Jennifer M. Sandoval, Ph.D.
"The holiest of all the spots on earth is where an ancient hatred
has become a present love."
- A Course in Miracles
While it was long ago when I first read these words, I am still moved by their beauty. In my imagination, the holy spot is a grassy flat area, on a small hill, or in a meadow. Two people walk toward one another, arms outstretched, in anticipation of a deeply longed-for embrace. Maybe they are two enemy kings who have laid down their arms and come to make peace after centuries of war, or two siblings who have been estranged for years and years, finally ready to love again. To me, the image evokes the miraculous re-union of souls who, until the moment of communion, had been utterly lost to one another. Here is revealed an entirely new state of relating which had formerly been unimaginable to consciousness. In the mystical transformation from hatred to love, an image of the soul’s redemption is revealed. Such a profound shift in perspective, which we call forgiveness, reveals the enormous power and possibility of psyche and reflects psychological transformation of the highest order (Hillman, 1964/2005).
Much has been written about forgiveness. Bookstores are flooded with thousands of self-help books advocating the practice, offering testimonials and various step-by-step methods of how to forgive others and oneself. The phenomenon has received increasing attention in the field of psychology, with numerous studies devoted to analyzing how forgiveness happens, testing differing theoretical models of how to achieve forgiveness, and measuring predictive, co-occurring and resulting physiological, emotional, behavioral changes in those who forgive. Nearly all of the empirical research in psychology assumes and reports beneficial outcomes associated with forgiveness, yet the question of how forgiveness is actually achieved, along with a consistent definition of what it means to forgive, has yet to be discovered.
Bishop Desmond Tutu has observed, “Without forgiveness, there is no future” (Tutu, 1999). With this statement, Bishop Tutu reminds us of the profoundly violent cycle of attack, revenge, and counter-attack that characterizes much of human relations throughout modern history. With the development of nuclear and chemical weapons, this cycle threatens to annihilate the existence of humanity altogether. As Jung laments, “‘Homo homini lupus’ [man is to man a wolf] is a sad, yet eternal truism” (1946/1970, p. 231 [CW 10, para. 463]). Bishop Tutu’s statement imbues the psychological act of forgiveness with the power to interrupt a millennia-old catastrophic pattern of human violence and save us from the destruction seemingly inherent in our own nature.
The act of forgiving is simple. In its most basic sense, forgiveness would wipe the slate clean, clearing any past offending action between parties. Now there is nothing to avenge, no wrong to right, no debt to pay. Forgiveness would lay down a new perspective in which future relating is conditioned by something other than past suffering. If Bishop Tutu is right, and our very existence is at stake, forgiveness would seem a very small thing to ask. Is true forgiveness really possible, or are we just fooling ourselves into believing the modern ego is capable of the extraordinary transformation that real forgiveness demands? The effects of the unconscious psyche can be seen in the general difficulty many of us have with achieving true and lasting forgiveness, our often deep-seated longing for achieving or receiving forgiveness, and the transformative change effected by true forgiveness, whose profundity commonly evokes the description, “an act of grace.”
By definition, true and lasting forgiveness involves a metanoia, or a change of attitude, by the forgiver toward the forgiven. Depth psychology has long concerned itself with this kind of profound shift in awareness. As James Hillman (2005) wrote,
In the mystical transformation from hatred to love, an image of the soul’s redemption is revealed. Such a profound shift in perspective, which we call forgiveness, reveals the enormous power and possibility of psyche and reflects psychological transformation of the highest order.
What are your thoughts on Forgiveness?
What are your thoughts on Forgiveness?