Turning Distress Into Joy, Part I:  Forgiveness

James Schroeder, PhD
31
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On the night of January 21, 1995, Azim Khamisa’s life changed forever.  While delivering pizza, his 20-year-old son, Tariq Khamisa, was shot and killed by Tony Hicks, a 14-year-old gang member.  Set to be married to his girlfriend, Tariq would never see his wedding day.  Neither would his father.  Days and months went by, and Azim struggled to get out of bed, to even take the simplest steps towards the next day.  But as life dragged on, Azim began to sense that something extraordinary would have to occur in order for him to survive, and thrive again.  He would have to forgive his son’s killer.

As described in the CBS interview (see below), Azim felt he needed to take some responsibility for the tragic death of his own son.  He started by forgiving Tony Hick’s family, and eventually forged a friendship with his guardian and grandfather, Ples Felix.  He then founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF) in honor of his son, with the purpose of reducing youth violence by reaching students at various ages.  Founded on six key tenets, the Foundation, which provides services and mentorship to over 20,000 students annually, begins with the idea that “Violence is real and hurts us all” and ends with the belief “From conflict, love and unity are possible.”  But Azim’s story did not end there.  Five years after his son’s life was ended by an arbitrary bullet, Azim stared into eyes of his murderer.  He saw himself.  Then, he forgave Tony, and offered him a job at his Foundation if and when he would be released from prison.  Tony is up for parole in 2027.

All of us hope that we never are asked to face the reality that Azim was forced to confront.  Most of us struggle to understand how we could find the resolve to forgive someone in the way that he did.  But none of us have the luxury of not being hurt by others, in the infinite number of ways this can occur.  Over the past 20 years, the time-honored virtue of forgiveness has been subjected to a huge scientific inquiry.  A simple PsycINFO search of “forgiveness” uncovers almost 3,000 citations regarding a deeper review into what has become accepted as an effective therapeutic technique for traumatic experiences, whether it be chronic child abuse, random acts of violence, or institutional warfare.  Forgiveness has consistently been shown to be associated with better psychological and physical health (Worthington et al., 2007).  Large scales have shown that forgiving others is associated with less anxiety, depressive symptoms, and perceived stress (Lundahl et al., 2008).

But the models of forgiveness differ, and the misconceptions abound although some, some like Mr. Khamisa, take particularly exceptional steps to move forward.  As C.S. Lewis once said,

…forgiving does not mean excusing. Many people seem to think it does. They think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or no bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive. They keep on replying, “But I tell you the man broke a most solemn promise.” Exactly: that is precisely what you have to forgive. (This doesn’t mean that you must necessarily believe his next promise. It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart—every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.)

Interestingly, too, forgiveness is often more of an intrapersonal process, than an interpersonal one.  In a study looking at small sample of individuals from Western Australia exposed to severe trauma, one theme kept coming through as with other research.  Participants reported that forgiveness had much more to do with themselves than the offender.  In reconciling what had occurred, and in releasing much of the guilt and pain and anger that they held so close, there was a sense of “letting go” that allowed for the possibility that tomorrow just might be different, and even better, than today.  (Field, et al., 2013) But in order for this to happen, it seemed there must be an awareness of just how the circumstances, and their subsequent reaction, had changed the course of their lives.  In doing so, many experienced a new perspective of the offender (not necessarily to be confused with unconditional positive regard), one less jaded with attributions of absolute evil, but more colored with the imperfections that existed within all humanity, including themselves.

But for some, like Mr. Khamisa, this process leads to what is termed “interpersonal reconciliation sentiment” (IPS) and unconditional forgiveness.  IPS is defined as “…the personal, intimate feeling of being reconciled, at least to a certain level, with the people who have severely harmed you” expressed into “the resumption of some amount of trust and collaboration.” Research (e.g., Mukeshema, 2013) into those affected in the 1994 Rwandan genocide found that most of the perpetrators of violence did not apologize, and yet people were left to find a way to move forward in the midst of the disharmony that abounded.  Findings indicated it was not only necessary for personal growth, but also critical for societal well-being, and rebuilding, as a whole.  As Nelson Mandela stated on his inauguration day, after 27 years in prison, “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”

Regardless of the path taken, though, it appears that the necessity of forgiveness is born of a few different dimensions.  One is what I will call personal and political effectiveness.  It is clear that while rage and distrust can spawn awareness and discussions of misdoings and maltreatment, it cannot sustain a unitive, long-standing movement towards a larger goal of recognizing just how seven billion, imperfect human beings could co-exist in an authentic, yet peaceful way.  Those who never find ways to reconcile with imperfect manifestation of others, and instead focus on the failures that may arise, will struggle mightily to move beyond their own constituency of bitterness.  Reiterating Lewis, forgiveness does not mean excusing or forgetting, especially as we go in search of a better way.  But it does mean acknowledging—of which we are flawed, of which we are failed, of which we are all in need of mercy.

