“Machul Lack,” you are forgiven! Why forgiveness benefits us more than it benefits them.
As we beg Hashem for forgiveness for all that we have done over the past year, we seek as well to forgive those who have wronged us and to ask forgiveness from those we have wronged. The older we get, the more we realize that forgiveness goes beyond the flippant, “Are you mochel me?” “Of course I am!” exchange. It is a deeply rooted process that is painful even as it is life giving, and uses muscles within us we never knew we had.
Let us explore a little bit more about the nature, the benefits, and the process of forgiveness.
What is Forgiveness?
To forgive someone is to completely let go of any hurt, anger, resentment or negative feelings you harbor toward them for what they did to your detriment. Forgiveness doesn’t mean what happened was OK, and it doesn’t mean that you become best friends with the person who wronged you. Forgiveness just means that you’ve chosen to accept what happened as it happened, rather than what could or should have happened, that you have made peace with the pain, and you are ready to let it go.
Forgiveness can mean you step into your present rather than anchoring in the past.
Although there are a variety of definitions of forgiveness, research has suggested they all have 3 common components:
- Gaining a more balanced view of what happened to hurt you and of the person who acted against you.
- Decreasing negative feelings towards the offender and potentially increasing compassion
- Giving up the right to punish the offender further or to demand payment for his misdeed in any shape or form.
Yes, forgiving one who has truly wronged him can be one of the hardest things a person can do; Overcoming that mountain of hurt and outrage, often justified, can be more strenuous, taxing and daunting than climbing Mount Everest. But the rewards for granting that forgiveness are immeasurable.
Of course, the paramount reasons to forgive come from a Torah perspective. The Torah tells us not to take revenge and not bear a grudge. It’s not enough to just refrain from acting on our grudge, aka revenge, but we are cautioned not to even harbor it in our hearts, to forgive one who wronged us. The Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva tells us that a person must be quick to forgive and slow to anger and when the sinner asks for forgiveness he should forgive him willingly and wholeheartedly.
We come before Hashem and we beg Him for forgiveness; it behooves us to show that we have warranted that forgiveness because we have forgiven others.
And of course, by withholding forgiveness from someone who is remorseful for his actions, we are causing them eternal anguish by leaving them marred by sin they can only atone for once they have acquired our forgiveness.
Now, of course, that alone should be enough to motivate us to find it within our heart to forgive, but it’s interesting to note that popular psychology lists a whole host of reasons why forgiveness is, in fact, good for you.
Here are some of them:
- When you bear a grudge, the one you are harming most is yourself. As the saying goes, “Holding onto a grudge is allowing someone to live rent-free inside your heart.” The negativity drags you down and holds you prisoner to the ugly emotions that rage on inside you. Forgiving others is freeing and liberating. It’s bad enough that person took what he did from you by doing what he did to you; don’t let him affect you even more by staying mad. By doing so, you are essentially sentencing yourself to time in the prison of your own bitterness, for a crime someone else committed… against you!
- Forgiveness comes with a whole host of health benefits. A 2005 Journal of Behavioral Medicine study showed that forgiveness is associated with a whole range of health measures, including medications taken, sleep quality and fatigue. The health benefits of forgiveness seem to come largely from its ability to reduce negative effects (feelings of tension, anger, depression, and fatigue), researchers found. With forgiveness, “the victim relinquishes ideas of revenge, and feels less hostile, angry, or upset about the experiences,” the University of Tennessee researchers wrote. “The present study suggests that this pathway most fully mediates the forgiveness-health relationship. Thus, health consequences of lack of forgiveness may be carried by increased levels of negative emotion.”
- Forgiving unconditionally could lead to Arichas Yamim! People who practice conditional forgiveness — in other words, people who can only forgive if others say sorry first or promise not to do the transgression again — may be more likely to die earlier, compared with people who practice unconditional forgiveness, a 2011 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Researchers explained that apologies can help to move the forgiveness process along, but if “sorry” is a necessary condition for forgiveness, “then there will likely be fewer instances of forthcoming forgiveness for that individual.” Depriving oneself of the gift of forgiveness has actually been proven to shorten a life span!
