07/15/2016 03:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Reframing Forgiveness


The topic of forgiveness received a great deal of attention when parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina forgave the assassin who slaughtered their pastor, friends and family in the Methodist Episcopal church on June 17, 2015.

The churchgoers seemed to know intuitively what has been proved scientifically: forgiveness is good for our health.
Holding a grudge and vindictiveness causes health issues like high blood pressure and heart disease. Forgiveness increases our life span. (For details, please refer to these articles in the Huffington Post and Johns Hopkins.)

In forgiveness, we acknowledge our own fallibility, a trait we share with all people. It is the key that opens the door to the human condition. But, how do we arrive at forgiveness?

First let's ask what forgiveness is and what it is not.

It is not condoning a person's actions. For example, we certainly don't condone murder or child abuse. (Yet we benefit by forgiving the murderer or abuser. )

It is not forgetting that a heinous act occurred.

It is not saying the mourning process is over. A person may suffer consequences of another's actions and still be able to forgive.

Forgiveness is:
Letting go of grudges.
Releasing resentment.
Turning away from vindictiveness.

Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray,"

"Children begin by loving their parents, as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them." Forgiving our parents may be one of the most important factors in our sense of well-being. When we don't forgive our parents, we don't forgive ourselves. We can't extricate them from our lives, from our psyches. The psychological term introjection refers to the messages we have incorporated from them that have become our own. Sorting out the introjected thoughts that help us from those that hinder our progress is one of the major tasks of psychotherapy.

Some parents try hard to be good-enough parents; others don't. When they don't meet the grade, we have to mourn the loss of a good-enough parent. (We're not alone; sadly many others share this tragedy.)

In his heart-wrenching memoir, Not My Father's Son, the brilliant actor Alan Cumming speaks about the abuse he experienced in the hands of his rejecting father. Finally, he is able to write, "Thank you, Alex Cumming, for siring me and ensuring I will always have lots of source material. I forgive you."

We can't force someone to forgive. Therefore, the road to forgiveness may also involve understanding the person who has harmed us. This requires starting off on a journey that may entail a close examination of the person we need to forgive. The journey can be long and torturous.

In Mona Simpson's novel, The Lost Father, the protagonist, Mayan, spends years searching for the father who abandoned her. When she finds him, and knows who he is, she can forgive. She also asks for forgiveness from those people who have helped her during her search and whom she may have harmed in the process.

Conclusion: In forgiving another, we ultimately forgive ourselves. Holding a grudge hurts us and shortens our life span. Letting go of resentment is like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.