By Dr. Peter Breggin
Early in 1865, in his second inaugural address, little more than a month before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln stood before the bloodied, fractured United States to speak about forgiveness, the letting go of hatreds, and the binding of wounds. He implored the people of America:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Forgiveness has been central to the lives of the most admirable and inspiring people to walk the face of the Earth: Jesus, of course, and in our time from Mother Teresa to Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Mother Teresa declared:
People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
Gandhi told us:
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.
Mandela’s life is emblematic. After spending decades imprisoned by his political enemies, he never became embittered and went on to devote the rest of his life to helping the people of South Africa forgive each other and to bind together as one. In 1994, he explained to a reporter, “Men of peace must not think about retribution or recriminations. Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”
In our personal lives, our attitudes are much more guaranteed to have an impact than in the more distant chaos of the political world. Forgiveness in regard to those around us is guaranteed to improve how we feel about ourselves, and it may have a good impact on others as well.
Let’s begin with what forgiveness is not, because the greatest barriers toward forgiveness involve falsely entangling it with things it is not.
Forgiveness is not about giving up fighting for our ideals. Although I’m sure they may have flinched at times, at least in the privacy of their own hearts, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, King, and Mandela never gave up their determination to make the world a better place, regardless of opposition. Their capacity for forgiveness did not weaken their resolve to fight for what they knew to be right.
Forgiveness is not about ignoring the harm done to us by others, and in particular it is not about allowing the harm to persist.
Forgiveness is not about letting go our capacity for moral judgment. It is instead a moral judgment of the highest spiritual quality.
Forgiveness is not about making believe that people are better than they are or that human nature is more benign than it is.
Now for the hardest part: What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness, as I understand it after all these decades on Earth, is about an attitude toward both ourselves and others. Forgiveness is an attitude of letting go of enmity and resentment and encouraging ourselves to feel genuine love and empathy. It begins with kindness and understanding toward ourselves.
Forgiving ourselves allows us to recognize our own faults and then to correct them as much as we can without languishing in unforgiving guilt and shame. Guilt and shame actually make us less able to examine ourselves. We try to relieve these self-punishing attitudes by denying responsibility for any wrong actions. In a state of denial that protects us from guilt and shame, we cannot identify what we need change about ourselves.
Further in regard to ourselves, to forgive others is to make peace within ourselves. We give up anger and resentment and thereby become freer of spiritually-corrupting malice. We no longer give those who have hurt us the power to continue to do so by preoccupying us with their deeds.
In regard to others, forgiveness relieves us of the motivation to gratuitously harm others. We may still feel the necessity of taking self-protective actions that end up harming them, for example, by excluding them from our lives, but we have not done so out of malice. We have acted to protect ourselves or our families and not for the purpose of inflicting harm.
Similarly, people may be harmed in our political lives if we fight against their interests, but we are better off if we are motivated by the pursuit of ideals and principles rather than resentment. If we are trying to improve the world in some way, this difference in attitude enables us to behave more rationally and often results in our having a better impact.
Forgiveness also leaves room to welcome back friends or family when they have changed and are no longer a danger to us or our loved ones. The same is true in our political lives where, whenever possible, we try to let go of old resentments in order to accomplish a greater good.
Forgiveness ultimately empowers us by clarifying our minds. Unclouded by resentment, jealousy, or hate, it is far easier to make rational decisions about who can be trusted and who cannot be trusted, and about how to best improve our lives and the lives of others.
Forgiveness goes hand in hand with empathy. Empathy involves a caring and even loving response to another’s viewpoint and experience. It does not, however, mean that we approve or reward another person’s viewpoint and behavior. In my experience, when we approach other people in an open and receptive manner, if these people have bad intentions, it becomes much more readily apparent to us than when we approach them with suspicion and callousness.
People who are forgiving do not become vulnerable to individuals who have harmed them or have the intent to harm them. Forgiveness involves seeing people for who they are, both the good and the bad, while letting go of spiritually-corrupting negative emotions that make us anxious and keep us up at night, wasting our energy, which can be turned to better uses.
As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, it’s apparent to me that the most forgiving people are the happiest and most effective, and that the least forgiving people are the most miserable and ineffective. A great deal of personal suffering, including what gets called mental illness, is rooted in an angry, unforgiving attitude toward oneself, other people, and the world.
Yes, harboring a grudge and feeling hateful can temporarily energize us, but in the long run it wears us out. Burnout is often the product of resentment. Driven by an unforgiving attitude, we are also likely to sacrifice and to exhaust ourselves in the name of getting even or not letting someone “get away with it.”
When we let go of hard feelings and stop expressing resentment, it enables positive change in those who may have hurt us. With less reason to focus on our enmity, they are given the maximum opportunity to retake responsibility for their own actions.
Forgiveness has no downside. A renewal of our capacity to forgive can only improve our inner life and empower us in every activity we undertake. Think about Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. It is no coincidence that each of these spiritual and political leaders advocated forgiveness. Each found in forgiveness an empowering attitude toward their personal lives as well as toward their political work in the world.
Originally published on The Huffington Post.