When researching forgiveness, my first trip was to Amazon, to see if contemporary authors hold validating positions on the subject. Even though there are over 2,100 books available on the subject on Amazon, few approached forgiveness as anything other than a reflection of their journey. Well, people in the real world rarely want to copy someone else’s journey. They want to understand how to build their own story; their own path.

As I reflected on this first blush on the subject, I found it disconcerting how so many people would say, “This is how I did it,” then spend the rest of their book justifying why their readers should do it exactly that way. To be honest, finding the ability to give or hold forgiveness is always a personal journey. So, I turned to a faith-based source for guidance.

Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker, A Biblical Guide to Resolving Conflict is that book. As I revisited his tome and refreshed my memory, it occurred to me that the book took the path of trying to link the historical Bible’s take on conflict and focused it on relationship building. The concepts found in Sande’s writing hold depth and breadth on the subject; however, they tend to be aimed more at conservative Christians given they project the Bible heavily within the text.

Now, for full disclosure, I hold a Christian world-view from being immersed in the faith since early childhood, but my lifelong attempts at education and cross-cultural understanding have tempered the inherent bias that faith-based reality portends. I have friends, peers, and a large, diverse pool of acquaintances who have allowed me into their lives, giving me an extended peek into multiple cultures and belief systems.

Not just at a national or even regional level, but on the level of as to how cultures build, nurture, and hold onto personal relationships. The universal commonality is how people globally perceive betrayal when it links to a personal context. It is always painful, and it always ruins lives. Why? People need trust to feel part of a greater whole, and betrayal destroys trust. The context is immaterial. Breaking the terms of a contract, exposing personal data about a friend to others, or exploiting an exposed weakness for personal gain are just three of an infinite number of betrayals humans inflict on others. Contexts of betrayal have led to a global norm of wanting others to “earn” trust.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them.” At some level, that implies a level of faith in others, the counterpoint to the global norm of expecting people to earn trust, which distinctly projects how others lack trust. This reality links directly to the modern concept of risk. So where does forgiveness fit in this story? The story must move from a macro-level, through various layers, to the smallest micro-level, which is the dyadic relationship.

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Assuming the global artifacts linking to betrayal are universal as norms, one easily sees how society has de-evolved into fractured silos of self-segregated groups who intend to only extend trust to those in their in-group. All others must earn trust or the in-group views them with a certain level of contempt, a concept I call being “less than.” In the contemporary social landscape, especially in America, this has rapidly emerged from how the powers-in-charge project an air of contempt toward all those who do not support their viewpoint. The voice which is being a counterpoint is suppressed or called “false news.” The point of exploring social norms is in how the macro-social norm has penetrated every corner of personal conversations, and is influencing how individuals choose to perceive trust.

Without trust, humans tend to look for threats at a much higher level than they do when they extend a level of general trust. One good example is how the concept of disrespect flows between members of a gang with insiders and outsiders. Trust is paramount and extended to the in-group, and anyone within the in-group who breaks the trust barrier receives harsh punishment. Between in-group members and anyone else (the out-group), any perception of disrespect must be acted upon openly, immediately, and harshly; otherwise, the in-group loses cohesion and all semblance of control.

Similarly, parties in a dyadic relationship expect trust to be a given. Perceived or actual violations project the harshest form of betrayal, and conflict erupts, destroying the relationship, or severely damaging it. Sometimes, violence occurs, breaking laws which results in arrests and charges bringing the legal process into play. Often, the parties avoid a physical confrontation, but internalize the resulting anger at an unhealthy level, creating long term negative consequences. At this point, the forgiveness paradigm enters the picture.

It is very hard to forgive. Period. It is the hardest thing to do and goes against a million years of evolution focused on recognizing the level of risk present in all forms. Genetically, humans hold a strong survival instinct, and forgiveness goes against the genetics at many levels. People hold onto their anger because it triggers the survival instinct. What they do not understand is how embracing and internalizing that survival response uses energy and mental resources at an extreme level, creating deficits in mental and physical capacity to perform (or even focus at times).

Forgiving releases all that hijacked capacity to perform back into the lifecycle. Simple. Humans, despite any thoughts to the contrary, think in an optimal, linear task mode. People who claim to multitask are simply good at compartmentalizing several linear contexts and have excellent memories, allowing them to pick up each task in turn. Forgiving is necessary for personal optimization, if for no other reason.

Once I learned the concept of internalizing forgiveness, I expanded the research into whether the other party was even relevant to the forgiveness. The only answer is “No.” Take the example of the case in Pennsylvania where a young man entered an Amish schoolhouse and shot multiple victims. In the aftermath, members of the Amish community embraced and forgave the parents of the perpetrator, and other members of that isolated sect provided a barrier to keep outsiders away from the perpetrator’s funeral to provide peace for the family. Their reason? Faith and forgiveness that was taught as necessary to move one beyond anger, reprisal, and retribution.

Forgiveness is obviously a tough choice. Modern society, especially individualistic western socialization, embraces competition and provides a fertile environment, or prime, for winning and losing dynamics. Against this backdrop, being betrayed in any context triggers a need to compete. Not competing in response, triggers an emotional spectrum that leads to socially diminished victims and extends into their support group, often for years. There are only two possible pathways to resolution. One, focusing on retribution or vengeance through a victimology context, it is all-consuming. The other, choosing forgiveness as the optimal pathway, the sensible pathway.

Mediation, in-person or on digital platforms offers affected parties a venue for embracing the artifacts of forgiveness. In many jurisdictions, a competent third-party neutral is used to facilitate restorative justice processes as a professional mediator. In this process, the perpetrator may or may not offer an apology to the victim, but both parties evolve and grow in substantive ways personally as they embrace mutual artifacts of the forgiveness paradigm. They get to embrace peace.

If society evolves to a point where seeking peace instead of retribution becomes the norm, then humanity will embrace the choice of setting aside the shackles of genetics for a higher purpose. In a nutshell, humans aren’t simply brute animals permanently linked to evolutionary instincts; they embrace the empowering concept of choice dynamics. Only then, humans as a species will understand trust should be given, not earned, and a willingness to internalize the benefits of forgiveness is the first vital step.

One last point. As one who embraces forgiveness as an essential process, it is also necessary to forgive one’s self. Humans are frail and fraught to error. Take a healthy look in the mirror. Once honesty prevails, the list of self-needs is enough to work through. If done properly, there won’t be time for being a victim, and forgiveness will suddenly be very easy and necessary.


Credits: Dr. Buddy Thornton