The Power Of Forgiveness


Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

The Lord's Prayer

The main reason I am choosing to write about forgiveness is because I consider it to be of central importance to my outlook on life and to my work as a psychotherapist. The second is because this is a subject that has been sadly overlooked in the field of mental health.

With this paper I intend to correct the balance somewhat. I think this is an urgent and necessary task because today more than ever the importance of forgiveness needs to be brought into public awareness and to be opened up for public discussion. The world needs our forgiveness and we need to learn how to forgive ourselves if true healing is going to take place.

How we see ourselves, how we see the world and how we build our relationships with others will define how we live our lives and what our lives will be like. I believe that life always has the potential of being a natural, living, growing, joyful process and I like to think of my work and this article as an effort in that direction, and as an attempt to remind us of things that we already know deep down inside.

I have observed that there are broadly speaking two types of people; those who will see half a glass of water as half full and those that will see it as half empty. The glass is the same; the water is the same, that is a fact, the reality. What is different is our perception. The way one perceives something makes all the difference in the world to the individual concerned and to their surroundings. Keep this always in mind because it's important for your mental and emotional balance. What a person perceives is not the whole reality, it is never the absolute truth, it is just a point of view. Perception is not a fact, it is a reflection in a mirror. The way we perceive something and how we form our opinions will depend on who we are and from what angle we approach something.

As you know, each one of us has many different points of view, many ideas on all sorts of subjects. Some of these thoughts can be helpful and lead to further growth and development. Beneficial ideas and ways of looking at things can bring serenity to the mind, peace into the heart and joy to the life of an individual. Less benign thoughts can be unhelpful and destructive, they can bring bitterness into the heart, fear into the mind and anxiety into a person's life.

Psychotherapy is a patient process of enquiry and exploration of a human being's way of thinking and of the different and often contradictory thoughts they entertain. If someone chooses to embark on what we call psychotherapy, what they are actually doing is opening themselves up to an intimate scrutiny by another human being. In this process they will be trying to share their most hidden secrets, their deepest dreams, their darkest fears, their heartfelt opinions and their cherished hopes. It is a paradox, but by allowing oneself to be known one gets to know oneself. By paying attention to the different voices inside ourselves and by allowing them to come up to the surface, we get to know them and to recognise them. In this way a person has an opportunity to think again, to change his mind and to bring a new order into their world. Psychotherapy provides a space for reflection, it is an opportunity for change where a greater capacity for insight, emotional strength, and mental peace can be developed. I say it is an opportunity because the outcome is uncertain, it will depend to what degree a person is prepared to change his or her views and let go of destructive beliefs. This will determine the outcome of the therapy. No more and no less.

By changing one's mind one changes one's life. This is not just psychological theory; it is more in line with what I call a 'psychological reality', and it is not new - the great American psychologist William James said this more than fifty years ago "The greatest discovery of my generation is to have found out that by changing one's attitude of mind one changes one's life".

Forgiving is a powerful way of changing one's mind, of purifying one's heart and of bringing serenity into one's life. My mother, who happens to be a very good teacher, gave me this important lesson 'Our task in life is to make our mind peaceful and this can only be done right here where we are and right now in this present moment'. I discovered that forgiveness is the key that will open the way to the peace of mind, the harmony and the serenity that my mother was referring to. In this life we always have the choice "Do I want peace or do I want to be right ?". If I want peace I choose one path, if I want to be right I will take the other. Forgiveness is not an act of approval, it's an act of absolution. It is not a feeling, it is a decision of the mind to be implemented by the heart. Forgiving is not saying that something that was bad is now good, forgiving is something quite different; forgiving is recognising that something that happened has happened and deciding to let it be, to let it rest in a place of peace, untouched by bitterness, resentment or blame.

One day I tried an experiment. I asked the owner of a café in my high street "what do you think about forgiveness ?". The poor man looked a little bit startled at first but then he said something really beautiful. "Forgiveness is a honourable thing. To be able to do it you have to be more than human. That is to be able to do it well. Of all the things we can strive for I think that forgiveness is the most important to ourselves and to others".

