By Galen T.
I was recently working the Twelve Steps with a sponsee when I began to ponder whether the steps are incomplete. My sponsee and I were on Step 8, reviewing the list of the people to whom he wanted to make amends; they ranged from his grandparents to a recent girlfriend. As we discussed each relationship in detail, I was struck by their complexity. In each case, my sponsee had done the person harm, but in many of the cases, they had also caused him pain. Of course, this reciprocity of hurt, so to speak, did not take him off the hook: he still needed to make his amends. But it did make me wonder why the steps focus on making amends but much less on the importance of forgiving others for harms they have done to us.
Nobody can spend long in AA without hearing about the importance of making amends. But we hear less about the importance to our recovery of forgiving others the hurts they have caused us. And when it comes to how to forgive others, our literature gives us little concrete guidance. Based on years of watching people get sober and recover, I think forgiving others is as important as making amends.
Why not recognize the importance of forgiveness by adding (informally and unofficially, of course) a couple of new steps to the ones we have. They follow the amends steps and mirror their language and structure.
Step 9a- Made a list of all persons with whom we were angry and became willing to forgive them all.
Step 9b- Forgave such persons wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
I have begun using 9a and 9b with both myself and my sponsees, and this has led me to think about several questions. What does it mean to forgive another? How do you go about forgiving? How does one know when forgiveness has taken hold?
There is an abundance of information on bookstore shelves and the Internet tackling these and other issues related to forgiveness. Some resources are authored by academics like Robert Enright and Fred Luskin, others claim scientific validity based on empirical studies, while others draw principally from the personal accounts of average people like us who have been able to forgive severe harms.
Out of this wealth of personal stories, information and analysis, four consistent themes emerge. First, our capacity to forgive is greatly helped by having an accurate understanding of what forgiveness is and is not. Second, people are capable of forgiving nearly every sort of harm and hurt, though it may take persistent effort over time. Third, the most powerful reason to forgive is neither religious nor moral, but because of the benefits, it brings to our own lives. Fourth, the more forgiving we do, the more forgiving we become.
What Is Forgiveness?
One of the reasons forgiveness is complicated is that it is easily confused with what it is not. Before exploring this, let’s try on for size a positive definition of forgiveness that is grounded in current research and thinking on the subject.
Forgiveness is the relinquishment of negative emotions such as anger, judgment, and resentment that we have toward another person.
Notice that this definition makes no reference to warm, fuzzy feelings or the restoration of an amicable relationship with the forgivee. Forgiveness does not include or necessarily lead to, reconciliation. Reconciliation can accompany, or arise from forgiveness, especially when the hurt inflicted is mild, and the relationship has been close and ongoing. Partners in healthy marriages, for example, usually cite a capacity for mutual forgiveness as essential to the happiness and longevity of their partnership.
But in many cases, reconciliation is not desirable, safe, or perhaps even possible. For example, when an adult is trying to forgive a parent for childhood abuse, reconciliation is often not an appropriate goal, particularly when the parent is unwilling to acknowledge the damage caused. Although most experts agree that repentance on the part of the forgiven person does not need to be a precondition for forgiveness, it is difficult to restore warm relations without the offender recognizing and apologizing for the harm he has caused. Reconciliation is a step beyond forgiveness. “Mere” forgiveness does not require the acknowledgment or participation of the forgivee.
A second misunderstanding is that forgiveness relieves the other party of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not condone nor pardon an offense. This is especially significant when legal factors come into play. Forgiveness does not exonerate others for offenses that should be prosecuted by law.
Third, forgiveness is not the same as discounting or suppressing the hurt we have experienced. We can sometimes be too quick to dismiss the impact of an event on our feelings. After all, the admission of having been hurt requires us to acknowledge our vulnerability and perhaps suppress our anger. This denial and suppression of feelings is not healthy, especially for those of us in recovery. We need to experience our anger and hurt and communicate about it with others before we can move on to the business of forgiving.
Finally, when we forgive a wrong, it does not mean we forget it. Forgiveness does not always wipe away the hurt we feel, and we may still need to exercise caution in our relationship with the other person so that we don’t make ourselves vulnerable to re-injury.
Few of us have a naturally forgiving nature. To forgive others takes focused intentionality. It takes work, and we have so many “issues” to work on, why devote energy to forgiveness?
