Friday, June 11, 2010


When Peter asked, “Lord, if my brother sins, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times? “ Jesus responded, “ I say to you, not seven but seventy times seven…”

Jesus was not alone in exhorting the virtues of forgiving those who have offended us. He is joined by a multitude of other voices: Muhammad, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others including new age gurus. But the list does not stop here – now even the scientists are joining the chorus. And if they are to be believed, forgiveness may just hold the key to many of the societal and physical ills that plague our world and our bodies.

Forgiveness is a big word. Anyone who has experienced the pain inflicted by the brutal acts of another knows that to forgive is so very much easier said than done. How can one expect a rape victim to forgive her rapist? Or the parents of a son whose life was taken away by a drunk driver to forgive the person who has so irresponsibly denied their son the promises and possibilities of life?

As we go on living our lives, the list of “fogiveables” continually increases. Your friend betrays you. A stranger snatches your purse. Your partner breaks off with you. The boss shouts at you without reason… and the list goes on and on. No wonder that Jesus said we need to forgive hundreds of times!

Time and again we are told that forgiveness is alchemy for the soul and lifts the humongous weight of anger off our chests. It releases us from the need to seek revenge. Those who have chosen to tread the path of forgiveness tell us that it is the best medicine for self-healing. Still and all, we sometimes find it hard to forgive. But perhaps the problem lies not so much in our unwillingness to forgive than in our confusion about the meaning of forgiveness. What exactly does it mean to forgive?

The meaning of the word

The dictionary tells us that to forgive means to give up resentment of or claim to requital for; to grant relief from payment; to excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon. With these definitions, many have come to believe that to forgive means to say to the offender: “You have wronged me and I have been hurt. But I am going to forget about this now.”

Without doubt, the act of forgiving is one of the most difficult lessons we will have to face time and again. But does forgiveness mean to forget? Does forgiving automatically free the offender from the task of taking responsibility for his/her actions? Perhaps we have to look beyond the definitions and go deeper and explore the roots of the word to find out exactly what it means to forgive.

In ancient Greek language, the word for forgiveness is aphesis and it means to let go. It is from this definition that the deeper meaning of forgiveness can be had – and from this perspective, we see that the act of forgiving is a process and a means of releasing. But who releases and who is being released?

There is a story about a sage and his disciple. One day the sage told the disciple: “Think of all the people who have hurt you, especially those you cannot forgive. For each of them, inscribe the name on a potato and put all the potatoes in a sack.” The disciple did as he was told and soon the sack was heavy. The sage told the disciple to carry the sack on his back all the time for one week. In time the disciple was burdened by the weight of the sack After one week, the sage asked the disciple what he had learned. 

“When we are unable to forgive others, we carry negative feelings with us everywhere, much like these potatoes. That negativity becomes a burden to us and, after a while, it festers,“ the disciple answered.

We are the ones burdened by the energies of anger and hatred when we choose not to forgive. But when we choose to forgive, we release ourselves from the weight of these negative emotions and allow the healing power of forgiveness to work to its wonders on our being. As we forgive and let go, we are released and we are healed.

And what about the repercussions of the painful acts committed against us? In modern times, one of the best examples of forgiveness that the world has seen was when Pope John Paul II visited and forgave the man who shot him. The Pope spent precious moments with his attacker and even hugged him. But he did not ask that the man be freed. The Pope let go of his anger and forgave, but inspite of this the assailant had to pay for his crime.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.”

However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person: A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in heart to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.”

Misconceptions about Forgiveness

We think that when we forgive, we need to reconcile. Forgiveness may at times point to us the direction we need to take, and it may also provide the thrust we need to move out of relationships that are no longer working for our highest good. When this is the case, we may simply have to let go and silently change directions.

Life often teaches us through the circumstances in our lives and before we can forgive, we must take the time to go deep within and ask ourselves how the situation has hurt us, how it has changed us, and what lessons we can take from it.

For those whose lives have been tragically altered by the mindlessness of others, this process can take a long time because the wounding could be very deep. Forgiveness is a process and it is one that must not be rushed. The important thing is to take the first step: Make the decision to forgive. This will allow the healing process to begin and take its own course.

Forgiveness as Medicine

These are interesting times indeed. Since the 1990s a new science has been developing – one that validates what the greatest religious teachers have all along been telling us : Forgiveness is good for us. Finally, the science of forgiveness is showing the world that this oft-repeated and debated word is not only a balm for the soul, but is good for our bodies as well.

Hundreds of research studies had been conducted on forgiveness and to date forgiveness scientists have seen that people who learn to forgive are less susceptible to cardiovascular problems and other stress-related ailments. A Mayo Clinic journal reported that people who could not forgive showed increased blood pressure and heart rates. Simply thinking about forgiving was found to have a “fascinating, quelling effect” which can help ease pain, relieve depression and improve cardiovascular function.

Although this science is still in its infancy and more research needs to be done, the good news is that science is finally catching up with the ancient precepts.

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