It would appear that most people place a high value on the ideal of forgiveness and in spite of this, we and the world are being torn apart by unresolved, unforgiven conflicts. Me and mine; you and yours seem to be our habitual way of thinking, and because we think in this way we believe that this is what reality is and we act accordingly. The result is obvious, we defend our rights and we attack others as a result, the levels of fear, stress, unhappiness and emptiness in ourselves and in our society are constantly increasing. People today seem to be always running, frantically trying to fill holes that can never be filled. This way of perceiving reality seems to be harsh and unsatisfactory. It causes much disease and discomfort to many people. There is another way of experiencing reality if we decide to do so. The alternative is forgiveness in the sense that the café owner meant it. As I said before, the capacity to forgive depends on the willingness to forgive. Forgiving is always difficult because it requires a change of mind. and changing one's mind is difficult because as you know, people are always running away from themselves. Changing one's mind takes time. One has to take time, get to know one's mind before one can change it. This is what psychotherapy tries to help us do.

The American psychiatrist Dr Jampolsky said that 'Forgiving is letting go of the hope for a better past'. This means that one brings peace to one's past by not fighting with it, by accepting it and allowing it to be what it is. Through forgiveness you release trouble from your mind. Forgiveness is a supreme expression of common sense and enlightened self interest. If you make a decision to see everybody around you as brothers and sisters and you choose to forgive them you are in fact liberating and forgiving yourself. Then you are free to move on without carrying unresolved baggage which holds you back and weighs you down.

Freud once wrote that 'The business of analysis was to secure the best possible psychological conditions for the functioning of the ego'. My work as a therapist has taught me that the ego functions best when it travels lightly. When it is not burdened down by rage, fear, anxiety and guilt it is free to experience other things such as peace, joy and gratitude. As you have free-will you have the capacity to erect fences and you also have the ability to bring them down. The decision as always is yours.

Forgiving is a good way of lightening up by letting go of dark elements in our being. In this way we open fenced off areas that were closed and out of bounds for a long time and we reclaim these areas back for ourselves. This fresh perspective expands our identity, frees up our energy and allows the healing process to unfold.

I would like to spend some time exploring forgiveness from a slightly different perspective, a religious perspective. Religious mythology can teach us much about forgiveness. Let's start by looking at Judaism, the oldest of all Western religions.

Judaism places great importance on the refinement of a human being. It teaches us that every person is divided inside. We are not quite whole, each one has a sort of fault-line that permeates our being. We are caught up in an inner struggle, fighting a battle between the 'evil inclination' and the 'good inclination'. The good inclination is what draws us closer to God, to our essence, to who we really are whilst the evil inclination is the one that pulls us away in the opposite direction, away from God or, if you prefer, away from our centre. One is a force that leads to maturity, integration and wholeness, the other to alienation and splitting. As I see it the main purpose of the Jewish religion is to foster and strengthen the development of the good inclination in a human being. Judaism has an idea that is fundamental to its thinking, this idea is called 'Teshuvah', which means repentance. What repentance means is really radical, it is a turning back. It means stopping in one's tracks and turning one hundred and eighty degrees, turning back to God. When a man turns towards to God he is effectively turning his attention towards his loftiest aspirations, his highest values, his most elevated ideals.

The Bible states that 'Man is made in God's image'. When a mature individual chooses to believe and take this statement on board in a serious way, the person can do no less than be consistent. He or she will try to live, act and think in a way that is an accurate reflection of the Ineffable. Rabbi Schneerson, the Lubavitch Rebbe, used to say that there were no really bad people in the world because no one can sin unless they are possessed by the 'spirit of folly'. The spirit of folly means amnesia. Forgetting who one truly is and not living from the deepest, most central part of one's being. If we take some time to think about it we can see that this is a true and powerful statement.

The word sin means to 'miss the mark'. When one sins it means that one is confused, one is aiming at the wrong thing. This is why Teshuvah repentance is central in Jewish thinking, repentance is about repairing the world by correcting one's aim and choosing the right target. From this point of view first comes repentance and forgiveness will follow as night follows day. It is not that repentance and forgiveness are two different things, actually they are the same thing. If you want to forgive you first have to repent in order to change a judgment that you were holding. This is how you release something and let it go.

