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Can you forgive? Is forgiveness for you, or for the other person? Are there things you could never forgive?

By April 12, 2009 - 7:05am
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Did you go to a church service marking Easter this morning? If so, did you pray the Lord's Prayer?

In that prayer are the ancient words, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us." If you are Christian, you have no doubt said those words hundreds, or thousands, of times. If you are Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, you also recognize mercy and forgiveness as true and central tenants of your religion.

But how far are we willing to go to forgive others? What level of

forgiveness can any one of us manage?

What about the driver who rudely -- and perhaps unsafely -- cuts you off in traffic? Or the person who uses you at work to get ahead?

What about the burglar who ransacks your house or steals your identity, destroying your sense of security and privacy?

What about a drunk driver who kills a member of your family?

What about the hijackers who flew the planes on 9/11, or the Nazis who ran the death camps?

It's a truly difficult question that we struggle with in small -- and huge -- ways every day. CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on forgiveness today, exploring the complicated, multi-layered act itself.

"I want his family to feel the pain that he's inflicted on all of us," said one victim of Bernie Madoff's illegal investment scam. And that seems fair, doesn't it? We feel pain, so those who caused it should feel the same pain. It's not quite "an eye for an eye" -- it's more that we want them to feel the pain that WE felt when we lost OUR eye, and it seems like the only way they could would be if they lost theirs as well.

The story spent a lot of time with parents of two members of the University of Wyoming cross-country team. The boys were two of eight who were killed in 2001 when a drunk driver slammed into their vehicle late one night after partying. The driver, who survived, does not remember the crash. He is in jail, coming up for parole in a couple of years.

"If I forgive him, then my son died for nothing. I don't want these eight boys to die for nothing," says one father.

On the other hand, one mother said the following: "I can't deal with it without forgiving," and, about the driver, says this: "I want him to have a life. My son has no life."

She has even given anti-drunk-driving talks with the driver who killed her son.

Where do you stand on the forgiveness scale? Would you be more like this father, or this mother? Or do we feel both of their impulses equally?

The latter may be the most true, according to a psychologist and author interviewed for the program. Human beings can driven by two different impulses at the same time, he said. "Revenge and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin."

Revenge comes from the desire part of the brain; forgiveness comes from the part of the brain where empathy lives. We hunger for revenge in the short term, but often need forgiveness for our mental health in the long term.

Forgiveness is central to many faiths. CBS Sunday Morning spoke about it with scholars from Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. One of the philosophies they agreed on was that vengeance is left to God; forgiveness is left to us.

However, forgiveness doesn't have to have a religious angle. The Mayo Clinic -- a preeminant medical hospital and research facility -- says that forgiveness is a choice that affects our health.

"Forgiveness is the act of untying yourself from thoughts and feelings that bind you to the offense committed against you. This can reduce the power these feelings otherwise have over you, so that you can live a freer and happier life in the present," writes Katherine M. Piderman, Ph.D., staff chaplain at the Mayo.

"Researchers have recently become interested in studying the effects of being unforgiving and being forgiving," she writes. "Evidence is mounting that holding on to grudges and bitterness results in long-term health problems. Forgiveness, on the other hand, offers numerous benefits, including:

Lower blood pressure
Stress reduction
Less hostility
Better anger management skills
Lower heart rate
Lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse
Fewer depression symptoms
Fewer anxiety symptoms
Reduction in chronic pain
More friendships
Healthier relationships
Greater religious or spiritual well-being
Improved psychological well-being."

Here's her full article, which also deals with how forgiving is not necessarily forgetting:


And here's a link to CBS Sunday Morning:


What about you? Do you struggle with the concept of forgiveness? Is there a line that separates actions that you can forgive from those you can't?

Add a Comment2 Comments

HERWriter Guide

These are all great, thought provoking ideas.

It's hard to define forgiveness because one person's "forgiveness" is another's "moving on" even though they have no quite reconciled the wrongs that may require forgiveness.

Forgiveness is more about the person wronged being able to move on from the wrong, and shake off the damage done, and less about the other person being told that they are forgiven for their transgression. In other words, forgiveness is just as important (sometimes more so) for the one wronged - as it is for the person who did the 'wrong'.

It also benefits people to not forgive. The other person then owes them something, or they can use their victimhood as a symbol of who they are. I think everyone has someone in our lives who is a perpetual victim. Someone always done him/her wrong! And this ends up being a person's mantra. It's very destructive to that person, even if they cannot see it themselves.

I'm not talking about something like Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia or the Khamer Rouge or Darfur. I cannot even fathom how the victims can more on - yet somehow they do - or most of them, at least. Strong people, indeed. We can learn a lot from them.

I'm just talking about day to day issues between human beings, between families, friends, co-workers. Humans do wrong things to other humans all the time. Even if you cannot forgive - and it's not always possible - then not allowing the damage to run your life or affect your future is just as important.

Should child abuse be forgiven? Yes, if the person abused feels that way. But it cannot and should not be forgotten, lest the abuse begins again with another generation. So if a woman can forgive her father for sexually abusing her, then more power to her. But should she allow her own children to go near him? Absolutely not. Some forgiveness should never be absolute. It's up to us to learn how to filter and discriminate in our forgiving behaviors and their consequences.

I will say that forgiveness can be very powerful. And we are all human and we all make mistakes. We all need to be forgiven too. Accepting forgiveness is a great way to learn that what we do hurts, and allows us to monitor how we treat our fellow human beings a bit better.

April 13, 2009 - 11:21am

What a thought-provoking post Diane. While I personally think that each of us has the ability for forgiveness and the ability for revenge, many of us realize the wisdom in taking control of our reactions. My thought has always been that revenge (action taken against another for a perceived wrong) is even more detrimental to the 'victim' -- than the original act itself and perpetuates an already strained situation. It feels like a waste of energy. I would even make the argument that revenge starts a different cycle. While I haven't experienced some of the more extreme examples you listed here (and let's face it, we've all been 'victims' of something) I turned to my husband (who is from Saigon) and has been affected first-hand by some of man's more extreme and insidious behavior and asked him his opinion about forgiveness. Here's what he had to say:

"We all need to do whatever we feel helps preserve our essence and that is forgiveness. You know what they say -- everyone has a limit. We all tend to seek love, compassion, peace, harmony, but if you begin to fill your time with other processes, such as revenge, it becomes a defining process and diminishes our nature as humans. Revenge is not an act driven by innate or intrinsic impulse but rather from outside factors. And how others act toward us rarely has to do with who we are, rather is reflection of a demon that is within a so-called perpetrator. Forgiveness, on the other, is a way of taking control from outside factors and perpetuates what I think is a human's true essence."

Thanks for generating a great conversation between my husband and I. I know not everybody sees it this way and am anxious to hear what others have to say.

April 12, 2009 - 12:31pm
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