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Forgiveness - time to put the past behind us.

Published: Jan 17, 12:25 pm

The new film, ‘The Railway Man’, is essentially a movie about forgiveness. Starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, it is based on Eric Lomax’s 1995 memoir that charts his experiences of being a victim of torture at the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War. In an interview with Frank Cottrell Boyce, the film’s screenwriter, ‘Psychologies Magazine’ asked him about Eric’s ability to forgive those who had tortured him. How did he achieve that? Boyce’s reply was that “Eric taught me that forgiveness is a way of liberating yourself.”

In my own psychotherapy practice I have worked with many people who have struggled to forgive. It was their firm belief that to hold onto their anger and resentment in some way served them better than to let go of it.

A friend and colleague of mine once shared with me a curious event that took place many years ago in his consulting room between himself and a client. Taking a momentary well earned respite from his work load that day, one of his client’s suddenly burst into his room, marched up to where he was sitting and shouted into his face, “your fired!” My friend, somewhat stunned, asked why. The reply came, “it’s because of you I’m beginning to forgive my husband.” He never saw her again.

Why do we, like my friend’s client, prefer to nourish the rage within us, rather than relinquish it through forgiveness, and, as was the case for Eric Lomax, subsequently be liberated from it’s grip?

The reasons are complex. Forgiving someone who has hurt us may be completely off our radar. It stands to reason – we argue – by not forgiving, one has a sense of empowerment over the perpetrator. It may even stop bad things from ever happening to us again. Or perhaps we feel so comfortable with our victim role that we can’t give up something that is integral to our self-definition. Or maybe it’s impossible to forgive evil.

The essential thing to realize, however, is that when we do forgive, it is for ourselves that we are doing it – not for the other person. Webster’s Dictionary defines forgiveness this way – ‘forgive: a verb meaning “to give up resentment against or desire to punish.” ‘ By forgiving we are getting rid of old baggage and moving forwards with our lives. It cannot change the past, but it can certainly influence our future for the good.

Forgiveness is not a way of forgetting the past, nor minimizing the hurt. Indeed, we can learn from the past to avoid victimization in the future. Nor is it a way of excusing the perpetrator. The person responsible for the hurt has to deal with his/her own guilt. The act of forgiveness does not mean that we sacrifice anything or let go of our self-esteem. In fact it means the opposite. We assert that we are strong and are emancipated from our role as victim – it is a way of announcing our integrity.

So we should ask ourselves this question – if holding on to the hurt means a life defined by our unresolved anger, poor self-esteem and basic trust issues, aren’t we continuing to empower the perpetrator? If every time ‘that’ person’s name is mentioned, we fly into a silent rage, or suffer a headache, aren’t we still experiencing the fallout of being hurt? Isn’t it time to learn to forgive and to emancipate ourselves from being a hostage to our feelings, with a view to reclaiming our lives for oursleves?

References: Psychologies Magazine, UK edition, January 2014.
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Read: Simon, Sidney B., and Suzanne Simon. Forgiveness. Warner Books, £8.53