Forgiveness also breeds from a deeper understanding, that being that our life may not be what we expected, or even desired.  As Mr. Khamisa must have felt he was posed the very unfair question, “Do I choose my pride, or do I chose my life, just not as I would have had it?”  It seems very doubtful that even in the midst of his forgiveness, he still does not experience periodic spikes of anger, and of loss—for he did lose his son.  But as with every great heroic act, forgiveness requires daily, willful acts and reminders that I am opening myself to a different pathway, which is especially difficult when the reminders of transgressions remain palpable, such as ongoing physical issues that stem from an offense.  For many, this is partly why forgiveness and faith are intertwined so tightly, as there is an acceptance that my life is not my own while I strive to live in communion with others.  But my life is one that I choose to open myself to each day, and not allow the walls within to close ever more tightly when suffering presents itself.  Ironically, although the intrapersonal model suggests forgiveness is self-serving, others left in our “distraught wake” may suggest that in serving ourselves, we are serving others in a much better way.

The human condition is both incredibly unique and yet so much the same.  Our experiences are as vast as the oceans and as similar as the atoms that comprise them.  Our calls range from the most secluded of hermits to the most exposed of world leaders.  But we are all faced with betrayal and disappointment.  We are all faced with each other.  And if we choose to take on what life has given us, and open ourselves to others, then it sure seems we have an implicit understanding that we must forgive.  This past year, I attended a wedding in which the groom and his only brother were estranged over what seemed to be a minor issue.  His brother did not show for the ceremony.  Although I knew little of the details, I was greatly saddened that two raised so closely could move so far away, and forego one of, if not the, most important day of their lives.  It seems that a long road of forgiveness must ensue if the bonds of their brotherhood will resume, and they live to teach their children how to love again.  So it seems for us, too.

References:

Field, C, Zander, J., & Hall, G (2013).  ‘Forgiveness is a present to yourself as well’: An intrapersonal model of forgiveness in victims of violent crime.  International Review of Victimology published online 3 July 2013.  DOI: 10.1177/0269758013492752

Lundahl BW, Taylor MJ, Stevenson R and Roberts KD (2008) Process-based forgiveness interventions: A meta-analytic review. Research on Social Work Practice 18(5): 465–478.

Mukashema, I, & Mullet, E (2013).  Unconditional forgiveness, reconciliation sentiment, and mental health among victims of genocide in Rwanda.  Social Indicators Research (2013) 113:121–132.  DOI 10.1007/s11205-012-0085-x

Worthington, E. L., Jr, Witvliet, C. V. O., Pietrini, P., & Miller, A. J. (2007). Forgiveness, health, and well-being: A review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30(4), 291–302.

31 COMMENTS

  1. Anger can be a positive motivator as well. The world is full of psychopaths, especially in the psychiatric profession. They often have great power. The justified anger at their acts is hard to use constructively, because fighting them is so difficult.

    But without that justified anger, by default they continue with their criminal acts.

    It is fine for someone with a privileged life to advocate for turning the other cheek. But for the victims of these people, the choice is to fight back or continue to be abused. I choose to fight back.

    • I agree with you completely. Perhaps it would be easier to forgive that psychiatrist who brain damaged a person with 20 or 30 ECT if the psychiatrist apologizes and then agreed to having the same number of treatments him/herself just to show real remorse and a desire to truly empathize with the patient. Same goes for the toxic drugging; I will forgive you once you eat 4 or 5 years worth of a cocktail of benzos, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics. Once you get tardive dyskinesia, diabetes, develop panic, anxiety, SI, and go through withdrawal, I will be in a better place to forgive. Why or how do you forgive a psychopath/psychiatrist who continues to injure and kill people every day because of stupidity, ignorance, arrogance, disregard. Should we forgive the child rapist because he is simply a flawed human being? Perhaps some things are not forgiveable?

