To forgive is to wage a war against the demons of fight and flight

— The Crucifixion by Pietro Perugino, circa 1482

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” said Jesus Christ before he died.

The act of forgiveness — of one person forgiving another — is fraught with psychological tension and contradictions that are constantly fed by a reservoir of competing and antagonistic emotions because forgiving someone goes against the two automatic response mechanisms we have as human beings to survive — fight and flight.

That is, when we feel threatened or pained by some harm, our sympathetic nervous system triggers a stress response that readies us to attack or flee the source of harm.

But forgiveness, as a way to deal with a harm-done, does not permit the “victim” to make war on the “perpetrator,” to take the wrongdoer down a peg to satisfy an eye-for-an-eye tooth-for-a-tooth payback ethic; thus, with forgiveness, the first of the two automatic response mechanisms — fight — is dismantled.

Nor does forgiveness allow the person who has been harmed to avoid dealing with the situation by fleeing. Physical and mental escape are ruled out because such tacks hinder healing, keep the harmed person — the victim or survivor — from moving on with life, from getting back (hopefully) to where things once were.

Anyone who looks into the issues related to forgiveness soon sees the daunting complexity involved; there’s a million permutations: For example, should a person forgive a wrongdoer who will not accept responsibility for his act and refuses to apologize?

And what of a courtroom situation when the wrongdoer, now a defendant, passes by the table where the victim is seated and casts a leering smirk his way, translated as: Why are you making such a big deal of this? Does such behavior lessen the chance of forgiveness?

For Christians, of course, these kinds of questions are moot — especially with respect to the fight response — because one of the fundamental tenets of their religion is: When someone harms you, you turn the other cheek, you do not do to them what they did to you. Indeed, their Scriptures say a person must forgive a wrongdoer seventy times seven times.

The architect of that code, Jesus Christ, after being whipped, beaten, mocked, spit upon, and crucified on a cross — in a state-sanctioned execution — said, as he was about to expire, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23: 34) There was to be no retribution for what they did.

During the years he preached to the multitudes who came to hear him, over and over he said love is the only way to respond to a harm-done and then, when he himself was subject to ignominious pain — bodily torture — he practiced what he taught. He forgave the vigilantes.

And because he acted so under those circumstances, many Christians say he was a god, which some people say is true of Nelson Mandala who, after being locked in a prison for 27 years, forgave the robbers of his freedom, setting up in 1996 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help South Africa’s communities deal peaceably with those who committed grave crimes against their friends and neighbors.

As a concept and as a practice, forgiveness comes into play when one person has been harmed by another. And the harm might range from a spiteful husband making cutting remarks to his wife, all the way to a stranger on the street hitting a passerby on the head and taking his wallet.

And with respect to the latter, it may not be just the bop on the head and stolen wallet that’s at stake because the victim might have lost his eyesight, been forced to leave his job, and even seek public assistance; in such cases, forgiveness must deal with not only the original harm but also the suffering that accrues and takes over a person life.

People have divergent views on how to handle such matters; the 45th president of the United States said his MO is: “If someone screws you, screw them back 10 times harder.”

There’s a perverse kind of pleasure involved in such behavior — physically and metaphorically — as the overlord mouths words from the retributivist’s handbook while beating upon his mark, “Here, take this, you sonuvabitch; see how that feels. There’s plenty more where that came from and I know where you live.”

The avenger who gives issue to that kind of rage could be the wife mentioned above deeply hurt by her husband’s slings but, because of a power imbalance, goes after him in indirect passive-aggressive — but no less-lethal — ways.

In her much-lauded “Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice” the University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum says she cannot fathom the payoff people get from unleashing retributive, revenge-fueled feelings on another. “Why would an intelligent person,” she says, “think that inflicting pain on the offender assuages or cancels her own pain? There seems to be some type of magical thinking going on.”

But the thinking is not magical at all, it reflects the sophisticated logic of an ethic of justice based on the equalization of loss, a desserts-based justice; the real magical thinkers are those who compartmentalize the event by pushing out of consciousness their rage, resentment, and scorn, hoping to find some peace of mind that day.

However, the research of Everett Worthington, a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, shows that people who compartmentalize hurt begin to exhibit the same neuro-cardio symptoms people under great stress have. His conclusion: “Unforgiveness” has no redeeming psychological, medical, social, or economic benefits.

Those who choose to forgive, therefore, come from the other side of the room, having made a commitment to confront the violent feelings associated with retribution — rage, scorn, and hate — wanting at all costs not to revictimize themselves by letting such poison infiltrate their blood.

The ancient Greek word for forgiveness, aphiemi (ἀφίημι), means: letting go; giving up; handing over; getting rid of; sending away; leaving alone — all of which speak to how to dissolve revenge-based feelings that maim consciousness. But letting go does not mean condoning, excusing, forgetting, minimizing, or taking any other path that denies the effect of a harm on one’s life.

What it does mean is that the forgiver must descend into the inferno of his psyche’s id and there face the vortex of rage-filled feelings that encourage, activate, and reward retaliatory behavior. It’s a war against the demons of fight and flight.

To start with, the person who forgives must acknowledge the extent of his hurt as well as the source. His inner-dialogue might be, “My body aches; my mind is riddled with rage, revenge and fear; and that person over there caused it.” It’s an internalized victim impact statement that seeks to be shared with the rest of the world.

A 1988 survey by Gallup found that nearly every respondent said it was important for people to forgive, but most said it could not be done alone, and traditional devotional prayers seem to help little.

It seems odd in a way but many who suffer a harm — whether they call themselves victim or survivor — choose to meet with the person who harmed them in a safe milieu like Victim-Offender Mediation or some other restorative justice practice — and our married couple above might seek out a therapist to help them free themselves from a revenge-fueled feedback loop they’ve imprisoned themselves in.

The Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope is the one responsible for the oft-quoted “To err is human, to forgive is divine,” which is misinterpreted in so many ways.

There is no God or any other divinity involved in forgiveness; it’s a pained and hurt human soul digging deep within — hopefully with the aid of a supportive community — to find the strength to refrain from doing unto others what they did unto him.