- It’s good for your heart! More research has shown that forgiveness can actually lower blood pressure. A 2011 study of married couples showed that when the victim in the situation forgave the other person, both experienced a decrease in blood pressure.
A 2003 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine also showed that forgiveness is associated with decreased blood pressure levels. “Forgiveness may produce beneficial effects directly by reducing allostatic load associated with betrayal and conflict, and indirectly through reductions in perceived stress,” researchers wrote.
- When people reported higher levels of forgiveness, they also tended to report better health habits and decreased depression, anxiety, and anger levels.
- Forgiveness is good for the immune system! Higher reported levels of forgiveness were associated with lower white blood cell count and hematocrit levels. White blood cells are an integral part of fighting off diseases and infections.
- It gets you out of that angry mode. When you’re chronically angry, you’re in a flight-or-flight mode — which can have effects on blood pressure and heart rate, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. But when you truly forgive, that leads to decreased stress, which can help to tamp down the anger. And not forgiving someone is associated with more anger, sadness and feelings of not being in control, according to a 2001 study in the journal Psychological Science.
- Being a forgiving person could protect against long term stress. Having the trait of forgiveness (what experts call “forgivingness”) independently predicts positive mental and physical health, according to a recent study in the Journal of Health Psychology, conducted by researchers from Luther College, the University of California, Davis and the University of California, Los Angeles. In addition, researchers found that forgivingness seemed to protect against stress’s negative effects on mental health. “We found that lifetime stress severity was unrelated to mental health for persons who were highest in forgivingness, significantly associated with poorer mental health for persons exhibiting moderate levels of forgivingness, and most strongly related to poorer mental health for participants exhibiting the lowest levels of forgivingness,” they wrote.
- It makes you stronger. People are often loathe to forgive because they perceive that to be a sign of weakness. They feel by forgiving they are allowing their “opponent” to gain the upper hand. Nothing could be further from the truth. Forgiveness is one of the most challenging things to do. If anything, it is so much easier and lazier to just sit and wallow in the bitterness. It takes a strong person to face pain head-on, forgive, and release it.
- We can never truly heal if we don’t forgive. It is the start of the healing process and it is our path to serenity and contentment.
Who to forgive?
Our sifrei halachah and hashkafah are pretty clear in enjoining us to forgive all those who have wronged us and have come to ask us for forgiveness. Even those who do not ask, for so many reasons above we can work on ourselves to forgive them in our hearts, so that we can be freed from the confines of our grudges. The exceptions may be if someone continues to harm you, has not shown any signs of regret or remorse and hasn’t begun to make an effort to right his wrong. Of course, in such a case, and in any case where you may find it hard to forgive, speak to a knowledgeable and compassionate Torah leader to seek out daas Torah in this matter.
Perhaps the hardest person in the world to forgive is ourselves. As Yidden, we have taken ownership of the concept of guilt and can be so incredibly hard on ourselves over any and every lack in our behavior or character.
Of course, guilt is important in that it motivates us to do teshuvah, to make better choices and take new directions when necessary. But when guilt bogs us down with depression, demoralizes us and cripples us from accomplishing our goals and mission in life, then we know it is time to learn to forgive ourselves and let go of the burdensome guilt.
How to forgive
Now comes the hard part. We know why we should be forgiving; we know whom we need to forgive, but how do we get there? Sometimes the hurt is just too great! While every person will approach the process differently, here are some general tips to help you on your journey to forgiveness and the freedom to be that it will bring in its wake:
- Remember Hashem in your life. While, as we have seen, forgiveness is not an exclusively Jewish concept, as Torah observers we have a significant advantage when it comes to mastering the art of forgiveness: We have Hashem in our lives. When Yosef Hatzadik reveals himself to his brothers, and their lives flash before their eyes and they are stricken with such intense remorse for what they had done to their very own brother, Yosef is quick to reassure them. “It was not you who sent me here, but Hashem.” On his madreigah, Yosef had internalized that this was Hashem’s plan for him and that all of the events leading up to this moment had occurred by His design alone. When the people in our lives who hurt us are seen as messengers of Hashem to get us to where we need to be, we can eradicate some of the intense hurt and anger before it even enters our heart.