    • “most of the perpetrators of violence did not apologize”
      That’s the biggest problem. It’s kind of hard to advocate for forgiveness if the perpetrator does not give a shit whether you forgive him/her or not and goes on to enjoy live while you suffer the consequences for the crime committed on you.
      Without justice there can be no forgiveness. There can be no forgiveness if the person who is a criminal and an abuser is not punished or at the very least does not ask for the forgiveness. Or if the abuse and violence is still ongoing.
      One can understand the motivations of an abuser, even of a psychopath. One can even move on from that and heal but that does not equal forgiveness.
      In fact asking victims to forgive while the perpetrators not only do not care but go on with their crimes is offensive to the victims and in the end leads to a world when abuse is accepted and victims are asked to deal with it and shut up already – and that for their own good (forgiveness heals, right?).
      Forgiveness may be healing but there’s an equally if not more healing thing: justice.

  2. Much easier to forgive when justice of some form has been administered.

    Forced psychiatry is a crime against humanity that is going unpunished at this point in time. Until I see some justice I refuse to forgive. I’ll leave the forgiveness to God, and pray that the perpetrators of these crimes are delivered for judgement sooner rather than later.

    Aint gunna be no peace, till we get equal rights and justice – Peter Tosh.

    • “Much easier to forgive when justice of some form has been administered.”
      I agree 100%. Guilty are to be punished or at the very least shamed and the abuse stopped immediately, then we can talk forgiveness. I think it’s very convenient for people who have abuse on their conscience to talk about the healing value of forgiveness while avoiding the topic of justice or remorse.
      Everything else is just a recipe for the abuse and crimes to continue.

  3. I took the Peace Ambassador Training with James O’Dea…it was an amazing three month course with weekly incredible speakers who do peace work in war zones of all kinds around the world (including the streets of our country). One of the speakers was Azim…incredible lecture by him…he’s a lovely man role-modeling exactly the kind of life I want to live. Thank you James for highlighting his inspired and beautiful presence on this earth.

  4. I hated one person, in my entire life, that was back in college. After a week, I realized hating someone else only ended up hurting me, the offensive person didn’t care, so I decided hating other people was a waste of my time. Thus, I agree, forgiveness is done for one’s own well being.

    In regards to my dealings with psychiatric practitioners, however, mine committed the “only unforgivable sin” in the entire Holy Bible. I was drugged for belief in the Holy Spirit and God, denial of the Holy Spirit is the one and only “unforgivable” sin in the real bible. They did this to cover up the sexual abuse of my small child and prior easily recognized medical mistakes, then were dumb enough to hand over the medical records with written proof of this.

    My subsequent pastors were kind enough to read about the crimes committed against my children and me, and confessed we’d dealt with the “dirty little secret of the two original educated professions.” Apparently, the psychiatric industry has been in the business of covering up sexual abuse of small children for the religions and / or wealthy, and easily recognized iatrogenesis for the incompetent doctors, for a long time.

    And I was having a difficult time forgiving the defamation, ungodly disrespect, 13 distinctly different poisoning attempts at my life, and the cover up of the abuse of my child. I finally realized it might also be because the people who harmed me, committed the “only” sin, that I personally, according to the Holy Bible, am not allowed to forgive.

    Plus, their crimes continue. Six psychiatrically stigmatized children in my ex-pastor’s neighborhood high school violently killed themselves, while my child was in high school, possibly because they’d dealt with child abuse cover ups via the “dirty little secret,” too. And the ELCA religion is apparently still known for covering up all homosexual abuse of children:

    http://www.virtueonline.org/lutherans-elca-texas-catastrophe-coming-lesson-episcopalians

    And all the doctors who betrayed me and my family, still have their licenses and are still working, including V R Kuchipudi, whose now been arrested by the FBI for similar greed inspired crimes against many patients:

    http://www.justice.gov/usao/iln/pr/chicago/2013/pr0416_01a.pdf

    Is one supposed to forgive such appalling and continuing crimes by people in positions of power, who mind you, all have insurance intended to pay for such human imperfections. It’s not worth my trouble to hate these deplorable and offensive criminals, I am still disgusted by them, however. Is it my right to forgive those who committed the “only unforgivable sin” in the Holy Bible? I prayed about the situation with decent pastors, and handed the sins these people committed against my family, up to God.

    And all their drugs failed to convince me that I am not “moved by the Holy Spirit,” so I tell the story because I believe God wants to see an end to the psychiatric community participating in such greed inspired and appalling crimes against women and children. He wants to see an end the the “dirty little secret of the two original educated professions.” And, I will confess, I no longer believe God could or should save everyone, there is an “unforgivable” sin in the Holy Bible, for a reason.

