Updated: Sep 6, 2019
First impressions are two-fold: blimey she's got a Ph.D, she's gonna be very erudite and write using words of more than four syllables, and secondly, how tiny is that writing?
But mine is not to complain (even though I do) but to just do.
Written in 2004, Ms Srings begins by asking whether or not forgiveness is good for us? Personally, I'm a fan of a bit of self-righteous indignation with a dose of anger, and a feeling of being hard done by. I don't believe for one minute I'm alone with that. But also, we live in an era of 'Move on', 'Get over it' and 'Go for a walk' and 'Don't be a victim'. Or we are told to go all biblical 'To err is human, to forgive: divine'. A more modern phrase is 'Holding on to resentment is like drinking poison expecting the other person to die'.
Thus, there's a lot of advice around regarding what other people think we should do, but not a lot is said on how to do it. Hence I'm very curious about this book and what it can teach me about forgiveness.
First of all, the book impresses me by arguing, that we don't need to forgive in a traditional sense, bestowing it grandiously on the person who caused the harm. Instead we can find ourselves back to emotionally wellness without actually involving the other person's feelings or expecting action from them at all. In fact, she starts with a very thorough refute of lots of conventional wisdom, and concludes there are three means of enacting 'forgiveness', aside from refusing to forgive:
Your average Joe Bloggs, however, really struggles somewhere between knowing they should forgive, and actually being in a state of forgiveness. Thus, I can say: my name is Joe Bloggs and I'm normal.
The subsequent chapters then explore these four different approaches to forgiveness, and the pros and cons of each.
In short, cheap forgiveness is the preferred strategy for those of us who can't bear a good fight. It's a platitude to enable both parties to 'move on', and often used because we fear the reaction of the other or hurting their feelings. Using this strategy over and over, leaves a person downtrodden, but also warps our own behaviour: we silently punish the other, taking your revenge in other ways...a friend is very partial to a bit of revenge eating, for example!
Next up: refusing to forgive. Turns out that there's some evidence that those of us who take this stance actually have neurochemical reasons for that, causing us to be more reactive, thus feel, and react, with anger or to try to punish by silence. Fascinatingly, this is likely to be a consequence of childhood trauma or abuse. It is a survival mechanism. Underlying it is a belief that being vulnerable is inherently bad. However, it also blocks personal growth and self-esteem.
Acceptance is the act of forgiving someone who is either not present or not remotely sorry about their behaviour. It is acknowledging the full gambit of your emotions around the harm, abandoning the need for revenge, changing your initial perspectives of the harm, or person, and thus try to find an acceptable explanation for why they behaved as they did. Then, finally, looking at your own part in the situation - in a way of exploring what it is you can change about yourself, and reframing your story. It is a very dense chapter with a ton of practical advice about taking yourself to acceptance. It's not a 'light-switch' approach where you just 'suddenly feel okay' about it, but rather a worked-through process resulting in the final stage of acceptance.
Genuine Forgiveness is an interesting chapter on what blocks a person from engaging with the process, focusing on the emotions and assumptions of the 'wrongdoer' which can deter them from saying sorry and acting with sincere remorse. Feelings of shame and/or guilt have a large role in preventing a person seeking forgiveness. This chapter stresses that both parties need to do the work to get to this state, and as a result it focuses a lot on marital infidelity. What is particularly helpful is Dr. Spring's descriptions of how to make a sincere apology: focusing on the harm do by you, taking responsibility for your own behaviour, and being specific about it, and definitely no whitewashing of your behaviour. I found this segment of the book especially helpful.
The strengths of this book are the illustrative anecdotes to reinforce her points. She doesn't shy away from gritty subjects, although all the anecdotes end in a unspoken 'and they all lived happily ever after'. Core, obviously, is that any reader must have a sincere desire to forgive, or be forgiven, in order to benefit most of all from this book. However, it is densely-packed with information, and chapters and sections are long. For me, your average reader, it means that it makes it difficult to drop in and out of to use as a 'toolkit'. However, it does look incredibly deeply at what makes forgiveness, both giving and receiving, a transformative process, and a tough one to master.
The final segment of the book, called The Appendix, is actually an exceptionally good chapter on what makes people 'dysfunctional': relating present behaviour with their upbringing. I find it odd to be stuck at the back of the book when it would more readily help develop acceptance. Cultivating the notion that hurt people hurt people, it seeks to explore how a damaged childhood warps later adult behaviour.