By the same token, when Dovid Hamelech is fleeing for his life from his very own son, and as if that wasn’t devastating enough but as he is on the run he has to contend with the taunting and the mocking of Shimi ben Geira, Dovid cautions the loyal Avishai who sought to kill Shimi, “Hashem amar lo kallel.” Hashem is making him curse me, because Hashem has decided that this is to be my lot in life right now. Imagine if we can approach every Shimi in our lives with the thought process of “Hashem Amar Lo Kallel,” we’d have half the struggle to forgive taken care of already.
2. Respect the Process. Acknowledge the depth of your pain and realize that forgiveness doesn’t have to happen instantaneously. Shock and anger often comes before forgiveness. We must first deal with the hurt feelings before moving into forgiveness. Let us respect that process – a process that can happen without us even realizing it. Sometimes by simply exploring the situation and acknowledging the impact of the betrayal, the reasons and context behind the betrayal can be the beginning blocks of forgiveness.
3. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re minimizing your victimization experience. By engaging in forgiveness you aren’t saying “it’s okay…it wasn’t that bad.” Not at all! You can forgive yet still admit that the victimization and trauma was very real and very bad.
4. Let go of anger. In order to forgive, you need to let go of the anger in your heart toward that person. Once you emerge from the initial haze of deep and unrelenting pain, you can begin to see the situation a bit more objectively. Depending on the severity of the misdeed, you can start to see the perpetrator in a different light. Some people warrant your compassion, your empathy, or even your pity. You may see that he was really well-meaning, or, in cases of extreme harm, you may even see that he is so twisted and cruel that you can come to pity him and the life he leads whose sole goal is to inflict pain and hurt to others. In either case, letting go of the anger you feel will be the first step to forgiving the person who wronged you, whether they deserve it or not. Don’t forget, you deserve it!
5. Daven for success. While we are responsible for our own matters of yiras shamayim and self-improvement, we cannot do it without His help. So, before you set out to forgive someone, and while you are on the journey, each step of the way, daven for the siyata dishmaya to achieve complete and ultimate forgiveness so that you can move on in life unencombered by hate and by grudges, and so that Hashem can fully forgive you and sign and seal you for a year of blessing and bounty!
Quotes on Forgiveness:
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Mahatma Ghandi
“Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.” Oscar Wilde
“Forgiveness is giving up the idea that the past could have had different results.” Unknown
“The secret of forgiving everything is to understand nothing.” George Bernard Shaw
“It takes a strong person to say sorry, and an ever stronger person to forgive.” Unknown
“Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note–torn in two, and burned up, so that it never can be shown against one.” Henry Ward Beecher
“Sometimes people find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than for being right.” J.K. Rowling
“I’ve learned that when you have an argument with your friend, the first one who says,’I’m sorry I hurt your feelings; please forgive me,’ is the winner.” Unknown
“There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.” Josh Billings
“A heart filled with anger has no room for love.” Joan Lunden
“Forgive all who have offended you, not for them, but for yourself.” Harriet Nelson
“When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future.” Bernard Meltzer
“I will forgive. I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.” Booker T. Washington
“Unforgiveness may be aimed at others, but the greatest wound is to yourself.” Scott Johnson
“It always amazes me to see people making a decision to never forgive.
It’s like trying to punish their tormentors by harming themselves.” Nisandeh Neta
“Forgiveness is a sign that the person who has wronged you means more to you
than the wrong they have dealt you.” Ben Greenhalgh
“Keep a fair-sized cemetery in your backyard, in which to bury the faults of your friends.” Henry Ward Beecher
“Anger makes you smaller, while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you were.” Cherie Carter-Scott
“Resentment is like a glass of poison that a man drinks; then he sits down and waits for his enemy to die.” Nelson Mandela
“Forgiveness is a funny thing. It warms the heart and cools the sting.” William A. Ward
“You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.” Lewis B. Smedes
“What we forgive too freely doesn’t stay forgiven.” Mignon McLaughlin
“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” William Blake
Reprinted with permission from the Lakewood Shopper Family Room.