    What would you do? The bible says repentance, to the one you harmed, is required prior to going to the alter to ask for God’s forgiveness.

    • By the way, none of the humans who harmed my children and I have repented. However, a “crazy” Muslim did claim God inspired 9.11.2001 because He was angry with corporate American Christianity and industry. And, my ex-pastor’s denial of my daughter a baptism, did occur at the exact moment the second plane hit the second World Trade Center building on 9.11.2001. My subsequent pastors thought that a particularly egregious sin, perhaps, especially since my father had helped to make the ELCA pension fund millions of dollars just prior to the ELCA crimes committed against my children and I.

      So I now realize that, in fact, God would have had reason to be disgusted by at least one paternalistic corporate American Christian religion (and the Catholics are quite well known for their pedophilia covering up behavior, as well) on 9.11.2001 at 10am, not to mention the pharmaceutical and medical industries as the third largest unrepentant killers of Americans, and, of course, the banking industries’ greed inspired crimes against so many, too.

      What if the medically claimed etiology of my “bipolar” (the actual etiology was a misdiagnosis of the withdrawal effects of a “safe smoking cessation med” / antidepressant), “something from childhood and the church” – my belief “Jesus loves me” – is not actually a “delusion”? What if there actually is a God, and He is actually as disgusted as many here are at the greed inspired abuse of power of American corporations, including the Christian religions? A US led war against Muslim terrorists may not actually be morally justified?

      Or maybe, as a hospital lawyer has told me, declaring patients “irrelevant to reality,” while trying to murder them with toxic drug cocktails, actually now is “appropriate medical care” in the good ole US of A? Perhaps more Americans should address the logs in our own eyes, rather than only attacking others for having a splinters in theirs, instead? Just a theory ….

      • I don’t personally believe that, if there is a God, He would believe wanting to quit smoking is a bigger sin than raping little children, or defaming and repeatedly poisoning a woman to prevent a malpractice suit, due to a “bad fix” on a broken bone. Who can one respect in our society any longer? I used to believe the pastors, doctors, and bankers were trustworthy and respectable, but sadly, no longer do.

        Is it ever inappropriate to forgive? All the Methodist pastors I’ve asked, say it is. And I do believe God said there would be a judgement day (not a free forgiveness day) because the unrepentant child molesters and murderers, and maybe even corporate thieves, may not be among the forgiven. Maybe, abusing one’s power due to greed, and never repenting, is not the wisest manner in which to behave? I do pray for a return of ethics in our country.

  5. Forgiveness is very difficult when the perpetrator continues to commit his/her crimes unabated. I agree that some degree of justice is extremely helpful in finding forgiveness. At the same time, I do believe I am better off if I can recognize the humanity of individual psychiatrists, while continuing to battle against the institution of psychiatry and its accepted practices. I am not sure where I come down on the psychopathic ones, who seem to have little of what I call humanity in their hearts. But the vast majority are misguided humans who thought they were trying to help, and have a hard, hard time acknowledging they might be wrong about that. It must be a horrific experience to discover that what you’ve been doing for a lifetime to “help” may be severely damaging those you thought you were helping. I do not for a minute see that as an excuse for not facing that fact, but it makes it more understandable that individuals may be defensive when confronted with the hard truth. This is doubly true when someone’s financial well-being is connected with this fraud.

    I appreciate you bringing up this topic. I do think it is very important. It also applies to our ability to find and create alliances with those who don’t completely agree with our views. Systemic change is very slow and hard and there are many forces that would oppose it, often for the worst of reasons. It is way too easy to slip into rage and forget that human beings are involved, and that our best bet is to lovingly confront the bad behavior while continuing to accept the human being as a potentially valuable contributor to our long-term objectives.

    Easy to say, pretty damned hard to do sometimes!

    —- Steve

  6. Hi James,

    Great article and especially relevant for me at this time and always. I’ve struggled with the “forgiveness” issue many times due to great harm perpetrated by evil people against me and loved ones who could be “diagnosed” with malignant narcissism and/or psychopathy.

    Here is another interesting view:

    http://www.luke173ministries.org/

    Another confusing issue is how evil, abusive, dishonest people and/or fools are treated in the Bible and other religious texts in that others are told to cut them off, avoid them, have nothing to do with them and many other negative actions against them. And the bottom line is that hypocritical society often shuns people who step out of line with drugs, alcohol, sex or other supposed taboos though they may be guilty themselves privately.

