
anger, and you have entered the dark psychology of greed and
All of this points to two facts about the psychology of forgiveness: if you
cannot let go of your desire for vengeance, you will never find true healing,
and you can never be truly healed if you try to force someone else to pay
for the cost of your healing.
In the story above, forgiveness comes when Mrs. Smith says,
I understand. In saying this she indicates that she does not
intend to carry a grudge against the children.
also leads us to a simple psychological definition of forgiveness:
Forgiveness is the refusal to hurt the one who hurt you.
to hurt can take on many meanings according to circumstances, and it
encompasses everything from the refusal to get even with others,
to the refusal to get back at others, to the refusal to prove
to otherswith arguments, protest, violence, or even self-sabotagehow
wrong they are.
the process. The act happens, the children make penance, Mrs. Smith forgives
them, and they and Mrs. Smith are reconciled. Its a nice story. But
what does this mean psychologically? And what would have happened to Mrs.
Smith if the children had run away?
Well, first of
all, now that you know how forgiveness and penance work together to make
for reconciliation, you can understand that forgiveness is possible even
without penance. So even though someone hurts you and refuses to apologize,
and even if this means that the relationship cannot be repaired, you can
still offer forgivenessfor the sake of your own mental
forgiveness by itself is still psychologically preferable to holding a grudge.
Why? Because the bitterness of a grudge works like a mental poison that
doesnt hurt anyone but yourself. Seeking revenge or wishing harm to
another will, at the minimum, deplete your strength and prevent your wounds
from healing. In the worst case, the cold hunger for revenge will make you
into a victimizer yourself. Lacking forgiveness, you and your victimizer
will be locked together in the hell of eternal revenge.
In Canto XXXIII
of the Inferno, the first book of Dantes Divine Comedy,
Dante tells the story of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca and the Archbishop
Ruggieri degli Ubaldini. The two men had been allied by political scheming
in 13th century Pisa, but ultimately the Archbishop betrayed Ugolino. The
Archbishop arrested Ugolino and sealed the Count and his sons and grandsons
into a tower to be starved to death. During his poetic pilgrimage through
hell, Dante finds Ugolino and Ruggieri frozen together in one hole, with
the Count, who died consumed with hatred, gnawing upon the Archbishops
skull in his eternal hunger for vengeance.
Forgiveness can be difficult for many people simply because
they are not clear about what forgiveness really is. All too often forgiveness
gets confused with reconciliation, a larger process of which forgiveness
is but one part, as I said above. And all too often, reconciliation fails.
So what does that do to your ability to forgive?
In this world
you will likely come across many persons who refuse to make penance for their
injurious acts. Hypocritically posing as pillars of their community, they
might refuse to confess, to repent, and to accept penalty (like some parents
who abuse their children), or they might refuse to repent even though they
are forced to pay a penalty (like a sociopathic murderer sent to
You, as the victim,
can still forgive anyone, even though, from what you have read so far, you
will know that forgiveness does not involve letting the person off
the hook legally. Nor does your forgiving someone mean that you must
be reconciled with that person. Reconciliation is made possible by the free
choice of the victimizer to repent and to repair the damage of the injury,
but forgiveness is always your choiceyours alone.
Reconciliation is not possible unless you are willing to forgive
the other person apologizes and makes it up to you.
In our story,
if the children had run awayprecluding any reconciliationMrs.
Smith would still have had the choice of forgiving the children or not. She
may have been kind and reflected on times when, as a child, she herself got
into trouble accidentally. The childrens cowardice would have been
a wound between them and her, but it wouldnt have been her doing. Or,
refusing to forgive, she may have become bitter, beginning a neighborhood
feud that went on for generations. Unfortunately, that would have
been her doing.
There can, however, be one major psychological complication
in regard to forgiveness.
cannot forgive someone until you have fully felt the pain he or she has caused
Imagine the person
who says, Im at peace with what happened. Im OK with it.
Actually, it doesnt even bother me. But my life is still miserable.
What do I do now?
find yourself in this position, in effect saying, No, it doesnt
bother me . . . but Im still miserable, it is
a good psychological clue that there is still something missing. Usually,
this means that youre still denying your unconscious
and resentment, so even though you think youve come to terms
with what happened, there are still emotions about the event which you have
pushed out of awareness. In fact, many persons can get caught up in this
forgiveness as a way to avoid coping with
all the unpleasant emotions they would rather not
This can be extremely
resentments are essentially invisible to logic and reason. Because
they represent things you would rather not see, they can be discovered only
indirectlysuch as when they continue to cause discomfort even though
it seems that everything should be OK.