A further example of the importance of forgiveness in Judaism can be found in an article written some time ago by the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, which was published in 'The Times' newspaper. He called it 'Forgiveness is a gift from God we must cherish'. This is how it ended: 'We need forgiveness. It's what helps us sustain relationships, build marriages that last, stay close to our children and close to our friends. We say things that hurt and do things that harm. So do others to us. The mere fact that we can apologise and be forgiven is one of the most blessed gifts of humanity and it isn't simple at all. It is underwritten by a certain view of the universe, the belief that God forgives. Forgiveness is the antidote to tragedy. It humanises the world'. This demonstrates clearly how highly forgiveness is valued by the Jewish tradition. It is the cement that keeps the bricks together. Forgiveness is a high ideal, not always easy to follow. This is because the ideal of forgiveness is an absolute while the practice of forgiveness is always relative. We might never achieve the absolute but we can try to follow it by keeping it in mind. In much the same way as an old sailor will be watching the stars in the night sky which show him the way. As Rabbi Herschel said 'Man must strive for the summit in order to survive on the ground'. To try to imagine with any degree of certainty what absolute forgiveness is something very difficult, we are limited in our imagination by our thoughts, our opinions and by what we think we know. Someone once said 'Each one is limited by the limits of their own vision'.

Christianity is another religion that can teach us much about the value of forgiveness. Let us consider the Biblical story of 'Jesus on the Cross'. In this story forgiveness is elevated to the highest summit and by doing so it gets transmuted, transformed into something quite different, it becomes divine. We are told in the New Testament that when nailed to the cross Jesus uttered the unforgettable words: 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do'.

With these few simple words Jesus was giving the world his absolution. This act of forgiveness was an act of universal compassion directed to the cruelty and the insanity of the world. That this forgiveness was for real, that it came from the heart we know beyond doubt. He was giving it with his last breath. By forgiving in this very deep way Jesus was not approving of the behaviour of the men who tortured him and treated him so badly. He was not confused, he did not believe what they were doing to him was right and proper. He knew his tormentors were wrong, he knew that what they were doing was evil and he knew that they were defying all the laws pertaining to decent human behaviour and what is more he also knew that they were defying the Divine Principles that governed the universe. It is interesting to note that his last words were not the 'Shema', a prayer declaring the unity of God, which would have been the Jewish custom then as it is now. With his last strength he departed from custom and he needed to do this in order to forgive the injustices of the world. There is something important, a lesson we can learn from this and it is that in order to forgive one has to depart from habit, from the old habitual way of looking at things and take another perspective. Forgiveness always implies a change of perspective , a different way of looking at an incident and a reversal of a judgment. This fresh perspective leads to a more complete and deeper understanding of a situation. With this in mind let us consider 'Why did Jesus forgive ?'. My opinion is that Jesus was able to forgive because he knew beyond doubt that his tormentors were not acting from the highest, most aware and enlightened part of their being. Quite the contrary, he knew these poor people were driven by their baser instincts, caught up in a 'dream cage', besieged by confusion, rage and ignorance. They really didn't know what they were doing. By forgiving, Jesus was not condoning their actions, he was showing compassion for their darkness. They thought that they were crucifying him, in truth they were crucifying themselves.

It is important to remember that after the story of the crucifixion comes the story of the resurrection. This is a story of triumph and break-through, a transmutation from relative to absolute, from the material level to the Divine Essence. Through the death of Jesus, the Christ is resurrected. My colleague David Black sees this story as 'an enormous statement of hope that even though crushed again and again, love and sincerity can never be fully destroyed'.

Before we leave the field of religion there is one more story that I want to share with you. The story is a Tibetan story and it is about an encounter between the Dalai Lama and an old friend. You probably remember that when the Dalai Lama was forced to leave Tibet he didn't leave alone, he was followed by thousands of followers and chased by the Chinese army. During the long march many of the fleeing Tibetans were caught and taken away by the Chinese. Most of them were never seen again. One person however managed somehow to get away after more than twenty years in captivity and he managed to reach the house of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. As you can imagine the Dalai Lama was overjoyed to see the man again and immediately granted him an interview. When the Dalai Lama asked how he was, he responded 'Your Holiness, now I am well but I was in great danger'. 'What was the danger ?' inquired the Dalai Lama. 'I was in danger of losing my compassion for the Chinese'. When I first heard this story I was deeply touched. It speaks to me of the heroic struggle of the human spirit trying to uphold and live in a way that honours its highest ideals. Sometimes it's easier to die for one's principles than to live up to them.

