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Forgiveness: A tool for personal growth and global healing 

From the Forgiveness Forum

Forgiveness is a continuous process of the head and the heart.

Forgiveness is a deeply personal choice made independent of the choice to seek justice or atonement. It does not mean forgetting, condoning or excusing offenses.

To forgive is to reduce or eliminate feelings of resentment, the drive to seek revenge and the motivation to remain estranged. Over time, these emotions can be replaced with positive ones, like empathy, love and compassion.

The Templeton World Charity Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation have been supporting research on forgiveness for over 20 years. Scientific research on forgiveness that has shown us simple interventions can improve physical health, mental wellbeing, and relationships across all ages. More than fifty studies conducted around the world have found that forgiveness significantly improves mental health outcomes such as depression, anger, hostility, and stress.

They want to share these findings with the world and support people to try forgiveness in their own lives, building a global movement to promote human flourishing. To this end they have created The Forgiveness Forum to provide events and resources on forgiveness.

Story 1 - Ireland

Mary Robinson served as the first woman President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; and is an advocate for gender equality, women’s participation in peace-building and human dignity. She shared a story:

"I'll begin with a quote that I love which is, 'Forgiveness is the best form of love.' It takes a strong person to say sorry and an even stronger person to forgive. In 2011, Queen Elizabeth came to Ireland and she stood on the first day in a formal ceremony with our then President Mary McAleese. It was at the garden of remembrance which commemorates all of those who fought in the struggle against Britain for freedom and independence. She bowed her head - a symbolic gesture. Her symbol was to bow her head and seek forgiveness in that way and that if anything was more impactful. It was the start of a rather troubled visit but that bowing of the head began a visit that ended up with her laughing with a fishmonger in Cork and being surrounded by crowds who were celebrating her and helping relations between our peoples."

Why is forgiveness so difficult?

Forgiveness seeks to break us free from the cycle of vengeance, the cycle of guilt and the cycle of shame. Forgiveness is difficult because it is completely natural to seek revenge after being hurt or seeking retribution after experiencing wrongdoing. Revenge serves an evolutionary purpose - a tit for tat strategy. A biological mechanism to enforce discipline in groups and to prevent future transgressions.

Forgiveness is different it helps human beings cooperate and form ever larger societies able to coordinate and progress, providing an escape from the endless cycles of retribution. Researchers define forgiveness actually as a reduction in vengeful thoughts, feelings and behaviours that is simultaneously associated with an increase in positive thoughts, feelings and behaviours towards an offending person.

When you forgive someone, it's difficult because you're actually attempting to override some very deep-seated desires that have ancient evolutionary origins and because of that difficulty, it's a process, it takes time and progress isn't always linear or clear. It's important to emphasize that forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting or condoning offenses. It's a voluntary gift that only can be given by one person to another.

What does the science tell us about forgiveness?

Forgiveness is a powerful tool that can improve mental and physical health. There are many studies that correlate the propensity to forgive with a number of health outcomes. People who are more likely to forgive are less likely to engage in risky behaviours like excessive drinking and smoking and also have reductions in anxiety, and depression and other psychiatric disorders. Even more surprisingly, individuals who forgive may also have  better cardiovascular response to stress - the current body of evidence suggests that this is most strongest when it deals with forgiveness as it relates to one individual to another.

What are some of the tools that we can actually use?

There are over 50 studies now that show forgiveness as effective as an intervention and researchers have identified the essential components in the process of forgiveness.

Forgiveness involves at least two distinct steps in order to fully benefit from the process. It's a process that involves both the head and the heart.

First a person makes an active decision to forgive - you can write a commitment down, you can say it out loud or tell a friend about it. This process targets the cognitive or rational faculties in the brain.

The second step is all about getting the rest of the body to follow on from that decision. This involves thinking about what it would look like or feel like to forgive, so you use tools like visualization or storytelling or imagination. You can use spoken words or give a physical gift or write a letter, etc. This second emotional component is often accompanied by a powerful release, a reduction in anxiety and ultimately a sense of peace.

Story 2 - Columbia

Juan Manuel Santos served as President of Colombia, and received the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for leading peace negotiations to end over 50 years of intractable civil war. He shared this story:

"I was advised by a Professor from Harvard that during the peace process I should hear the stories of the victims to re-energize me and give me the strength to continue on a very difficult path. Here is one of those stories. Pastor Amira lives in the coffee regions in Colombia. Her father had been killed by the war, her two brothers had been killed, her husband was killed and her son was tortured and killed about three or four years after her husband was killed. About 15 days after her son was buried, somebody came to her house seeking help. He was wounded and she opened up her house, helped him and cured him. When he was cured, he was going out again to continue the war and he saw a photograph of her with her son. He was shocked and asked her if that was her son. She said yes and he started crying and said, 'Forgive me but I was the one who tortured and killed him.' She was shocked but about 20 seconds later, she embraced him and he was even more shocked about her attitude. 'Why are you embracing me. Why are you saying thank you to me? I killed your son. I tortured him.' She said, 'Well by what you just did, telling me what you did and by crying, you liberated me from hating for the rest of my life.' That was a story that really had a profound effect in me personally of how powerful it is to forgive." 

From the Forgiveness Forum, 13/09/2021
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