Forgiveness and Depression (March/April 2001)

Friday, 01 April 2011 17:41

OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND

March/April 2001


Dorothy Rowe

When I was in Pietermartizburg, South Africa for New Year, 1999, a brother and sister, James aged twenty and Kate, eighteen, were murdered on their way home from a party. Shortly after their father, the Reverend Lawrie Wilmot, issued a statement saying that, as Christians, he and his wife had forgiven their children's killers.

I thought, 'Who are you kidding?' If the Reverend Wilmot had not loved his children forgiving their killers would be easy, but if he loved them how could he forgive so quickly?

Of course he was following what Jesus had taught. Jesus knew how futile the Old Testament teaching of an eye for an eye was, but in the Bible it seems that He did not take into account that forgiveness, if it comes, takes time. If we tell ourselves we have forgiven when we have not we soon find ourselves caught unaware by feelings of intense rage about which we can then feel very guilty.

Perhaps what Jesus was actually saying was that we should not try to create the emotion of forgiveness but simply act in a forgiving way and hope that eventually the feeling of forgiveness would arise. The emotion of forgiveness is not a feeling of love for those who have injured us but a feeling of peace as certain past events cease to be important to us and the passionate emotions that those events provoked disappear.

Whenever someone injures us we have a choice about how we shall act in response to the injury. We can choose to seek revenge, or we can choose to dwell upon the injury and the wickedness of our adversary to the exclusion of everything else in our lives, or we can choose to try to understand the reasons for our adversary's action and to seek a way forward which will cause no harm. If we choose revenge we can choose either to do something which annoys and humiliates our enemy and which amuses onlookers, or we can chose to damage, even kill our enemy. The first kind of revenge can bring the matter to a close, but the second kind leads only to pain and destruction. In choosing to dwell on our bitterness and resentment we ruin our life. To choose to act forgivingly we only have to see the wisdom of this choice. A feeling of forgiveness is not necessary.

Forgiveness is a major issue in depression. To get depressed all we need do is to see ourselves as being bad and unacceptable, and then blame ourselves for everything that has gone wrong in our life. When we believe that we are bad and unacceptable we feel weak, and we can fear to forgive an injury lest we become even more vulnerable. So we harbour hatreds while blaming ourselves for not forgiving.

We can feel that, while we should forgive other people for whatever injury they inflict on us, we must never forgive ourselves. We see ourselves as being too wicked ever to deserve forgiveness. Believing this, we cannot not unpick the pattern of events in our life and see how we got to where we are and how we can change in order to lead a more satisfactory life.

The old saying 'To know all is to forgive all' is an exaggeration. To know all about the hideous childhood which Hitler suffered does not lead us to forgive his terrible crimes. However, when we seek to understand ourselves and other people we soon discover that we are all fallible human beings.

Whenever we see someone as our enemy we treat that person as an object. When we hate ourselves we treat ourselves as an object. Objects are things which we use, abuse and destroy. If we choose to act in a forgiving way towards ourselves or towards someone who has harmed us we choose to see that person as a person. We might then discover that that person has feelings similar to ours. Or we might discover that we actually know nothing about that person's feelings, and so we try to remedy our ignorance.

Either discovery could lead to us feeling the emotion of forgiveness, but, more often than not, what actually arises is the feeling of tolerance. We can still deplore what the other person has done, we can still see our ways of thinking and acting as being better than those of the other person, but we have no urge to destroy that person. We should not set ourselves the impossible goal of forgiveness. Just aim for tolerance.

Dorothy Rowe

Dorothy Rowe's latest book Friends and Enemies is published by HarperCollins.