Confronting the hurts of a long, tough year of lockdowns
Emotional forgiveness can help leave upsetting events behind and enable understanding
Forgiveness can bring release and a way out of the trap of resentment. Photograph: iStock
As the Covid ice thaws and people get back to a version of normality, many will have to confront hurts that happened during the lockdown. Maybe things were said or done behind locked doors that will go on stinging for a long time. Perhaps people lost jobs or businesses in unfair circumstances. Perhaps some of those afflicted by Long Covid know who it was that took chances and passed on the infection.
For some, the hurt will fade with time and with the distractions of other events. In others the hurt will persist until they feel able to forgive. And there may be others for whom forgiveness will be long delayed or impossible, and the one who was hurt will, hopefully, recover through mourning their loss and getting involved in a new life.
Research reported by the Journal of Experimental Psychology underlined for me how difficult forgiveness can be. The research, led by Saima Noreen at De Montfort University in the UK, found that emotional forgiveness helped the forgivers to leave upsetting events behind them. Emotional forgiveness means getting to the point where you can wish the offender well in their life and try to develop a sense of understanding and empathy towards them.
You can see how hard this could be and how long it could take. That said, Gordon Wilson forgave his daughter Marie’s murderers hours after she died in the Enniskillen bombing in 1987. That the world was astonished by this underlines how almost-impossible and rare his attitude was.
In the same bombing, 15-year-old Stephen Ross was extremely badly injured but later forgave the IRA bombers. “I realised from this event that if I let anger take root in my life against God or against the people who support terrorism, that it would ultimately consume me and affect me physically and emotionally. I would only be reacting exactly the way those who planted the bomb would like me to react,” he told Rodney Edwards in The Irish Times.
Sometimes emotional forgiving is too hard and people who try to insist that a traumatised person forgive something from which they are still healing should, frankly, be quiet.
As Rev Sheri Heller, a trauma and addiction therapist in New York put it in an article on Medium: “It is humbling to recognise that within the realistic parameters of our humanity, not all things in life are forgivable.” She adds that “this fate does not have to mean a life of despair for the victim. One achieves healing through mourning”.
Where forgiveness is possible, it can help the forgiver to avoid going over and over the details of the offending behaviour, which can keep the event alive. Emotional forgiving, in which you can ultimately wish the other person well in their life, seems to have the effect, according to Noreen’s research, that you remember the gist of what happened without getting caught again in the emotional details.
Forgiving doesn’t mean abandoning your common sense – by which I mean your self-protective sense. Suppose that on the day before your kids’ school trip, for which they have been saving excitedly, your spouse gambles the money on a horse and loses it all.
Forgiving the spouse doesn’t mean you would never again entrust money to them. You might wish them well in dealing with their gambling addiction but you would not give them access to your bank account. If you kicked them out of the house because taking that money was the last straw of a series of last straws, forgiving them doesn’t mean you have to let them back in again, even if they’ve sorted out their gambling addiction. You’re doing the forgiving so that the memory of what happened doesn’t continue to poison your emotions and your quality of life.
Most of us have smaller hurts to forgive. But when it’s appropriate and freely chosen, forgiveness can bring release and a way out of the trap of resentment.
Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (email@example.com).