The thought of forgiving a person responsible for horrifically taking the life of a loved one may seem unimaginable. Yet, time and again after major tragedies we’ve seen people come forward expressing not hate, but forgiveness.
One of the most incredible examples of this came after the Charleston church shooting when one-by-one family members of the victims spoke directly and publicly to the killer. They were angry. They were grieving. But they forgave him.
The Amish community stunned the world in 2006 when, immediately after a gunman murdered their children in a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pa., they came together to offer forgiveness. They even reached out to the shooter’s wife and children to offer them support – they lost a loved one too.
This year, an Auschwitz survivor hugged a Nazi guard on trial in Germany.
Stories like these can make us pause and reevaluate our own lives. What are we still holding on to? What should we let go?
Marina Cantacuzino, founder of The Forgiveness Project, in an interview earlier this year, said when people hear stories of how individuals found forgiveness in the most terrible of circumstances, they’ll tell her it helped them address the pain in their own lives.
“Often they say ‘It’s nothing extreme or big, its just a family matter or an estrangement with a child, but it’s given me hope, and given me an idea of how to act, react’,” she said.
Letting go of grudges against another, big or small, can have profound positive impacts on mental, social and even physical health. One study actually found the people who are more forgiving can jump higher because they feel lighter, like they’re carrying less weight.
For those who find forgiveness does not come as easily, Cantacuzino and Masi Noor, a psychology professor in Liverpool, England, developed what they call a “forgivenness toolbox,” using skills gleaned from “actual experiences of individuals who have succeeded in liberating themselves from the debilitating power of victimhood.”
The box contains seven “tools” that when taken together can start the process of forgiveness. The skills share a commonality, which is, to look at the situation, whether catastrophic like the Paris terror attacks or minor like a disagreement with a friend, holistically. The psychologists suggest that a combination of understanding, empathy and curiosity about the offenders’ motivations can help drive forgiveness. They also suggest reaching out to common sufferers, whether that be others dealing with similar pain, or those from the opposing side responsible for the pain.
Another skill requires acknowledgement that either yourself, or the group in which you’re associated, had a role, even indirectly, in why someone acted badly. And instead of feeling guilty or shamed by that, feel empowered to incite change.
The process isn’t always easy, but the alternative is living with pervasive negativity.
“As witnessed in the real-life stories, sometimes such shifts are sudden, while other times they can take a long and painful time,” Noor said when he released the toolbox in 2013. “Holding onto resentment certainly [has] a cost.”
In fact, one recent study found that those who placed conditions on forgiveness (like waiting for an apology) died earlier than those who forgave more freely.
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