The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong in the broken places – Ernest Hemingway.
I discovered the above quote in a book I am currently reading titled Triumph of the Heart – Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World by Megan Feldman Bettencourt. Among other things, what I like about this book is the way it talks about the ecology of trust and the role that forgiveness plays in intimate relationships.
I also recently read a lovely article by the renowned Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh titled “Growing Together”. In it, he uses a beautiful metaphor of two gardens (2017) to represent a romantic relationship. The first garden represents the self; the second is symbolic of our partner (husband, wife, partner, or lover). His idea is that ultimately both gardens need to be tended in order to nurture a healthy, loving, and resilient relationship.
Indeed, much of my reading time of late has been centred on the theme of forgiveness, and this is because many of my clients feel and share with me those heavy emotional states arising from moments such as betrayal, infidelity and interpersonal transgressions. In a way, they are all working toward understanding, accepting, and moving through a process of forgiving the unforgivable.
So what is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a person undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense. It is also a letting go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender or perpetrator well (Luskin, 2010) It is also a very complex and complicated realm where the act of forgiving is inevitably focused back on oneself. In essence, to forgive is a very intimate and personal stance.
Forgiveness is not forgetting, condoning or giving permission to continue hurtful behaviours. In the same light, forgiveness is not excusing or reconciliation, it is not pardoning, denying, tolerating or minimising.
So why is forgiveness useful?
There are many potential advantages in learning to offer forgiveness to others and oneself. Individuals who forgive can experience a reduction in anxiety and distress and possibly reduce shame and self-doubt. They may also experience an increase in their ability to hold empathy for others (O’Donohue & Graybar, 2009). Forgiveness can also be seen as an antidote to resentment. It can be applied like a balm, soothing a wound or an itch, allowing you to get on with your life with a greater sense of well-being and vitality (Harris, 2009). To forgive someone is to acknowledge the interdependent nature of people, of families and for that matter, communities of families. “To forgive in a deeper sense is to begin taking seriously this idea that all people have inherent worth.” (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). Clearly, forgiveness is very complex.
Often when I write, I think of my clients and their particular situations. I think of the people in their lives and the conflict and distress they are experiencing. Perhaps this is my way of attending to and addressing “the other” person in the room, albeit someone I will probably never meet in person. Sometimes this is the partner, wife, or husband of a client, who for all intents and purposes, appears to have taken an unforgiving stance. The couple is seemingly stuck in a cycle of rupture and repair. Other times, I call to mind my partner, family and friends. As I write, I like to contemplate ways that I can move toward a more compassionate and forgiving stance for myself and others.