Psychologists who conduct studies on forgiveness are quick to point out that the practice of forgiveness is associated with both physical and mental health benefits, including lowered blood pressure and reduced levels of stress. People who forgive enjoy better health, but it is not clear whether this is correlation or causation. Nevertheless, sufficient studies have been conducted to show a connection between the capacity for forgiveness and increased mental and physical well-being. The connection is particularly strong for those who develop a generally forgiving attitude toward others and don’t get preoccupied with petty resentments.
When it comes to health benefits, alcoholics have a particular incentive to forgive. As Living Sober succinctly states, “Our anger can kill us.” This echoes language in The Big Book cautioning us that resentment is the “biggest offender.” Anger and resentment that are allowed to smolder can create such turmoil within an alcoholic that he is driven back to alcohol to soothe his emotional unrest. We try to drum this lesson into the heads of newcomers, but it applies equally to those with decades of sobriety. Even after 20 years sober anger can derail our recovery and make us vulnerable to relapse.
Of course, we can be both angry and sober, but why live in such an unhappy state when we don’t need to. Our literature points out that anger can’t be compartmentalized, but instead usually spills out into and poisons many areas of our lives, even when we are unaware of this. A strong resentment or anger undermines our capacity to love and to develop the positive character traits that we desire.
What does full and contented sobriety look like? Most of us would agree that it includes qualities like humility, open-mindedness, and generosity toward others. And at its heart, a full and robust recovery is marked by a whole-hearted capacity to give and receive love. Resentment and anger get in the way of this flow and impede our ability to feel emotions such as peacefulness, gratitude, and joy. So, working on forgiving others, though hard work, pays off.
If we want help in learning how to forgive others, we can find plenty of advice from philosophers, psychologists, lifestyle consultants, and spiritual gurus. Some of it is glib and simplistic, but much is sensible. Most of us need to put together a combination of strategies that work for us. Our personal recipe for forgiveness will depend on several factors, including the nature and severity of the harm we suffered. Some offenses we may be able to forgive quickly and easily while others can take months or even years of persistent effort.
With this in mind, let’s look at several aids to forgiveness attested to in the literature and verified by people like us in practice.
- When I was young in the program I was taught to pray for the person I was angry with. I was taught to pray on this every day for at least two weeks and to pray it out loud. When I followed these instructions, it was effective in reducing, if not completely eradicating, my resentments.
- In recovery circles, we sometimes hear the question, “How important is it?” Contrasting my own situation with those of those suffering under far worse burdens puts my own struggles into perspective and helps me from over-catastrophizing my circumstances. I can draw courage and resolve from those who have forgiven far worse than what I am faced with.
- The practice of loving-kindness meditation can also be effective. This often begins with several minutes of simple breathing meditation followed by a calling to mind of a person on whom we wish happiness, health, and well-being and an absence of fear, stress, and illness. We then wish the same things for ourselves. Third, we bring to mind a person for whom we have a resentment or toward whom we carry anger. We wish for them same well-being we desire for ourselves along with a similar absence of fear stress and illness. You can find more information about loving kindness meditation at contemplativemind.org and buddhanet.net.
- Buddhists have a notion called dependent origination. It suggests that people commit hurtful acts because they themselves have been hurt. When we can understand and identify with the other person’s weakness and pain, and the reasons for it, this can help us sympathize with the other person and to take the hurt they have caused less personally.
- Another way of maintaining perspective is to feel and express gratitude for sources of joy and well-being in our own life. Gratitude does not annul interpersonal pain, but it cultivates humanity, humility, and benevolence toward others.
- I remind myself that my anger toward the other person does him less harm than it does me and that it is for my own sake that I forgive. Why should I allow the actions of another person affect my measure of serenity and contentedness?
- Finally, there is something to be said for a change of focus. I recently aired a resentment I had toward a person in the program with my sponsor. I had tried some of the advice I just passed along above but made little headway. So, I took a deep breath and laid it all out in front of him, embarrassed though I felt that I had not achieved greater spiritual stature. I then awaited his sage advice. After thinking for a moment, he said, “Ah, what the hell. Just don’t think about the guy so much. Think about something more pleasant, like giving your wife a hug when you get home tonight.” Initially, I was a bit taken aback by the, well, the simplicity of this counsel. I had expected something deeper, more complicated. I sat for a moment. A mutual friend sitting in on the conversation said, “That’s right, or think about how lovely your Christmas tree will look after you decorate it. I nodded and eventually headed for home rather bemused. But, what do you know, it worked.
