Research suggests that being able to forgive may lead to greater wellbeing and better physical health. Where does forgiveness come from, and can we do anything to help it along? Some in a discussion group I attend believe that ‘forgiveness comes through grace’. There is something attractive in this notion as it suggests we cannot force ourselves to forgive, and that it can be seen as a gift. However, it might also suggest that we are passive with little control over what happens, whether we want it or not. Of course, it may be that the ultimate moment of forgiveness comes through grace, perhaps when we least expect it, but that we can help or hinder its arrival.

I was mulling this over as I started reading John Lampen’s 2012 book ‘Love Growing In Us – questioning the Quaker peace testimony‘. I was especially struck by the role of forgiveness in managing everyday conflicts. John Lampen points out that although forgiveness may be very difficult in extreme situations, we are likely to have daily opportunities to practise ‘countless small acts of forgiveness, letting go of the hurt, offering a graceful compromise, or simply allowing others the space to be themselves’.

This got me thinking. Does it mean that being able to practise forgiveness in the small things will make it easier for us to forgive something more serious? Are we actually aware of these small acts of forgiveness? If we were, would we have more confidence that we can forgive some greater hurt and perhaps let go of a grudge? As I know from my own experience, holding a grudge can be a burden, and I also know that letting it go can be hard. What can we learn from research into forgiveness, and well as from stories of lived experience, our own and that of others? And how easily do we forgive ourselves?

‘We all encounter clashes of interest, painful moments in relationships, and conflicting values, possibly every day.’ (Lampen, 2012)

Reflecting on my relationships with others, I am aware of times that I have felt hurt, and there have been times when I have felt resentment, or just felt confused. For example:

  • Feeling upset by something someone has said or done but not responding constructively in the moment, or in fact at all
  • Feeling hurt by someone’s rejection of a person I care about, but being unsure about how best to respond
  • Someone close to me has ‘behaved badly’, and yet I have felt unable to communicate how I feel in a way that will help the situation.

Forgiveness may (or may not) come about by grace, but what might help us to forgive?

Being more mindful

It might help to become more mindful of our negative emotions, and how they have arisen. If we can become more aware of these moments, we may indeed have more opportunities to practise forgiveness.  It can help to deal with issues as they arise, rather than letting them build up and perhaps losing perspective. Responding ‘in the moment’ might also make it less likely that hurts, each of which might be quite minor, come pouring out all at once at a later date, causing further damage to a relationship.

Challenging the way we think

Research suggests that as victims we may see the perpetrator as being responsible for their actions, rather than as a response to the situation. We might also believe that they intended to hurt in some way, and so are unlikely to be sorry or want to make amends. Such beliefs can reduce our ability to see the situation through the eyes of another or to empathise. As the article points out, victims should not be expected to forgive, and of course, a perpetrator may have no interest in being forgiven. However assuming you do want to forgive, it may be worth considering the issue differently.

Considering a spiritual source of support

In my purse, I have a small yellow card, ‘what do Quakers say?’ from Quaker Life:

  • There is something sacred in all people.
  • All people are equal before God.
  • Religion is about the whole of life.
  • We meet in stillness to discover a deeper sense of God’s presence.
  • True religion leads to respect for the earth and all life upon it.
  • Each person is unique, precious, a child of God.

It is not always easy to see ‘that of God in everyone’, especially when we feel personally attacked in some way but I also try to remind myself that I ‘may be mistaken’ (Advices & queries 17).  In other words, I try to see the other person’s perspective and also look for my part (however small) in creating the situation in the first place.

There are forms of meditation that I find can help. Although I am not Buddhist, a meditation that I often practise is the ‘loving kindness’ exercise or metta bhavana. This involves first sending love to yourself and then to others, including someone you find difficult. I find that thinking about someone in this way can bring a sense of peace.

Finally, I also know that I have caused others hurt. Although it has not usually been intentional, there are times when it is for me to say I am sorry, and to ask for forgiveness. In a later blog, I hope to explore this aspect further, as well as how to forgive yourself.