You might, for
example, resist admitting that you are angry with a person you love. So you
unconsciously hide that anger from yourself in a desperate attempt to
protect your love for that person. Yet in your deception you
do nothing but keep your resentments alive, and you effectively defile the
very love you want to protect.
This is a common
problem with persons caught up in unconscious anger at their parents; they
will try to deny their unpleasant feelings by saying, But my parents
tried their best to be good parents. I have no right to be angry with
The truth, however,
is that even parents who do their best always cause some emotional hurt to
their children, even if its unintentional. Well, even if your best
friend steps on your foot, it still hurts, right? The therapeutic task is
to admit all of your childhood hurt, not to blame your
parents, but to allow the light of honesty to heal
in finally admitting all that anyone has done to hurt you, in recognizing
what you are really feeling, and in then being able to forgive that
personof everythingyou discover
All of this shows
that the popular advice to forgive and forget completely misses
the point. Forgetting, in psychological language, is called
repression. When something is repressed, it just lingers in the dark
shadows of the
along with all the emotions associated with it. And as long as those emotions,
such as anger, are brewing secretly in the unconscious, genuine forgiveness
a case involving unconscious emotions, you might want to consider getting
professional psychological help.
The story about Mrs. Smith and the children is, in many
ways, overly simplified so as to illustrate the basic meaning of confession,
penance, and reconciliation as they relate to
Still, the story
is not that much different from what would happen if, for example, someone
backs into your parked car and then drives away without leaving his or her
name and insurance information in a note. When you discover the damage,
youre left feeling violated and helpless. But no amount of swearing
will fix anything. Even if your insurance covers the entire cost, you still
have to spend your time and energy repairing the damage. And if you go about
the work with bitterness in your heart, the task becomes even more painful
and irritating. Holding a grudge against human inconsiderateness hurts only
you and makes repairing the damage even more difficult.
the case of a natural disaster. No one is personally responsible, yet your
home is damaged or destroyed. Your possessions are swept awayor maybe
they are looted. You feel vulnerable, helpless, and frightened. In such difficult
times, many persons will point angry fingers of blame
at the government. But will anger repair the damage? Wouldnt a personal
attitude of forgiveness for all shortsighted mistakes contribute to an overall
social atmosphere of calmness, cooperation, and generosity? Wouldnt
a personal attitude of forgiveness help, rather than hinder, the overall
task of repairing the damage?
And what if the
huge mansion near you was left unscathed? What if the millionaire who lives
there decides to throw a party, while you are left out in the dark, hungry
and cold? What if your rich neighbor does nothing to help you? Would cursing
him and wishing for his destruction help to repair the damage to your house?
You might hope for freely offered generosity from others, but the frustration
of trying to force someone to pay for your damage will only dig you deeper
into your own pain.
go even more psychologically deep.
What would have
happened if Mrs. Smith had not been at home when the accident occurred? What
if the children had used the broken window as an opportunity to enter into
her house and ransack it? What if Mrs. Smith suspected the children but could
not prove their guilt, and all the while they continue to live in the
neighborhood as if nothing had happened?
This leads us
to consider cases in which the damage is relational, not just material. Maybe
someone accuses you of untrue things behind your back. Maybe your business
partner steals from you. Maybe a manager fails to uphold a promise. Maybe
your husband or your wife commits adultery.
In these cases
involving a personal betrayal, keep in mind one important fact:
is not the same thing as forgetting.
To forgive is
simply to stop wishing for revenge or to stop wanting to see the other person
suffer in some way. But forgiveness is not blind. Because trust has been
violated you cannot just forget what happened or else the same thing might
happen again. Theres a saying that unless we remember history we will
be condemned to repeat it. So lets face iteven though you might
forgive a person who has betrayed your trust, your trust in that person has
Trust can be
repaired only by time through a gradual process of rebuilding. You have to
get to know the person all over again. The sad thing is that
through what you learn you may have to accept the fact that the other person
can never be trusted again. On the other hand, if the other person is truly
repentant and wants to make a full confession and do penance, the desire
to do so will be all that is necessary to nourish a new growth of trust between
the two of you.