(For more forgiveness strategies visit greatergood.berekely.edu)
The Heart of Forgiveness
I later realized a reason my sponsor’s advice was effective. Before he gave it, he had listened carefully to my description of the events producing my resentment and to my feelings about the other person in question. The most important step we can take toward forgiving others is to talk through our anger and resentment in detail with another trusted person. This is what the experts miss, but which I have learned from the program and fellowship. The modern recovery movement grew out of a long conversation between two drunks, and talking is still the life-blood of our potential for transformation.
Too much of the guidance on forgiveness keeps us in our heads. Experts cite such keys to forgiveness as becoming “forgivingly fit,” “addressing our inner pain,” finding meaning in our suffering,” and “developing a forgiving heart.” These suggestions can be helpful, but they target the mental apparatus instead of engaging the deeper level of our emotions where both anger and forgiveness originate. Anger is an emotion that we cannot think our way out of, while forgiveness is an emotional challenge that we can’t think our way into.
We generally don’t brew anger or concoct resentments out of whole cloth in the solitude of our kitchens or bedrooms. These are emotions derived from our interactions with other people. It stands to reason, then, that they are best addressed through human interactions. The most effective way to move toward forgiveness is by talking to another human being. We might think of this person as a forgiveness partner.
There are no rules for who our partner should be, as long as they are an attentive listener, perceptive questioner, and trustworthy. It could be our sponsor, a therapist, or a friend, as long as the individual brings out an objective voice and can point out our part in the problem.
We sit down with our partner and tell them everything that has happened between us and the forgivee. We discuss our prior relationship with the “offender” and any subsequent interactions we have had with them. Comprehensiveness and detail are critical. Generalities do not help us place our circumstances in the right perspective for resolution. How often have we said to somebody, “Yeah, I’ve talked about it,” when all we have done is skim the surface. This doesn’t work. Bill W. knew the importance of specificities when guiding us on the 4th, 5th, 8th, and 9th steps. His counsel is equally apt here.
Conversations with our forgiveness partner may also wander into unexpected areas such as aspects of our childhood, others we are or have been angry with, and feelings of guilt for wrongs we have done others. These side tours are usually helpful to our final objective, even if they lead to more than one meeting.
Some people might wonder what good can come of all this jabbering. A lot. First, it externalizes the events that trouble us and thereby make them concrete, defined, and more manageable. This helps us sort through what happened and gain a clearer picture of both the events themselves and our reactions to them. This helps lessen the intensity of our anger, and uncovers our hurt and vulnerability, giving us a life-line of identifiability with the forgivee. At the same time, the act of telling our story shores up our self-respect, mitigates our sense of having been unfairly victimized, and even broadens our perspective enough to include compassion toward the person we are angry with.
All this processing reduces the virulence of our raw emotions, gives us a fresh perspective on ourselves and the other person, and helps us to make a sensible choice about how to proceed. We cannot do all of this in our heads. In fact, we are likely to become even more tangled up. We need to do it out loud, in conversation with another human being. After we have accomplished this, several of the suggestions from the previous section may emerge as even more relevant and helpful.
To forgive another person we usually need to make a decision to do just that. Down the road, a resentment can resurface, and we may need to recommit ourselves to our decision and reapply several of the forgiveness tools we first deployed. This does not mean that our original efforts failed, just that life is complex and that at different points along the way our sensitivities can change.
An encouraging coda is that like many of life-enhancing recovery behaviors: forgiveness is contagious. It will infect other people, for the wider benefit of all. It even infects us in that the more we commit acts of forgiveness, the more naturally forgiving and serene, we will become. Forgiveness is like a muscle—the more often it is used, the heavier the weight it can lift. The more forgiving we do, the more spontaneously forgiving our personality becomes. We can’t, or at least I can’t, do this alone. I need my sponsor, the program, and the support of the fellowship. But with all these supplying the wind to my sails, I can glide higher and farther than I ever imagined when I was chugging down one bottle of vodka after another.
About The Author, Galen T.
Galen spent most of his career in the ordained ministry and in counseling. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, step-daughter, a dog, and two cats. He has been sober since 1995 and is active in his local AA groups.
Original Photography by Jan A.
The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his community. If you would like to join him, please send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org