We will now leave the religious domain and continue exploring the subject of forgiveness from the perspective of my consulting room.

The story we are about to embark on started many years ago when 'The Prefect' was referred to me for a treatment of psychotherapy. He was still young, not quite thirty when we first met. He had gentle, pleasant manners. He was distinguished looking, a tall, handsome, homosexual man. He had just come down to London from the north of the country. He came from a working class background and had trained as a music teacher and as a nurse. When we met he was working as a psychiatric nurse in a counselling unit. He was also training to be a counsellor. He came to see me for two reasons; one was purely mechanical: he needed to be in therapy while he was training and the second reason, which I found more revealing, was that he was suffering from an emotional block which he needed help to overcome. The overcoming of his emotional block is what this story is about.

When I turn my mind back to those early days I remember one thing quite clearly. The Prefect didn't trust me one little bit. I used to experience him like a man inside a fortress. I was wary of him, I didn't dare get too close because the area all around him was booby-trapped. These emotional mines would detonate all the time at the slightest expression of emotion and they would do so without any warning. As I think of him now the image of Mr Data in the TV series 'Star Trek' comes to mind. You might remember Mr Data is an android with an incredible mental capacity but no feelings and he is always puzzled and fascinated by human reactions. The Prefect was a bit like this; he was guarded and insisted on keeping his distance, holding me at a very long arm's length. This is a problem that one often has to face in this work. As I said before, the process of psychotherapy is by it's very nature an intimate one. It is a journey of deep heart searching and mind exploration. When patients come to therapy they have usually been hurt and battered by life. They are scared, they need to trust in someone but they don't know who can be trusted. It is therefore not surprising that the initial part of a patient's treatment is often spent trying to overcome their fears and to get through the barriers that they place in the way of the relationship. True intimacy can be very frightening and patients might sometimes feel that getting close to the therapist might make them more vulnerable than ever, naked, exposed and helpless under the gaze of a harsh, cold and judgmental eye. Trust comes into psychotherapy as it comes into any other relationship when a person believes that the other being has good intentions towards them.

The Prefect certainly didn't believe for a very long time that I had any good intentions In his opinion I had never tasted the milk of human kindness. He was always on the watch, waiting and searching, trying to uncover a secret and sinister meaning behind anything I said or did. Among other things that he did, he would hide important aspects of his life from me for months or years at a time and then he would pounce on me and use the fact that he could hide these things as a way of proving my worthlessness. I wasn't a real person for him, I was just an intruder that had to be kept out and at a safe distance. Another way of describing what was going on was that the Prefect had a well developed backbone which gave him his strength and his stamina and unfortunately he also had a closed, undeveloped and vulnerable heart.

So let's see, why wasn't the Prefect's heart working well ? I discovered that what was happening in his heart was that he had two big interrelated problems. One was that he had a distant, cold and resentful relation with his father; the other was that he had a chip on his shoulder because he was a homosexual. The analysis of the Prefect lasted for a long time and these two problems that I have just explained took up a lot of our time and energy. Getting to know him was a bit like being in purgatory. I was always waiting for his judgment to fall upon me, always on the verge of being in the wrong. Either I didn't tell him enough or I talked too much and of course I would always say the wrong thing. The result was the same; I was useless and the judge on the couch was ready and waiting to condemn me and let me know it every time, all the time.

Behind his polite demeanour the Prefect was angry and bitter, especially towards his father whom he experienced as cold, stubborn, distant and over strict. He felt that his dad had always got in the way of his relationship with his mother whom he adored. He felt that his father disapproved of his sexuality. He was the eldest of two brothers but before he was born his parents had a baby daughter. When the baby was born the mother and the child were really ill and sadly the baby died at two weeks. The Prefect felt resentful because he believed that the father never allowed his wife to grieve properly. He couldn't forgive his father for never telling his mother where the baby was buried. This incident can be looked at from all sorts of angles. I will focus on just one: the bitterness that our friend was experiencing in his heart. This sad incident reinforced his view of his father's callousness and confirmed him in the righteousness of his judgement about his father's guilt. This festering resentment against his dad deprived him of experiencing peace. He couldn't experience peace because he was at war.

