A particularly reflective air seems to pervade today, on this, the third anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s death. Whatever your personal views are on who perpetrated the worst terrorist atrocity ever committed; whether you subscribe to the theory that al Qaeda were responsible, or whether your beliefs lie firmly within conspiracy territory, the name of Osama Bin Laden will forever be entwined with the events of that fateful day, and the anniversary of his death has become just another annual reminder for those who lost loved ones in the awful events.
Can those people ever truly find forgiveness? Is forgiveness always appropriate, even for the most heinous of transgressions?
Dorine and Martin Toyen of Avon, Conn., lost their daughter Amy, 24, in the attacks on the World Trade Center, and, in an interview conducted around the time of the he pre-trial hearings of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the other accused in 2012, said that they would struggle to find it within their hearts to forgive:
“Her whole life was taken away from her,” said Ms. Toyen. “There is no way I could ever forgive them.”
Mr. Toyen added: “I want justice, not forgiveness. I’m still very bitter."
No one could judge the Toyens, or any other bereaved relative, for the strong feelings that still endure many years after their tragic loss, but does their bitterness serve any purpose to benefit themselves or their lost daughter, or to bring justice to the perpetrators?
Mike Hayes, editor of Busted Halo, an online magazine examining moral and spiritual issues, eloquently described the essence and reason for mercy when asked by a reader if Osama Bin Laden deserved any form of clemency:
"Forgiveness does not give assent to the horrible actions committed by another. Forgiveness allows us to heal from harms done to us by moving forward and not allowing this pain to continue to control our lives. Forgiveness, therefore, can and should always be offered. "
But are there any real benefits to forgiveness?
Apparently, yes. Even science indicates that there is far more to the act of forgiveness than magnanimity. Whether we wish to forgive in the belief that it is some form of self-sacrifice necessary in order to pursue a higher spiritual vibration, forgiveness is also an act that appears to be very much in our own self interest.
A state of unforgiving causes actual physical harm to us, and a number of scientific studies have revealed that forgiveness offers definite and measurable health benefits.A study conducted by researchers at Hope Collegein Holland discovered that forgiveness lowers amounts of cortisol, the steroid hormone released in response to stress.
During the study, 71 subjects were interviewed and their physical responses monitored as they spoke about grudges they harbored. These results were then compared to the readings obtained when the participants spoke about forgiveness and empathy. Those who exhibited more forgiving perspectives had lower physiological stress responses.
Other studies discovered that bearing a grudge can elevate heart rates, whereas forgiveness was shown to lower blood pressure, reduce symptoms of pain and extend lifespan. A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 2012 indicated that withholding forgiveness leads to a decrease in physical health and an increased risk of mortality.
A website based on the works of Dr. Everett (“Ev”) Worthington, a professor of psychology and author of over 20 books on forgiveness, marriage, and family topics, is entitled "The Power of Forgiveness". Having had to come to terms with the brutal murder of his dear mother, Dr. Everett has had to personally confront the process of forgiving in painful detail, yet he maintains that within six months of the murder, he and his two siblings had managed to totally forgive their mother’s murderer. He had studied the concept scientifically and therapeutically for years before the event, and was then able to apply professional techniques to the process, but ultimately, said that it was honoring the values his mother had instilled into him as a boy which motivated and enabled him to truly absolve the perpetrator and find peace.
He lectures on the subject today and tries to teach his students today that forgiveness is not something that relies on justice – in fact Everett did not ever receive justice – but that it is a wholesome act with profound personal benefits.
From a spiritual or energetic perspective, anger and bitterness are perceived to block positive energy from entering our lives, effectively imprisoning the afflicted inside a fortress of resentment. Opening ourselves up to forgiveness is thought to allow positive energy and events back into our lives, freeing and strengthening our souls in the process.
Edwin Hubbel Chapin once summed up this ideal with the words:
"Never does the human soul appear so strong as when it foregoes revenge and dares to forgive an injury."
A series of painful personal events recently have directed me to look more deeply at the process of forgiveness: it seems like an easy concept to embrace until we have personally suffered loss or betrayal caused directly by the actions of another, as only then can we truly appreciate the strength required to deal with and rise above the emotional aftermath.
I am reminded of some particularly touching diary entries by Anne Strieber on the subject of forgiveness, in which she discusses the difficult task of forgiving those who have deeply wronged her during her lifetime. Even when appearing to look death in the face and trying to lighten the load on her already wonderful soul, Anne describes how the art of true forgiveness is not easily practised but that it is essential for "soul cleansing."
So, how do we achieve forgiveness?
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."
It is a gradual, step-by-step procedure, and one that should only occur as part of a process that has first allowed the natural expression of emotions that follow a serious loss or betrayal.
Some people choose, perhaps for personal sanity or survival in extreme circumstances, to attempt to bury their feelings and all memories of the event that caused them, but this is not the road to forgiveness. True forgiveness is not the ability to forget a wrong, as this might lead to the denial or suppression of valid feelings, but instead the ability to remember the wrong without bitterness or recrimination, to look back, face the facts and still feel at peace with no residual thoughts of revenge.
Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky calls forgiveness “a shift in thinking” toward someone who has wronged you, “such that your desire to harm that person has decreased and your desire to do him good (or to benefit your relationship) has increased.”
Making the conscious decision to want to forgive is the first and most powerful step in the difficult journey. Sometimes it can be necessary to forgive ourselves before we can begin to forgive others; guilt and self-hatred are powerful locks that prevent our hearts from opening to love.
Once we have made that decision to try and move forward, Dr. Judith Rich, author of "Rx For The Soul"s suggest that a positive act is to begin by looking in the mirror and observing the effect that your bitterness is having on you.
"Forgiveness begins by looking in the mirror and recognizing the prices you’ve already paid for closing your heart to love. You’ll see the physical prices: the hardened look in your eyes, the set in your jaws, the stiffness in your body, the added weight you carry physically and emotionally, " says Dr. Rich. "And the emotional ones: the heaviness around your heart, the sleepless nights, the chronic stress, the dysfunctional relationships, the missed opportunities, the lack of joy and aliveness."
At the time of Bin Laden’s death, Dr. Rich suggested that the event could be seen as an opportunity to address the wider issues of ultimate forgiveness and healing, an opportunity to ask ourselves where forgiveness begins:
" Forgiveness begins with the understanding that for all the hurt, pain and suffering we feel has happened at the hands of another, nothing compares to the pain we’ve inflicted on ourselves living inside the state of non-forgiveness," she said. " The hatred, anger and resentments we harbor do not take a toll on the "other" but exact a very high price on those who harbor them."
Life dictates that each and every one of us will be wronged in some way during our lifetime on earth, and therefore we will all be forced to address the issue of forgiveness to some degree. It is never easy, and for those who have been in the unfortunate position of losing a loved one in horrific circumstances at the hands of another, it is a seemingly impossible task. Despite the undoubted benefits of the act of forgiveness, for those of us who are blessed not to find ourselves in such an unenviable position, it would feel almost insensitive to suggest to such individuals that they "move on" and forgive those who have wronged them.
Yet if they continue to bear the burdens of loss, anger, revenge and bitterness indefinitely, they allow the perpetrators of such crimes to sentence them to a life sentence of increasing agony, perpetuating a misery which will never benefit either themselves or those they have lost.
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