Forgiveness is Good Medicine

Forgiveness heals two birds with one prescription. More than one thousand scientific studies have overwhelmingly proven forgiveness is good medicine for both the victim and the perpetrator. It lifts depression, releases bitterness, anger, resentment and hopelessness, improves the immune system, reduces cancer risk, and lowers blood pressure and heart rate.

"Forgiveness is the oil of personal relationships. It loosens everything up," says forgiveness expert Martina Cantacuzino, founder and director of The Forgiveness Project, a UK-based charity that uses storytelling to educate on the process of forgiveness. "If you are able to be forgiving you have a better life, physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is a really useful public health tool that isn't talked about very much."

The Forgiveness Project

The Forgiveness Project is a collection of over 100 stories of crime and/or political violence. These anecdotal stories help people consider alternatives to hate and retribution.  First launched in 2004, it has been displayed in over 300 venues worldwide.

Although all the stories and the paths to forgiveness is unique, Marina says, “There are key components. Forgiveness is not a destination, but a journey.  Something can trigger you and you are back in that place of hate. I always say, forgiveness is something you line yourself up for.“

Marina informed me that prior to working on the Forgiveness Project she had spent many years as a journalist focusing on personal relationships. Through her research she concluded,  “Perhaps it is easier to forgive the bigger wrongs of strangers, than the lesser wrongs of loved ones. Where adultery or betrayal comes into it, there is a deeper level of hurt, whereas a random criminal attack—while you may not understand why—it doesn’t feel quite so personal. But the process to healing is the same.“

Forgiveness toolbox

Dr. Masi Noor, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University in England and former refugee in Afghanistan, together with Marina, analyzed the stories to uncover the typical skills used.

Marina says, “It breaks forgiveness down into stages like building bridges which is a skill of relating to someone else’s pain, and resisting conformity which is the skill of finding one’s own path.” Other skills involve understanding and empathizing with the perpetrator, being curious and courageous to take the steps one needs to take, and finally moving beyond resentment.

Terry Waite, taken hostage in Lebanon and kept for four years under torturous conditions, wrote to the Forgiveness Project in support of it, “Not only is forgiveness essential for the health of society, it is also vital for our personal well-being. Bitterness is like a cancer that enters the soul. It does more harm to those that hold it than to those whom it is held against.”

The Forgiveness Project is secular

Often, when we think about forgiveness, quotes from world religions come to mind. Quoting from the Bible: "Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. (Luke 11:4a NIV), or the Qur'an: "But if you pardon and exonerate and forgive, Allah is ever-forgiving, most merciful." (Qur'an, 64:14) or Buddha: "Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else but you are the one who gets burned." The Sikhism religion under Guru Granth Sahib Ji says, "Forgiveness is as necessary to life as the food we eat and the air we breathe." In the Jewish tradition, the Torah forbids acts of revenge and bearing grudges (Leviticus 19:18). Hinduism describes forgiveness as "the one supreme peace.

In response to my question on why The Forgiveness project is secular, Marina responded, “Most forgiveness stories have a line in it that says. ‘If it weren’t for my faith in God, I wouldn’t have been able to forgive.’ While I really acknowledge that that is incredibly important and the truth is that a spiritual life is helpful when you’re being harmed or traumatized, nevertheless, it’s not always the case.” She stated that there are a lot of resources for faith-related forgiveness and that world is very well met. She said she didn’t want to sanitize forgiveness, put it in a box, or over sentimentalize it.

End of life and the importance of forgiveness

 During the end-of-life stage one may reminisce and think about the wrong—criminal or non-criminal— committed or inflicted over one’s lifetime.  Some of these issues may have become ingrained, or magnified over time, beckoning to be dealt with, and for healing to take place before one dies.

Marina says, “The person who is reaching end of life has a duty almost to make the transition as smooth as possible. Forgiveness is about making peace with someone or something you cannot change. People who want to forgive or have been forgiven have a broader outlook and perspective, if you like, and they understand that the world is messy, fallible and that life owes you nothing. It’s kind of a philosophy really. People who are black and white, I think they have more trouble forgiving. They think that this is how it should be, and if you cross those boundaries then you can’t be forgiven.” She hesitated on the phone and then added, “but life experience can change anyone at any time.”

An example of forgiveness can be found on the Forgiveness Project website: At a New Year’s Eve party in 1997, in Squamish, British Columbia, Ryan Aldridge, under the influence of drugs and alcohol, beat to death Bob, a neighbour checking on the party, by repeatedly kicking him in the head. Ryan was a serial criminal, bullied as a child, a drunk and a lost teenager. Bob was a lawyer, a father to four-year-old twins, and Katy Hutchinson’s husband.

At Katy’s urging, Ryan eventually confessed to the murder. Ryan then asked to meet with Katy. She watched Ryan sob with grief and guilt. Instinctively she reached out and held him in her arms. “Second to the day I gave birth, it was probably the most human moment of my life.” Later she said, “Forgiveness isn’t easy. Taking tranquillizers and having someone look after your kids would probably be easier, but I feel compelled to do something with Bob’s legacy. I want to tell my story to help change people’s perceptions—and where possible I want to do this with Ryan by my side.” 

Ryan stated, “If I put myself in her shoes, I think I would have hated the person who had done what I had done. Katy’s forgiveness is the most incredible thing that anyone has ever given me. My life would still be full of anger and violence if it wasn’t for Katy.”

A Good Pill to Share

Forgiveness is not weakness. It does not preclude justice. It does not demand vengeance. It does not excuse the wrongdoing. Forgiveness is a choice.  It is forged in empathy. It is compassionate and courageous. It is life giving and healthy. It is a good pill to share.

 The Forgiveness Project exhibition and a speaker for a week costs approximately $550 Canadian.  It can be booked through the website: www.theforgivenessproject.com

Glenda Dekkema B.A., has worked as a registered nurse in residential care homes, oncology and psychiatry. She can be contacted at Glenda@seniorcarecanada.com