As the therapy progressed I was met with a wall of mistrust and a certain air of sarcastic superiority which verged on the cynical. He put me in a box labelled 'homophobic', closed the lid and left me to rot. In case you don't know the meaning of the label; 'homophobic' is someone who dislikes or at least looks down on and is contemptuous of homosexual people. Nothing I said or did would convince him otherwise. He looked at me with an eye that was stuck in the channel of mistrust so that whatever I said had to be suspected of being biased. To make a long story short, after some years of struggling together in this half hearted unsatisfactory way we had managed to establish a sort of reasonable working relation of the 'uncomfortable variety'. Until one good day he was accusing me as usual of not understanding his homosexuality, of being insensitive and of not liking him because he was gay. So far, so good, but he then proceeded to say that I would never be able to understand his position because I had never been part of a persecuted minority so that I had no idea how it felt. After having said this he did a 'double-take'. I didn't have to say anything, he started questioning himself: how could he say something like this to me when he knew full well that I was Jewish ? and after the amount of dislike, prejudice and persecution that the Jewish people had undergone in their history ?

This was the beginning of a change of heart. The Prefect started to look at me in a new way, a gentler, less harsh way. I was forgiven and let out of my prison box. I was recognised as a separate person who had also suffered in this life. He could start accepting that I was doing my best for him. At last I was allowed into the inner sanctum of his heart.

Looking at this situation from what I call a 'bottom-line' perspective I see this whole incident as an act of forgiveness. He was forgiving me not just for being homophobic but for something much more important. He was forgiving me for being me and for not being just what he wanted me to be. This act of forgiveness, which was essentially an act of generosity from his heart, allowed for an unfreezing of our relationship. He allowed the relation to be a freer one and trusted it enough to let it be what it was. As our relationship unfolded all sorts of fenced off areas in his heart and in his mind started to open up. One of the direct consequences of this meltdown was that soon afterwards he was able to forgive and make peace with his father. The old and painful rift that existed between them was finally resolved. This happened just in time before his mother died. She was able to witness and enjoy the healing that had taken place in her family. His therapy continued for a long time after this and it became a much more rewarding experience. In case you are wondering; no, he didn't stop being a homosexual but now he could be one without an inferiority complex. What's more, he went into training to become a psychotherapist. I am sure he must be a good one because all his struggles and his suffering did something for him, something very valuable - it made him a more humble human being and it awakened his compassion. Only those who feel good about who they are can express true humility.

The highest form of communication is reconciliation. My experience has taught me that the forgiveness of a father and of a mother is of vital importance for the mental health and the equilibrium of a human being. How you relate to your parents inside is closely related to how you feel about yourself, your roots, your past and the world.

The case I have just described contain an important lesson. It teaches us that forgiveness, inner peace and freedom are very closely interconnected and they come from within ourselves and not from the outside. Forgiveness is the key that reaches the inside of our being. The state of freedom, harmony and peace can only be reached when we are prepared to forgive wholeheartedly without ambiguity. This is easier said than done. To really forgive one has to understand what it is that one is forgiving. My late grandfather used to say 'Once something is properly understood it is completely forgiven'. Forgiveness is not a blank cheque. One has to know what one is signing, what it is that hurts, troubles us and needs our forgiveness. Forgiveness is giving our loving attention to something unheeded in our past. Whatever is unheeded is unhealed. We need to heed, we need to listen carefully again, this time with a different ear, a careful ear and to look again with a careful eye. Through this benign attitude we are giving our loving attention. This is how we transform an unhealed incident, we heal ourselves because we are releasing whatever it is that we got caught on and we are letting it go. It is free from us and we are free from it. This brings a sense of relief to all concerned.

The capacity to forgive is the foundation for peace between human beings, families and nations. If you believe as I do, that we are all interconnected, each act of forgiveness sows a seed of peace into our world. If we can't forgive and forget we can at least forgive and move on. We can't change the past but we can let it go.

I dedicate this paper to two remarkable women: to Margaret Shepherd, a true Sister of Zion and to Mimi Feigelson who opened my heart to Jerusalem