Following the overwhelming response to my article entitled “Fighting Anger After the War, http://livingwithptsd-sparkles.blogspot.com/2012/06/veterans-ptsd-project-fighting-anger.html, it is timely to have a discussion about forgiveness. The following written by Howard Lipke, PhD., really focuses on some meaningful aspects of forgiveness in simple but concise ways. Giving up anger is the first step… This is not an easy process. In my book, Reconciliation: A Son’s Story, it took me most of my adult life to age 64 to begin this process while researching and writing my family story of living with a parent who returned home from WWII in June of 1945, following 66 months of extended exposure to the horrors of combat. Dad’s US Navy combat duty begin in the South China Sea before the war, then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor while he was below deck serving on the Battleship USS West Virginia, the beginning of WWII. Dad was subsequently sent to the Asiatic Pacific Theater aboard the USS Belle Grove LSD 2 for 25 months without liberty and 7 bloody campaigns, including Iwo Jima. It was the transition from ignorance and denial to acute awareness of PTSD symptoms that allowed me to take the first step of forgiveness, “giving up anger.” Fathers Day is coming up this weekend, but this year like last Fathers Day, following the the publication of my book, I can love and honor my father, Vernon H. Sparks, without any anger…
Reconciliation: A Sons Story
The ideas about forgiveness discussed here have been around a long time. What is proposed is one possible combination of philosophy, science of psychology, and what the author has learned from interactions with combat veterans. The ideas presented here are complex. There are some profound, but less complex, ways to consider forgiveness for others, or to find self-forgiveness. Some of these are based in spirituality. One example is the biblical statement, “But if ye forgive not men in their transgression neither will your father forgive your transgression” (Mathew 6:15) There are many people who accept these spiritual ideas, however, the ideas have not yet been translated to changes in feeling. One barrier to forgiveness may be that forgiveness is not the best thing at a given time; it may not be safe to forgive. I hope that what is offered here may be helpful in considering what forgiveness means, and what to do.
The three parts of forgiveness
Forgiveness is usually defined as giving up the requirement of punishment, animosity and anger toward another person. By this definition forgiveness could be seen as coming in parts: the punishment, and the emotion. As you can see below I am adding another, which is sometimes considered part of forgiveness.
1. There is the giving up of anger,
I am proposing here that forgiveness doesn’t have to be complete, you can have partial forgiveness. The parts listed above can be considered separately. It may be noticed that forgetting has not been mentioned. Forgetting is not part of forgiving. (Maybe that’s why there is a phrase “Forgive AND forget.” If forgetting was part of forgiveness you wouldn’t have to mention it.)
What takes the place of anger, punishment, and/or resuming the relationship?
Instead of anger, you might have sadness, compassion, or pity. Instead of punishment you can have the realization that punishment won’t do any good, or may hurt you more than the transgressor. Instead of spending time and energy planning or implementing punishment, you can do whatever you like with the time and energy. One thing you cannot have is the exact same relationship, then change is part of the nature of life. Of course, it is occasionally possible to have complete forgiveness, giving up anger and punishment, and the reconnecting to, perhaps an even better relationship, but that is not always best or safest.
When you hold back some or all forgiveness, and keep your anger, it may be because you need to be angry to keep yourself from being involved with a person again. When you don’t give up punishment it may be because the punishment is necessary to keep something from happening again. Before you decide to forgive at all, or how much to forgive, consider these fully.
Do remember that carrying anger, focusing on punishing, and not forgiving may be bad for the person not doing the forgiving. This could be for psychological, social, and/or spiritual reasons. Carrying anger prevents full examination of factors which led to the transgression, and prevents full understanding how the situation arose, understanding which could prevent future problems. All this is not even to mention that carrying anger can damage our physical health.
In an apology, saying “I’m sorry”, the offender’s acknowledgement of error and regret ( which is sometimes the word used to represent sadness or sorrow) shows that the offender recognizes that he or she took more power than he or she should have. The admission of sorrow, demonstrates a willing to display weakness, thereby returning power to the person offended. So, to give a very mild example, if I bump into you, and then sincerely apologize, I am showing you that you have the power to make me feel bad for what I have done. The balance is restored. Forgiveness can then be offered because you have a signal that you are safe, because hurting you hurts me. While you may not require that I be punished, you may be more careful around me, less completely welcoming, because you now know you have to watch for my clumsiness. On the other hand, you may be more welcoming, and our connection can be better, because you have an example that when I am wrong I will acknowledge it.
Because an apology is supposed to lead to a return of power, an insincere apology can be worse than none. It may show that the person offering the insincere apology recognizes that he must give up something, the words, but does not have the sadness or the belief in his error with makes recurrence less likely.
The problem of self forgiveness is especially complex and difficult. In order to begin to consider it we must recognize that within ourselves we have many parts. When there is self blame, apparently there is one part doing the blaming and another part accused of the transgression, and in need of forgiveness. When we consider forgiving ourselves if the part considering forgiving can have a clear understanding of the part that needs to be forgiven, the whole process can make a lot more sense. At different times two different parts of a person may not forgive each other. For example, sometimes the combat part may not forgive the civilian part for holding it back in combat, at other times the civilian part may not forgive the combat part for not holding back. When the two parts of the self can understand each “other”, we become more unified. Perhaps, what people mean when they say they feel “whole” is that the various parts are more connected and understanding.
Self forgiveness and punishment
Understanding the nature of punishment is particularly important in self-forgiveness. From the point of view of psychology, punishment is something which decreases the probability of an event reoccurring. However, most people probably define punishment as inflicting pain, or a kind of getting even. When you live in the get-even idea of punishment the chances of the punishment causing more harm than good are high. If you live in the decrease the chances of re-occurrence definition, then the punishment chosen will more likely make for a better future. (The discussion the limitation of punishment as an effective teaching device is a long one, for another time.)
In discussing self forgiveness it is important to consider that the self punishment of always feeling guilty, which I define as anger at yourself, usually backfires. People can take only so much of this and then start to get angry and turn the blame back on others. A difficult alternative to constant self blame would be leading your life differently, being more careful, building positive habits. This is usually more difficult for people than feeling bad. Which is why people so often punish themselves by feeling bad and screwing up their lives, than by making changes of habits and forgiving. The feeling bad seems to never go away, partly because depriving yourself of pleasure, or hurting yourself, does not usually make things even. It actually makes the-thing-you-did-that-you-think-you-have-to-punish-yourself-for worse, by depriving everyone of your potential to learn from what happened, reconnect, and do good.
Although forgiveness is a major idea in religion, this paper cannot be an attempt to explore that much. It might be said though, that to expect people to forgive completely, as we might ask God to do, could be difficult because if God, as described by most people, is omnipotent, and cannot be harmed by us. God is safe to allow the relationship with the transgressor to resume.
What is left?
When we do forgive, and drop the anger, or the punishment, but there is no chance for connection or reconnection, we are sometimes faced with a dilemma.