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When you hurt another, you may ask forgiveness from them. The Pope has asked forgiveness of those molested by priests and for the treatment of indigenous people in the New World. People convicted in court may ask forgiveness just before sentencing. Preachers and politicians ask forgiveness when caught in sin and then enter rehab to prove just how sincere they are. All of us do wrong at some time. Forgiveness is an issue that comes up often in life and in counseling. What does that word mean?

It does not mean saying that the wrong is now okay. “Sure you hurt me, but I forgive you, now it is okay.” That definition makes forgiveness extremely difficult if not impossible. It is giving a gift of dispensation to the one who harmed you. There is another view. Forgiveness can mean, “I don’t like what you did, and it is not okay but I will let it go. It doesn’t mean I want to have anything to do with you again, but I am not going to let anger and resentment devour me.” A quote attributed to the Buddha is that holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal. The one who gets burned is you.

Many years ago I was having a conversation with a person who was working on recovery in AA and was doing step work. The eighth step is making a list of people you have harmed and¬†you become¬†willing to make amends to them. The ninth step is to make direct amends to those you have harmed except when to do so would injure them or others. It became quickly obvious that the person’s goal was to seek forgiveness even though in that case it would cause pain to the person wounded and to others. There was no talk about making amends. One universal principle throughout cultures and spiritual traditions (including secular ones) is to give without thought of return. When the Bodhidharma met with the Emperor Wu, one of the questions Wu asked was how much merit he had earned for all the monasteries he had built and all the other good deeds he had done in the name of the Buddha. “None,” said Bodhidharma. According to the story, the conversation was a short one. There are times when asking forgiveness is a manipulative act. We are asking forgiveness of the one we have already harmed with the sole purpose of making ourselves feel better. What is the merit of that? None. You are just doing more harm.

This is a place where the steps give good guidance. Look into your heart. It may be better to seek how you can make amends to those you hurt rather than ask forgiveness. Forgiveness belongs to the one harmed, and it is for them and within them that forgiveness occurs. If you are going to ask anything, ask how you can make amends and even then, only ask when doing so causes no further harm. Making amends with no expectations (including the expectation of forgiveness) may be a better way and work better at allowing yourself forgiveness with time.

For further thoughts on working on reconciliation and the process of forgiveness I strongly recommend “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts,” by Daniel Shapiro. Shapiro is the founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program. As a psychologist and negotiation specialist, he has worked with families as well as corporate and governmental groups including conflicting parties in the Middle East. He provides a very thoughtful and guided method for the process of forgiveness and reconciliation.

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