Truly, it can be hard to forgive if you dwell only on your
own desire for satisfaction. So try thinking
how the energy
to keep a grudge alive will ultimately drain away your
how a desire
will defile you and may even
make you into a person as hurtful and vicious as the one who hurt
St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio
life circumstances and
that may have motivated your victimizer;
the fact that
evil comes to evil in the end.
Read the story of Saint Francis of Assisi
and the Wolf of Gubbio
what anyone does to you, no one can take away from you your capacity to do
good. You lose it only by willingly giving it up yourself.
So remember that
if anyone has ever hurt you, you dont find forgiveness, you
If you have ever
hurt others, all you can do is feel
for your behavior; in sorrow, you can apologize, and you can make amends,
but whether or not others forgive you is their choice.
And if you have
hurt yourself? Well, its a self-deception to believe that you can forgive
yourself. Even though self-destructive and self-sabotaging
behavior may seem to be anger at the self, at its core it is an expression
of anger at someone else, because of what that person
did to you or failed to do for you. Its as if you amplify
the effects of the original injury and throw your dysfunction back into the
face of the one who hurt you, in an attempt to force him to see how much
he hurt you. It may be unpleasant to admit it, but, in all truth, you use
your disability unconsciously as a subtle form of revenge,
which is itself a form of hate. For the original wound to heal, you must
set aside your personal desire for satisfaction, and forgive, not yourself,
but the person who hurt you in the first place.
read all your pages. I am having trouble forgiving because my mother is denying
that she abused all of us children and in fact some of my siblings are choosing
to pretend it did not happen and sadly are repeating the emotional abuse
with their own children. That is where I am at.
a gift you give to someone else; its an act of your own will. And as
such your willingness to forgive your mother does not depend on whether or
not your mother ever acknowledges the harm she caused you.
But even grasping
this point intellectually leaves many persons stymied. Then what am
I supposed to do with my pain if I cant get any satisfaction
from the one who hurt me? they ask.
The answer is
purely emotional. Forgiveness comes from sorrow. Not
sorrow for anything you have done, but sorrow for the very fact that everyone,
including yourself, has the same ugly capacity
to inflict harm on others, wittingly or unwittingly. Notice the words I just
said: including yourself. This is where everyone gets stuck, even
your siblings, because its easy enough to see that your mother was
hurtful, but to admit that you have the same human capacity for hurt is just
too distasteful. In fact, anyone who has been
victimized has a human urge to receive
compensation, and for you to admit that you and the
victimizer are no different from each otherat the human levelis
quite terrifying, for it jeopardizes some of that claim to
But still its
true that on the basic human level you are no different than your mother.
She abused you as an unconscious way to get revenge for all the pain inflicted
on her as a child, and you refuse to forgive her as a way to get revenge
for all the pain inflicted on you as a child. And the fact that your siblings
are repeating the abuse only proves the point that they themselves are no
different from your mother.
The truth of
this, however, does not mean that your pain is not real; nor does it mean
that your mother is not responsible for what she did.
But if you can
realize that everything she did, although her personal responsibility, was
ultimately caused by her own childhood wounds, then you can see yourself
in her, and in your sorrow you can feel mercy for her. In forgiving her you
ultimately feel mercy for yourself, and you free yourself of your greatest
burden: hatred. And with that weight lifted, you have the satisfaction
of discovering in yourself what you always wanted from your mother
anyway: real love.
Shows how to turn the emotional wounds
of daily life into psychological growth. Available as a paperback book or
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Hamama-Raz, Y., Solomon, Z., Cohen, A., & Laufer, A. (2008). PTSD symptoms,
forgiveness, and revenge among Israeli Palestinian and Jewish Adolescents.
Journal of Traumatic Stress, 21, 521529. See p. 527:
Thus, when inability to forgive
and the need to take vengeance are entrenched within the social texture,
their malignant influence over these youths mental health may be
intensified. Forgiveness, on the other hand, was found to mediate the
relationship between PTSD and hostility and to be associated with decreased
depression and anxiety.
Web The Internets Most Comprehensive Forgiveness
Murder Victims Families for
Reconciliation After a murder, victims families face
two things: a death and a crime. At these times, families need help to cope
with their grief and loss, and support to heal their hearts and rebuild their
lives. From experience, we know that revenge is not the answer.
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology
and its Practice:
Questions and Answers
The Psychology of
Trauma and PTSD
INDEX of all subjects
on this website
to Psychology and its Practice
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Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
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