By Brian Luke Seaward
When the phone rings after midnight, the call is rarely about good news. That was when Rose, a good friend of mine, learned that her teenage son, Benjamin, had been killed after his car was hit head-on by a drunk driver. Rose was overwhelmed by shock, pain, and grief, and then by the sense of emptiness that can follow great loss. After the court hearing was scheduled, Rose decided she had to attend so she could meet the man who had killed her son.
When she spoke at the hearing, she described what she had been feeling and then she said something to the drunk driver that made everyone in the courtroom lift up their heads: “I forgive you.”
The concept of forgiveness has been explored for millennia. But still no shaman, theologian, or therapist can make the shift from feeling great injury to letting go of the wish for vengeance any easier. Forgiving others for pain they have caused is one of the hardest things we can do. It is also hard to forgive ourselves for harm that we have done.
I’ve been a health psychologist teaching stress management for decades. Helping people to understand forgiveness is one of the coping techniques I teach and it is part of my resilience toolbox. It is also one of the hardest tools to use and, perhaps for this reason, it doesn’t get used often, or as much as it should. For years I have kept my attention focused on the importance of forgiveness as an inner resource, or what I often call “a muscle of the soul.”
In 1993 I attended the second annual Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) Conference in Washington D.C. where I met Brendan O’Regan, who was the IONS director of research. He was about to release the book, SPONTANEOUS REMISSION: An Annotated Bibliography*, a collection of case studies of cancer patients who experienced spontaneous remissions (the rapid, often unexplained disappearance of symptoms or the cure of a disease and is most commonly associated with cancerous tumors). I learned many things from this book among them that the word “remission” comes from the Latin word for forgiveness.
Many years later, in a conversation with noted stress researcher, colleague, and author Kenneth Pelletier, I learned the story about his friend, Hans Selye, a pioneer in studying stress. When Selye was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in his 60s, he decided to spend his remaining months writing his autobiography. Early in his career, in 1949, Selye had been nominated for a Nobel Prize in medicine but was passed over for a colleague who did similar (some say identical) research. Bitter feelings between the two rivals lasted for decades. In the twilight of his life, as Selye reflected and wrote about his journey, he made peace with the past. The man who made the word “stress” a household term, forgave his colleague. Selye’s tumor went in to remission and he lived several more years – long enough to share this story.
Forgiveness may seem to be a subject that really belongs in the domain of religion instead of in medicine and psychology, but the data from research back up that releasing the ball and chain of anger, resentment, and victimization can lead to increased health. When people engage in acts of forgiveness the immune system is greatly enhanced. Fred Luskin and his colleagues at the Stanford University Forgiveness Project published FORGIVE FOR GOOD **, a book that outlines a nine-step systematic approach to the process for forgiving with the message that clearing your conscience may be good for your soul, but it’s good for your physical and mental health as well.
I have also studied a forgiveness tradition called Ho’oponopono (“to make right”), a self-healing process in Hawaii that was reintroduced by Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len on the Big Island. It is centered on the belief that an act of forgiveness goes beyond the self to the betterment of the community. Its popularity has spread well beyond the state of Hawai’i. There is a four-sentence prayer designed to repair the torn cultural fabric of community:
“I am sorry.
Please forgive me.
I love you.”
In this time of deep political strife, social upheaval, systemic racism, patriarchal misogyny, and environmental calamity, this forgiveness prayer takes on a whole new meaning and could help mend the tears in our national, even global, social fabric. Experts who study and write about forgiveness, remind us that when we forgive someone who has caused us injury or injustice, we free ourselves – we can let go, and go on with our lives. Easily said, hard to do.
When I was a student of shaman and medical anthropologist Alberto Villoldo, we held a fire ceremony to heal ancestral trauma. We invited into the large sacred circle all of our ancestors starting with our parents, then worked back to include generation upon generation. After guiding us through a process of addressing our ancestors, Villoldo instructed us to use our breath to blow the intention of forgiveness from our cupped hands into the circle, to all our ancestors, to the hearts of all beings. But that was just the first step. We repeated the process of blowing into our hands but this time it was to send out gratitude – gratitude for the gifts of pain, insight, and the chance to learn tolerance, gratitude for the lessons learned, the wisdom gained, and the burdens left behind. Villoldo told us that forgiveness without gratitude is incomplete. How many times have you thought you’ve forgiven someone only to have the ghosts of the past revisit and stir up feelings of anger, animosity, and resentment? Gratitude sends those restless spirits home. Some say that both forgiveness and gratitude can heal the karmic wounds of the past.
On a trip years ago, as I drove from Jackson Hole to Boulder, I went through the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. I saw scores of police and ambulances off in the distance. The next day I learned of the brutal murder of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard. I heard that on the last day of the trial Matthew’s mother Judy, like Benjamin’s mother Rose, spoke to the courtroom. Through tears she told the defendants that she forgave them. In the words of Matthew’s father, Dennis, “Now is the time for healing.”
May all be so mighty as to walk in these parents’ footsteps.
* * * * *
* Brendan O’Regan, with Caryle Hirshberg, Spontaneous Remission: An Annotated Bibliography. Institute of Noetic Sciences. Petaluma, CA 1993.
** Fred Luskin, FORGIVE FOR GOOD: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness, HarperCollins, 2001
The image that heads this post is a photograph by Brian Luke Seaward.
Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D. Is the author of the best-selling book, Stand Like Mountain Flow Like Water. He is the Executive Director of the Paramount Wellness Institute located in Boulder, CO and can be reached at http://www.brianlukeseaward.net