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In struggling to come to terms with my aunt and her words and behavior toward my mother, the work of Everett Worthington on forgiveness was particularly useful.  I discovered his research on forgiveness when I began to explore George Vaillant’s idea about the importance of gratitude AND forgiveness for aging well.  To me gratitude and forgiveness are qualities of good spirituality as well as good psychology and mental health.

Worthington’s ideas about forgiveness have become anchor points for me as I make efforts to move from an unforgiving to a forgiving stance in my daily life.  First, let me tell you about his suggestion to “REACH,” then I will give you some background on Worthington himself in the next posting.

In Worthington’s own words, here is the “reach,” the stretch we all have to make in order to cultivate forgiveness.  This is what I tried to do in light of my aunt’s actions toward my mother—more about that in the next posting.


R stands for RECALL the hurt

E stand for EMPATHIZE

A stands for giving the ALTRUISTIC gift of forgiveness

C stands for COMMIT yourself to forgive publicly

H stands for HOLD onto forgiveness

Recall the hurt, in as objective a way as you can.  Do not think of the other person as evil.  Do not wallow in self-pity.  Take deep. slow and calming breaths as you visualize the event

Empathize. Try to understand from the perpetrator’s point of view why this person hurt you.  This is not easy, but make up a plausible story that the transgressor might tell if challenged to explain.  To help you do this, remember the following: (1) when others feel their survival is threatened, they will hurt innocents; (2) people who attack others are themselves usually in a state of fear, worry, and hurt; (3) the situation a person finds himself in, and not his underlying personality, can lead to hurting; and (4) people often don’t think when they hurt others; they just lash out

Altruistic, be so by giving gift of forgiveness, a very difficult step.  First recall a time you transgressed, felt guilty, and were forgiven.  This was a gift you were given by another person because you needed it, and you were grateful for this gift. Giving this gift usually makes us feel better.  But we do not give this gift out of self-interest.  Rather, we give it because it is for the trespasser’s own good.  Tell yourself you can rise above hurt and vengeance.  If you give the gift grudgingly, however, it will not set you free.

Commit yourself to forgive publicly.  You may write a “certificate of forgiveness,” write a letter of forgiveness to the offender, write it in their diary, write a poem or a song, or tell a trusted friend what they have done.  These are all contracts of forgiveness that lead to the final step.

Hold onto the forgiveness.  This is another difficult step, because memories of the event will surely recur.  Forgiveness is not erasure; rather, it is a change in the tag lines that a memory carries.  It is important to realize that the memories do not mean forgiveness. Don’t dwell vengefully on the memories, and don’t wallow in them.  Remind yourself that you have forgiven, and read the documents you composed.

This is not, WILL NOT be easy, but the point is that forgiving may do nothing for the other, but it will set you free from the preoccupation and bitterness of an unforgiving heart and mind.

Try to apply this “REACH” to the person and situation that you recalled at my suggestion in the earlier posting.  You may experience what C.S. Lewis did, “We all agree that forgiveness is a beautiful idea until we have to practice it.”

Next posting I’ll tell you about my efforts to “practice” forgiveness in relationship to my aunt.

Posted in agingForgivenessGratitudemental healthspiritual issuesspirituality on 26 April 2010
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