This article was originally published on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, re-run here with permission. Professor Toussaint was also recently featured in the The Breast Podcast, "Why is forgiveness so important to cancer patients?"
As I sit down to write this blog today it has been 13 years, 2 weeks, and 2 days since I lost my mother to cancer.
Since her death, like most of us, I have had several friends and family members who have had their own experiences with this dreaded disease. In addition to the host of negative feelings surrounding the grief we feel regarding cancer and those it affects, there’s an unlikely (but all-too-common) experience that few seem to recognize or address.
It’s called "unforgiveness."
Unforgiveness during cancer
Unforgiveness rears its ugly head at times of great distress–like when you or a loved one is struggling with a chronic illness or disease like cancer–for several reasons. One major reason is simply the sense of injustice. Why me or why my Mom? Why my friend? It’s just not right. It’s not just.
Add to this sense of injustice the fact that often family and friends struggle to provide appropriate support. Medical professionals are sometimes poor at communication or don’t offer empathetic care. Religious counselors, pastors, and chaplains often don’t have the right, or any, answers. Put together, there is more than enough opportunity for patients and their caregivers to become both victims and perpetrators of transgressions or offenses that leave a distinct sense of unforgiveness in their wake.
Simply put, cancer can bring out the best, and the worst, in people. We celebrate resiliency in these times, but often we simply sweep the dirt under the rug.
How might you more effectively address the dirt and the issues it creates? Forgiveness is one option, but what exactly is forgiveness? How can you do it? And, why would you want to? Below I consider these questions.
1. What exactly is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is commonly confused with many other things. Often people confuse it with forgetting or condoning. They say things like, “Well I still remember vividly what that person said or did to me, so how or why should I forgive?!” Or folks will often say, “I can’t forgive–what they did was not ok.”
Forgiveness is not…
In the first example forgiveness is confused with forgetting an experience and though it is a common cliché, forgiveness is not forgetting. In fact, most models of promoting forgiveness suggest that to forgive you must remember what it is you are forgiving. Offering blanket forgiveness is not a good option.
In the second example, forgiveness is confused with condoning or saying that an offense was ok. Forgiveness is actually the opposite of condoning. That is, the reason you try to forgive is because what happened is not ok, but you desire to move on anyway.
Forgiveness is commonly confused with reconciliation or repairing a relationship with someone again. Or, forgiveness is conflated with justice as if forgiveness and justice go hand-in-hand. In truth, forgiveness is entirely independent from reconciliation and justice. You might forgive someone but never want to be around them for fear of being victimized again, or you might forgive someone even though the person never fully sets things right and a just outcome is not possible.
So, having thought about what it is not, let us consider what forgiveness truly is.
What allows forgiveness to happen despite the lack of justice or reconciliation? It is simply the ability to let go of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward an offender and attempt to replace the negative things with positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Forgiveness can happen within you, irrespective of what is happening to you or outside of you in your world. In short, you stop hating someone for what might have happened and you start loving them again, in a broad, inclusive, altruistic sort of way. Forgiveness is often undeserved, it’s given anyway.
That is it. Stop hating and starting loving someone who hurt you. But, if only it were that easy.
2. How can I forgive?
People forgive in lots of different ways. For some it is a highly religious and spiritual experience, and for others it is entirely a secular, social phenomenon. Some folks find forgiveness through prayer or mediation while others find it through journaling or talking with a confidant about the problem. There are probably hundreds of ways of forgiving someone and no one way is the right way.
When my mother was in the hospital during her last few days with us, she had guests visit her. We were all comforted by these folks paying a visit. I was surprised by how few words were often spoken and the peacefulness of each visit. My mother was a forgiving woman, and that trait made for loving goodbyes with family and friends. I might characterize those visits as spiritual experiences and ones that I’ll never forget. Forgiveness seemed to be the air we breathed in those finals days. I needed and tried to offer lots of it. Things were tense and stressful. The grief and fatigue was overwhelming. Imperfections in all of us were plentiful, but they were a distant second to the forgiveness and love that we shared.
6 Simple (But Not Always Easy) Steps
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to make forgiving your living, and sometimes folks really need to make the process concrete. As I’ve said, there are lots of routes to forgiveness. However, a well-trod path (that has significant scientific support in favor of its effectiveness) requires the following steps:
- Know what forgiveness really is and is not.
- Remember specifically what you are trying to forgive. Start small. Forgive your spouse or caregiver for making an insensitive comment. Forgive your doctor for the long wait in her office. Forgive yourself for being grumpy. Then once you get more practiced, start to work on bigger more hurtful things.
- When forgiving others, try to see the offender’s perspective. Hurtful things can be done or said without malicious intent, and putting yourself in your offender’s shoes can shine clearer light on motivations.
- When forgiving yourself, be sure to accept your faults and don’t deny your imperfections.
- Commit to forgiving yourself and others and improving quality of life for you and others.
- Prepare for challenges. Just because you struggle doesn’t mean you’re unforgiving. You’re just trying amidst challenges, like the rest of us.
If you get stuck along this path, there are self-help books written by some excellent colleagues like this one and this one that can help. Or consider seeking out a professional counselor to help you move through this process of forgiving someone or yourself.
3. Why forgive?
There are many reasons to forgive. People forgive for the sake of relationships, or to keep family or workplace peace. Sometimes people forgive because they are simply forgiving people with a greater tendency to forgive across situations and time. Still others forgive because they simply feel that it is the morally right thing to do or it is part of their faith tradition.
All of these reasons are relevant. But perhaps one of the most relevant reasons for cancer patients to forgive is that forgiveness is related to improved mental and physical health. Multiple studies have shown that forgiveness is related to improved mental health and specifically for cancer patients.
In broad samples of the general population forgiveness has been linked to improved physical health, fewer physical symptoms, less pain, and even longer life. These benefits are theorized to be the result of the stress reducing properties of forgiveness. In that sense, forgiveness is an effective means of coping with interpersonal conflict and stress in one’s life of which there is more than ample amounts for cancer patients.
As it turns out, not only is forgiving others healthy but even more so is self-forgiveness a healthy thing to do. Self-forgiveness is a different process than forgiving others, but essentially self-forgiveness removes negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward oneself and replaces them with positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Self-forgiveness is generally found to have at least twice the health promoting benefits as forgiveness of others.
It also turns out that self-forgiveness is not only healthy for cancer patients but it is also exceptionally good for cancer caregivers too. In one study we found that caregivers’ levels of self-forgiveness were over twice as strongly related to hope as compared to cancer patients themselves and this translated into better mental health for both patients and caregivers.
In summary, forgiveness of oneself and others can be beneficial for patients and caregivers and while it might facilitate a deeper sense of spirituality or promote good social relations with family and friends, it can also have direct health benefits. While I would never want to be prescriptive about how someone deals with cancer or how their loved ones cope with cancer, research seems to suggest that forgiveness has a place in getting through cancer.
Witnessing my mother and her friends and family sharing forgiving and loving conversations and embraces was a blessing in my life and one that I will always remember and cherish. Forgiving others and oneself can help lighten the load during a difficult time in which patients and caregivers have many other places to focus their time and energy. Forgiveness can bring hope even in times of darkness and may be a part of integrative care and healing for those coping with cancer.