    Moreover, Satan and his cohorts in crime are supposedly condemned to hell forever. At least metaphorically because as C.S. Lewis claims, people choose hell as he shows in his book, The Great Divorce, and other works. Lewis was a great admirer of George MacDonald, a preacher, who ran into trouble because he believed all people would ultimately be saved. Thus, there are many views about eternal punishment from one’s earthly enemies and God.

    Another difficult issue is when evil or psychopathic people will not only refuse to acknowledge the harm they do, but given their sadistic nature, duping delight and lack of conscience, they gloat over the harm they’ve done. Thus, they certainly are not seeking forgiveness, but rather, express outrage that they’ve done nothing to forgive if offered forgiveness and/or even attempts to reconcile. They are excellent at turning the tables on their victims and blaming them as Dr. George Simon points out in books I cited on your other posts as well as his web site on manipulative, overly aggressive people.

    Here is a question I have pondered when considering forgiving evil people with no conscience. Does God forgive Satan? Are we supposed to forgive Satan? How can you forgive someone or something that is considered totally evil to the point of being damned to hell forever? Did you ever see the great movie, The Exorcist? Should the demon(s) possessing the young girl and trying to kill the exorcists be forgiven? I know these may sound like stupid questions, but where is the dividing line if any in forgiveness? I do know that evil (psychopathic/narcissistic) people can destroy people almost completely psychologically via psychological abuse, violence, smear campaigns, gas lighting and other vicious mobbing/bullying tactics to the point the victims are mere shells of their former selves without any physical blood on their hands. Often, such victims are even driven to suicide. The great book, Stalking the Soul, and the movie, Gas light, with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer are excellent examples of this. And another question is that if somebody is so deranged as to be capable of such evil to these extremes or like Ted Bundy, the serial killer, it seems that forgiveness is almost a moot issue though I did see somebody forgive the Green River serial killer on TV because he said God commanded him to do so. It almost seems that “forgiving” such unrepentant people is condoning evil.

    Of course, there is the “hate the sin, not the sinner” command, but I find it a very difficult ethical struggle. And because Christian and other churches themselves have been the source of very unethical actions from their beginnings to the present including the recent pedophile scandals, I no longer blindly follow any supposed gurus. At the same time, C.S. Lewis made it clear that though one must forgive, that did not mean that the murderer should not be hung if that was the required punishment by law as would be the case with any crimes and their corresponding punishments. And the reason C.S. Lewis makes such a great spiritual guide is that he is very, very honest and humble about his own shortcomings and belief he fell very short of the mark quite often!

    I continue to grapple with these issues as many others do and I can’t say I have any definitive answers. My current view is when one continues to hate an evil doer who has done them much harm, it causes the hater much harm in terms of ill health, bitterness, negative impact on other relationships and many other unintended consequences, so I think it is important to continue the struggle to forgive though one has to do it repeatedly when angry feelings rise up due to ongoing negative consequences and losses due to the perpetrator’s actions. I believe the Buddha said that hating another person is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Or, as Buddy Hackett said, “While your stewing in anger, they’re out dancing,” which can be all the more maddening to think about, but also motivating.

    Despite the fact that I think the struggle to forgive is worth it, I do not believe reconciliation or contact with such evil people who are hardest to forgive or even be around once you see through them is possible or recommended since they are too harmful to their targets. Obviously, I am not talking about times when we inadvertently hurt each other due to inattention, selfishness, disagreements or anger periodically in an overall decent relationship because we are all in need of forgiveness for such human failings.

    I like others have found it helpful to read some of the Holocaust literature and the works of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mendela as well as Viktor Frankl and Corrie Ten Bloom to learn how people in the worst of situations survived and decided that forgiveness was the only way forward for everyone involved and/or they had to do it to obey God, so they did it and helped others do it.

    I was glad to see you quoted C.S. Lewis in your great article as well as others. You answered the question I posed on your last post about your progress with C.S. Lewis in this post. I’m very glad to see that you appreciate C.S. Lewis as I and so many others do. I will use your article as another great, inspiring source to continue my own rocky forgiveness path.

    As you can see, I didn’t jump to respond to this post because I wasn’t sure I wanted to respond to this thorny issue and if I did, I wanted to give it a great deal of thought since I don’t see myself as a great model of virtue in this area though I continue to try very hard!